A dear friend who grew up in Dunedin called me to say she had spent the previous weekend moving her mother out of her childhood home and into assisted living. “I need a break,” she said. “Let’s go to lunch at the Safety Harbor Spa.”
Lunch at a spa? I’m in. I had never ventured to this part of northeastern Pinellas County, a little east of Dunedin’s buzzy downtown and marina district.
Safety Harbor was a surprise: a small town of old-growth oak trees with a tidy, thriving Main Street, an offbeat art culture, a significant archeological site, and, at its heart, the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, where people have been taking the “healing waters” of five natural springs for more than 150 years.
Visitors can view manatees seeking warmth from one of the springs under the pier at the Safety Harbor Spa.
The springs were given the name Espiritu Santo Springs – Springs of the Holy Spirit – by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto.
There’s no evidence that de Soto thought he had found the Fountain of Youth – or indeed that he ever made it this far north in Tampa Bay – but that hasn’t stopped marketers of Safety Harbor’s spring water from claiming de Soto found what Ponce de Leon could not.
Safety Harbor has as good a claim as any to being the “real” Fountain of Youth.
Evolution of Safety Harbor Spa
Tales have been told about the springs’ healing powers since the early 19th century, when a disabled farmer named Jesse Green threw away his crutches claiming he had been cured by the springs.
By 1855, the owner of the springs, William Bailey, began touting their healing powers and bottling “Espiritu Santo Water.” His son-in-law, James Tucker, expanded the marketing, built a pavilion and swimming pool, and began bringing tourists to bathe in the “original Fountain of Perpetual Youth.”
Over the years, the spring house has gone through multiple transformations, but has remained a pillar of Safety Harbor’s appeal.
Today, the natural springs are hidden below the hotel lobby inside the spa. Among the signature services is the Espiritu Springs Mineral Bath, a hot soak in the spring water. Stress relief can add years to your life, right?
My friend and I did not partake of spa services, but our lunch at the outdoor Fountain Grill was just what the doctor ordered. The menu is Mediterranean. Try the Greek tapas platter.
After lunch, we strolled around the resort and found a pool bar and grill overlooking the bay. I resolved to return to explore the area and its remarkable history more thoroughly.
Temple mound a high point of Safety Harbor Spa visit
The western shore of Old Tampa Bay, where the town is located, has been inhabited for about 2,500 years.
An archeological site in Phillippe Park is considered the archetypal site for the Tocobaga people, who farmed, fished and lived here when Spanish explorers sailed into the bay in the 1520s.
The Tocobaga would have been easy to find, as they had built a large temple mound on a point of land that juts into the bay. The mound is the highest point on Tampa Bay, providing an excellent vista.
Archeologists believe this mound was the center of the chiefdom, the capital city of the Tocobaga. No doubt their choice of settlement also stemmed from the freshwater springs that flowed nearby.
My husband, Jack, and I went back to explore more of Safety Harbor, starting our day with coffee and apple turnover at Café Vino Tinto on Main Street. The outdoor café serves homemade baked goods and waffles in a garden shaded by oak trees.
From there, we ventured to the Safety Harbor Museum, where a video gave us the overview of Safety Harbor’s history.
We checked out pottery shards found at the Phillippe Park archeological site and learned about Odet Phillippe, the first non-native settler in the area. He was a Frenchman who claimed kinship with the king and friendship with Napoleon, although neither of those claims are substantiated.
He lived in what is now Haiti until the U.S. government granted him the land around the Tocobaga mound in 1842. He planted citrus trees and introduced grapefruit to Florida. He also was the first cigar maker in the Tampa Bay region, besting Ybor City by about 40 years.
Phillippe called his home St. Helena Plantation. Later, the area went by the names Worth Harbor and Green Springs, after the farmer who said the springs healed him.
The name Safety Harbor arose in the late 19th century. This part of Tampa Bay is shallow, making it a protected spot for smaller boats.
In the early years of the town, James Tucker promoted the springs by claiming each offered a different health benefit. His waters treated the liver, kidneys, and stomach ailments, he said. Another bestowed beauty. The fifth was pure drinking water.
In 1926, Tucker’s widow, Victoria Bailey Tucker, built a resort hotel with a large pool and opened a state-of-the art spa, the Safety Harbor Sanatorium. After she died in 1931, the sanatorium reverted to the state of Florida.
Dr. Salem Baranoff revived the spa in 1945, promoting it with his “Precepts for Healthy Living” that naturally included mineral baths.
The spa has changed hands over the years, but has remained a spa and resort since Baranoff’s days. Today it is a 3-star Trademark by Wyndham property with 189 rooms overlooking the bay and the city’s small marina and fishing pier.
Beyond the Safety Harbor Spa
Walking and bicycling trails, including a bayfront boardwalk, are accessible from the spa. Visitors can rent kayaks for paddling on the quiet bay waters near the marina.
From the resort, it is a short walk along Main Street to restaurants, bars, gift shops and other businesses.
At the heart of the downtown district is Baranoff Park, where a live oak estimated to be at least 400 years old spreads its branches. Benches and picnic tables invite visitors to sit awhile in the shade.
Only a few historic buildings remain. The 1920s-era James Hotel at 100 Main Street is now senior living apartments with shops on the ground floor. The Chamber of Commerce building at 202 Main Street was Safety Harbor’s first town hall.
A mural along the side of the concrete structure depicts a Spanish explorer, a Tocobaga man, a bottle of Espiritu Mineral Water, and Odet Phillippe.
The most interesting building in downtown Safety Harbor is much newer: the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center at 706 Second Ave. N. This colorful, whimsical event space is decorated with a two-story mirrored mosaic. There’s a small shop with artists’ wares inside, an elephant-sized pink painted elephant outside, and enough color to make anyone smile. The center promotes arts education and local music.
Not far from downtown is Whimzeyland, a home that has been turned into a public art installation at 1206 3rd Street North. Known as the “bowling ball house” for the painted bowling balls used as yard art,
Whimzeyland defies description, as if someone handed The Mad Hatter a paint brush, a rainbow of paint and a truckload of mosaic materials.
Together, Whimzeyland and the Art and Music Center give this sleepy spa town a cheerful artsy aesthetic.
After Jack and I explored the bayfront, climbed the Tocobaga mound and wandered a bit in Phillipe Park, we were ready for an afternoon libation. This we found at Tiki Tavern, an outdoor bar on Main Street.
Our last stop of the day was a highlight: Southern Fresh restaurant, where homemade Southern fare is served on a breezy deck. A large fireplace provides after-sunset warmth.
I chose the pan-fried chicken with thick mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas. Jack had an herby meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy. The menu also includes fried catfish, collard greens, and smoked wings. There’s strawberry shortcake or banana pudding for dessert. Everything is fresh daily and lick-your-plate delicious.
We drove home with full bellies, talking about when we might arrange to stay a night and take a day at the spa.
If you go to Safety Harbor:
Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center, 329 Bayshore Boulevard South. Phone: 727-724-1562
Phillippe Park, 2525 Philippe Pkwy, Safety Harbor
Café Vino Tinto, 509 Main Street, Safety Harbor
Southern Fresh, 122 Third Ave. N, Safety Harbor
When visiting Safety Harbor Spa: Nearby things to do
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Vicki McCash Brennan is a veteran journalist, teacher and mentor to high school journalism advisers for the Journalism Education Association. Vicki spent 25 years in the trenches as a reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The mother of two grown daughters, Vicki is semi-retired and enjoys bicycling, reading, museums and art galleries, sailing and travel with her husband, Jack.