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 doesnâ€™t mean you shouldnâ€™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.
Iâ€™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 arenâ€™t particularly rare.Â What do you do then?
Happily, the sponge docks are also the place to buy a ticket on a cruise to one of Floridaâ€™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
Located three miles off shore, Anclote Key is composed of four islands with pure white sand surrounded by vivid teal-blue Gulf waters. Thereâ€™s an 1887 lighthouse on the completely undeveloped island, home to only a park ranger.
There are two boat companies that operate cruises to Anclote from the Sponge Docks: Â Odyssey CruiseÂ Â and Sponge-O-Rama. (Both offer tours that include Anclote Key for $19 for adults; $10 for children.)
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. And I do mean short.
The tours give visitors only a half hour to enjoy the perfect sandy beaches of Anclote Key and 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.Â 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 weâ€™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.Â 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.
I wish we had had more time, but the boat operator is looking for that sweet spot, where they appeal to the largest number of people, from those who want a pretty Gulf-view boat ride to those who want to visit the island.
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.)
Things to do in Tarpon Springs
The Sponge Docks have long been the main attraction here, but they donâ€™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 Â Getaguru handmade soaps.Â 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.)
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.
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.
- Odyssey CruisesÂ .
- SpongeoramaÂ Cruises
- You can kayak to Anclote, but be prepared.Â Clubkayak.com writes: â€œThe open water paddle is about 2 to 2.5 miles. On bad weather days it can be miserable and dangerous.â€Â Â Hereâ€™s Â a kayaking trip report andÂ 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 atÂ Neptune Cyclery, located just south of Tarpon Avenue.