One of the best parts of traveling is experiencing a city’s essence. Some of the places I’ve been to have a personality so defined they could be a character in a book. It’s palpable across the people, shops, town squares. . . an interconnectedness that goes beyond a feeling and touches upon a deeply embedded sentiment. The spirit.
Tarpon Springs has the free-flowing, embracing spirit of Greece. It’s quite random, but hear me out. Recently, my boyfriend and our friends were struck with wanderlust. We wanted to explore somewhere different but without having to buy a flight. If you’re like us, you get a solid 1-2 trips every year to faraway places, but the itch to go experience a different lifestyle is not satisfied by just that. So, we decided to get to know Florida more and drove up the West Coast to a tiny city founded by Greek sponge divers.
Tarpon Springs has the largest Greek American population in the US. The influence of this mediterranean culture is remarkable. The small beach town is filled with the signature white and royal blue colors that are splashed throughout its motherland.
Most shop owners and locals have a thick accent and authentic Greek cuisine, pastries, coffee and ouzo can be found at every street corner. Ouzo, if you’ve never tried it, is a clear anise-flavored liquor. It tastes like liquorice and is typically drank by itself. Once you pour its contents into a glass with ice, the clear liquid instantly makes small foggy swirls until it becomes completely cloudy. This imported goodie took me back to the Greek isles and the first time the smokiness captivated me. These fun touches are so central to Greek culture where everything is a lively experience. Even the drinks are interactive and you cannot help but become enthusiastic. It was wonderful observing our friends get swept up in the excitement of it all with the sound of random opa’s being chanted in the background. Eating at the mostly-Greek establishments was divine.
George the Greek, a resident restaurant owner, was our favorite local. His place, Dimitri’s on the water, is a highly recommended must-stop. If not for the food, George himself is a riot. The olive toned Greek owner makes it a point to walk around and speak with the patrons cracking jokes and giving order suggestions. He introduces himself as “George the Greek” and beckons you to google him. It’s hilariously enchanting. The food itself was the best Greek I’ve had outside of Greece, such a delightfully random surprise in this Northern Florida beach town. If you dine until closing time, you will observe the daily catfish feeding ritual the staff prides itself in. They take all their leftover bread from the day, pass it out to children and interested diners and make their way to the dock to toss it in the water and behold the school of local catfish that arrive for their scheduled dinner.
Do not leave without purchasing a sponge! While Tarpon Springs is no longer a destination to dive for these rough, squishy souvenirs, the culture around this once local product is still very much in tact. You can’t pop in any store, regardless of what they are selling, without having at least a table of sponges. We picked up a few.
Our day at Tarpon Springs ended with a few baklava pastries and some Greek coffee before the trolley ride home. The coffee is not something I’d necessarily recommend as it has a pretty harsh taste and a tiny mountain of grinds to greet you at the bottom of your cup. Still, I make it a point of trying the local eats, so if you are cut from the same traveler’s cloth do try a sip expecting a departure from your normal cup o’ Joe.
With our bellies full of Greek goodness, the trolley ride home was quiet. I never mind the stillness that comes with the ride home from travelling. The way there and the way back are transient times filled with their respective energies. Driving or flying to your destination is usually intoxicatingly exciting. Just the act of leaving incites butterflies and it’s an essential freedom for the human experience. The way back is more quiet. You are understandably tired, and if you’re like me, reflective. This ride home was of the more quiet variety as we were beat from an active day of drinking, eating, laughing and taking in the excitable spirit of Tarpon Springs. Sometimes, you need a quiet vacation, other times you need to infuse your days off with some livelihood and actively energetic vibes. This is the essence of Tarpon Springs, you feel the energy as you get there and carry it throughout your stay. It’s a lighthearted spirit of freeness with sprinkles of merriment and ouzo.