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Tarpon Springs: Visit dazzling island of Anclote Key on boat from Sponge Docks

Last updated on August 16th, 2021 at 02:55 pm

Tarpon Springs is old-time attraction, but Anclote Key elevates the experience

Long before Disney, the Greek-flavored sponge docks in Tarpon Springs were the sort of roadside attraction that tourists loved. Today, somewhat tired and tacky, this cluster of Greek-themed businesses is of limited appeal.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Tarpon Springs. You can have a great day in Tarpon Springs if you eat a Greek dinner, explore beyond the Sponge Docks and especially if you take a boat tour out to Anclote Key Preserve State Park.

I’ve lived in Florida for more than 30 years, and I have always heard about the Greek community in Tarpon Springs. I loved the Greek Isles when I visited years ago; I figured this would be the next best thing. But Dodoecanese Boulevard, the three-block-long riverfront stretch of souvenir shops and restaurants, turned out to be worth about a 20 minute stroll. Yes, there are good Greek restaurants, but those aren’t particularly rare.  What do you do then?

Happily, the Sponge Docks are also the place to buy a ticket on a cruise to one of Florida’s most remote state parks: Anclote Key Preserve State Park. (Additionally, we found some very nice things to do in Tarpon Springs — more on this later.)

Anclote Key and lighthouse from adjoining sandbar
Anclote Key and lighthouse viewed from adjoining sandbar. The boat to Anclote Key leaves from the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting Anclote Key on a boat tour from Tarpon Springs

Located three miles off shore, Anclote Key is composed of four islands with pure white sand surrounded by vivid teal-blue Gulf waters. There’s an 1887 lighthouse on the completely undeveloped island, home to only a park ranger.

Sponge-O-Rama tours operates cruises to Anclote Key from the Sponge Docks. along with other shorter boat tour options.

Boat to Anclote Key, a state park off Tarpon Springs
The boat from Tarpon Springs to Anclote Key stops on a sandbar island. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Boat tours to Anclote Key are multi-purpose: You tour the Anclote River and hear a little Tarpon Springs history, you gaze on the Gulf waters and spot dolphins, you see a variety of birds (including magnificent frigate birds on our trip) and you get a short stop on the island itself.

The tours give visitors enough time to walk the the perfect sandy beaches of Anclote Key but do not include visiting the lighthouse. (Twice a year, in September and December, special trips are conducted that include lighthouse tours where visitors can climb its 140-step spiral staircase.)

Unfortunately, unless you own your own boat, there are few other good ways to visit Anclote Key for a longer visit. With three miles of open water between Tarpon Springs and Anclote Key, only the most experienced kayakers would undertake the long trip. (We considered it, but after taking the tour boat decided it was a more demanding kayak outing than we’d consider fun.)

On the boat tour, we left the hot 88-degree afternoon behind and enjoyed a breeze and a perfect temperature. The scenery in Tarpon Springs along the Anclote River is pleasant, with some historic structures and working fishing boats. As the boat gets into the Gulf, the staff makes every effort to give visitors a chance to spot dolphins and the on-board naturalist provides interesting background on flora and fauna.

At Anclote Key, you only see the lighthouse and main island from the water. The lighthouse is a skeletal structure, originally designed so that it could be disassembled and moved. It now runs on solar energy.

Anclote Key lighthouse
On the boat trip, you see the Anclote Key lighthouse only from the water. (Photo: David Blasco)

Our boat stopped on one of the sand bar islands adjacent to the main island and most passengers got off and explored the place.

In a half hour, you have time to find a few sand dollars, collect some shells, of which there are many, and fall a little in love with this perfect spot of white sand.

For those who own a boat or charter a boat, Anclote Key has miles of wild beaches plus picnic pavilions and primitive camping. (There are no provisions on the island, so campers must bring their own water as well as everything else. There is a composting toilet at the campsite and the picnic grounds.)

Those who want to be transported to visit for longer must book private charters, which are listed here. These services do not carry campers. To camp, you must have your own transportation.

SSponge fishing boat in Tarpon Springs on boat trip that includes stop on Anclote Key.
Sponge fishing boat in Tarpon Springs on boat trip that includes stop on Anclote Key. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Things to do in Tarpon Springs

The Sponge Docks have long been the main attraction here, but they don’t offer that much to see or do.

There are a few authentic stores; we enjoyed the many historic family photos from the fourth-generation shop selling Getaguru handmade soaps.  Olive-oil products and sea sponges are favorite purchases, and everybody should try the Greek pastries or have lunch or dinner in a Greek restaurant.

Tarpon Springs is the real deal when it comes to Greek specialties: 10 percent of its population has Greek ancestry, the largest percentage of any community in the United States. Greeks came to Tarpon Springs to develop the sponging business, beginning in the 1890s and continuing until a blight on the sponge beds ended the industry in 1938. (Some spongers are still active.)

Historic sponge exchange building Tarpon Springs
Historic building used for sponge processing in Tarpon Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Tarpon Springs lends itself to exploration by bicycle. It is the ending point of the 34-mile long Pinellas Trail, the most popular bike trail in Florida, which begins in downtown St. Petersburg. You can take your bike on the Pinellas Trail or use one of the city street maps distributed at every tourist locale to ride around town.

Tarpon Springs streets wind around scenic waterways, including Spring Bayou, where every January, young Greek Orthodox men dive into the water to retrieve a wooden cross that is said to bring the finder good luck.

The city has a number of lovely Victorian houses and a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

Historic waterfront home in Tarpon Springs (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Historic waterfront home in Tarpon Springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Two Gulf-front parks provide excellent stops for picnics or sunsets or to launch a kayak to explore the shoreline. Fred Howard Park is large with many picnic tables and pavilions and a beach located on an island you reach via a mile-long causeway. (A nice short bike ride could start at Howard and include pedaling out the causeway.) The smaller Sunset Beach also has picnic tables, grills and a small beach.

Planning a visit to Tarpon Springs and Anclote Key

Updated 8/2019

A note from the editor:

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