Tarpon Springs is an old-time attraction, but Anclote Key and exploring Spring Bayou and the historic district 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: There are more things to do in Tarpon Springs than the Sponge Docks. You can have a great day in Tarpon Springs if you eat a Greek dinner, explore the lovely historic district 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 are the best things to 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.)
Visiting Anclote Key on a boat tour is one of best things to do in 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.
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.
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.
More 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.)
Take a kayak tour from the Sponge Docks. River Wild Kayaking offers guided tours through mangroves and along the Anclote River.
Tarpon Springs lends itself to exploration by bicycle. It is on 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.
Walk, bike or kayak around the Spring Bayou. 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.
Craig Park, 5 Beekman Lane, Tarpon Springs, is on the southern tip of Spring Bayou and it is a hidden gem in Tarpon Springs. There’s a boat ramp including a floating dock for launching a kayak. Check Spring Bayou for manatees in the winter, where they are often spotted, and dolphins and rays year round. Here’s the Spring Bayou live “manatee cam.”
Explore Tarpon Springs Historic District. The city has a number of lovely Victorian houses among 145 historic building in a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. While you’re at Craig Park, you are in the middle of this historic district, which wraps around that waterway. The district is bounded by Read Street, Hibiscus Street, Orange Street, Levis Avenue, Lemon Street and Spring Bayou.
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
- Anclote Key Preserve State Park, including information on primitive camping.
- Experienced kayakers can paddle and camp on Anclote Key. Here’s a story on Anclote Key from Florida Rambler.
- Spongeorama Cruises
- You can kayak to Anclote, but be prepared. Clubkayak.com writes: “The open water paddle is about 2 to 2.5 miles. On bad weather days it can be miserable and dangerous.” Here’s a kayaking trip report and another one.
- Sponge docks: Read pro and cons on TripAdvisor.
- Pinellas Trail, the most popular bike trail in Florida
- Fred Howard Park
- Sunset Beach
- Bicycle rentals: You can rent bikes right on the Pinellas Trail at Neptune Cyclery, located just south of Tarpon Avenue.
Notes from the editor:
The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning visits.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.
Monday 15th of August 2022
Living (& being a waterfront Realtor) in Gulf Harbors, we’ve come to love Anclote Island.