By Janet K. Keeler
A stroll along Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs tells the tale of this Greek village on the Gulf of Mexico. And it’s not all about history, though the town of nearly 25,000 is steeped in it.
Nestled between restaurants serving grilled octopus, spanakopita and Greek salads unlike any you’ll have elsewhere outside of Greece, are shops that specialize in artisan soaps and jewelry, plus cigars hand rolled the Cuban way at Don Esteban and Serafin de Cuba.
Tradition has made way for the contemporary along this walkable stretch of town. It is here that you’ll want to pick up a few “wools,” the best grade of sponges definitely fit for body washing and cleaning the finest cars. Small, lower-grade “yellows” are good for applying makeup and the biggest sponges make excellent table decoration.
How did Tarpon Springs become Florida’s epicenter of Greek heritage?
Credit both Mother Nature and a smart entrepreneur. The natural sponges that grow on the floor of the Gulf attracted Greek divers in the late 1800s at the invitation of businessman John Cheyney, who nurtured the budding industry. Greek divers kept coming through the first half of the 20th Century, most from the islands of Simi and Kalymnos, part of Greece’s Dodecanese Islands (now you get the street name). They stayed and family joined them, then they had kids who had kids and a community was born.
Visitors to Tarpon Springs will hear Greek spoken in many places and especially along Athens Street where men work their komboloi, a Greek version of worry beads, as they congregate in serious coffee shops. The mascot of Tarpon Springs High? The Spongers.
The main drag runs along the Anclote River that leads to the gulf and nearby bayous. This is where divers have been unloading their sponges since those early days and where visitors can get the flavor of Tarpon. On one side of Dodecanese is the water and the other is lined with shops, restaurants and bakeries. There’s no parking on Dodecanese but there are reasonably priced parking lots nearby and some free parking behind businesses and on side streets. Be on the lookout for private parking warning signs.
Your first order of business is to grab a chair in the outside dining area of Hellas Restaurant and Bakery and watch the street show. If you have good timing, you might spy the Anastasi, one of the last remaining sponge boats coming back from a working trip laden with sponges. For visitors who want to get on the water, a ride on the St. Nicholas VII takes passengers on an excursion through history, including an old-timey re-creation of a sponge diving expedition. (The divers don’t wear those heavy metal helmets anymore.)
Hellas is one of the many Greek restaurants in town that serve a curious version of Greek salad. It has all the expected elements: iceberg lettuce, cured black olives, sliced onion and green pepper, tomato wedges and thick slices of tangy feta cheese dressed with an herb vinaigrette. What comes as a surprise to the uninitiated is the scoop of potato salad plopped on top. Legend has it that Louis Pappas, a Tarpon Springs restaurateur, added the potato salad to provide more sustenance for the working sponge divers. Whatever the reason, it’s a staple here.
Greek pastries are legendary and the long display case at Hellas is drool-worthy. Take a number and prepare to wait to order baklava, spiced honey cookies or powered-sugar-covered shortbread. They all have their Greek names displayed and you shouldn’t feel bad if you have to point rather than risk pronouncing kourabiethes (the shortbread cookies).
For an authentic taste of Greece, have lunch or dinner at Mykonos on Dodecanese near Athens. The restaurant is a hodge-podge of tables that are almost always full. A highlight here is youvetsi, Greek lamb stew over orzo.
Greek cuisine is the main draw on Dodecanese but bring a cooler and Pelican Point Seafood will provide the ice for the seafood you buy to cook at home. Pelican sells fish and shellfish from the waters in its own backyard, including grouper, local snapper and some of the biggest shrimp you’ll ever see. Next door is Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill serving that same fresh seafood. It’s a break from Greek food and a nod to the area’s rich seafood heritage.
Back toward the middle Dodecanese is the historic Sponge Exchange where the sponges used to be auctioned off. It is now a tangle of shops that sells everything from T-shirts to postcards to shark teeth to clothes and jewelry. Oh, and ice cream. This is where modernity meets history.
Nestled to one side of the Sponge Exchange is Emma Johnson and her vegetable ivory jewelry made of tagua seed. The seeds are carved and then shined to make earrings, bracelets and necklaces. The seed comes from South America, and Johnson’s shop is among several jewelry stores at the Sponge Exchange. This is where shoppers should come if they are looking for resort-type clothes in all sizes. They will find a handful of shops to buy those flowing linen and gauzy dresses that go from the docks of Tarpon Springs to the deck of the cruise ship with ease.
Returning to the street, don’t miss Getaguru, the purveyor of handmade soaps. There are many scents to choose from but keep with the Florida theme by stocking up on tangelo soap, a salute to the Florida tangerine. Keep it Tarpon and take home a few bars of oatmeal-goat’s milk soap. This spot has held businesses run by the same family since 1934. That’s not unusual in Tarpon Springs where family roots run deep.
Dodecanese Boulevard is one cool walk through history, with a side of what’s new. Olive oil soap, anyone?