We cruised up the Anclote River to Tarpon Spring on Saturday morning, like tourists driving the wrong way on a one way street. Weekend fisherman and rental boats filled the channel with competing wakes, racing out into the open waters of St. Joseph Sound. On any other day, their lack of etiquette would aggravate us, however, after our overnight crossing, nothing could dampen our spirits.
The river winds inland, past small marinas and beautiful homes perched along the bayous. Rounding the last turn, the sponge boat basin comes into view, its commercial seawall lined with decrepit work boats and tour boats advertising charter fishing, glass bottoms, dolphin viewing, and sponge tours. The Tarpon Spring Municipal Docks lay just beyond, a well kept oasis right in the middle of Tarpon’s Greek tourist zone where Nick, its harbormaster, helped us tie up in our narrow slip. Shutting down the engine that morning was an especially sweet exclamation point marking the completion of The Crossing.
Apalichicola’s fisherman discovered the rich sponge beds of the Big Bend area of Florida, however, it’s auction houses and “sponge exchanges” had long been repurposed. In 1905, an entrepreneur in Tarpon Springs hired a bunch of spongers from Greece to come help harvest this newfound resource. These were those guys in big rubber suits and brass diving helmets you see in old movies. They effectively put Apalachicola out of business while also planting the seeds, literally, that made Tarpon Springs the intensely Greek cultural enclave that it is today.
Tarpon’s Greekness is surely less evident in the parts of town where chain restaurants, big box stores and strip malls make it look and feel no different than Bethesda or Des Moines. Along its old waterfront though, it’s striking. We relished our first meal of Gyro’s at Yiani’s cafe, on Dodecanese Blvd, just a hundred steps from the marina. We ate more Greek food a couple nights later at Dimitri’s, their menu laden with lamb and spinach, feta and filo. We asked for help with some provisions we bought at the Halki Market because the labels and cooking instructions were in Greek. I couldn’t avoid Hella’s Bakery, with it’s fifty foot display case teeming with pastries so diverse and which looked so scrumptious that I spent over $50 there. Our chins and fingers dripped honey for a week.
For seven weeks and for 750 miles, we sailed east. Through Louisiana’s bayous, across the Mississippi Sound, and finally along the Emerald Coast, we pressed eastward, as Apalachicola and Houston lie on nearly the same latitude. Cold fronts punctuated our weather patterns along the way – three day bursts of northerly winds and rain separated by shorter spells of southerly breezes and sunshine. Weather windows ruled the day.
In Tarpon Springs, that all changed. We are southbound now. The cold fronts, when they come, are less intense. The days are getting longer, the nights getting warmer. Jeans and sneakers have been stowed, replaced by shorts and flip flops. Even the palm trees seem more relaxed.