PHOTO BY ALEX GONE, COURTESY OF VISIT FLORIDA
Tarpon Springs has evolved from industrial city to tourist stop with surprising grace. Its small population (20,000), clear water and rich cultural background give visitors the feel of an old European city.
First settled in the 1880s, Tarpon Springs became the site of a thriving sponge industry when the area's Gulf waters were found to be chock-full of the aquatic animals. Greek sponge divers started arriving in 1905. Shops opened up along the docks to accommodate the souvenir-seeking crowds, and tourism gradually replaced the sponging industry, which declined in the 1940s when the sponges began to die out because of a bacterial disease. Since then, the sponge beds have had a chance to replenish, and harvesting sponges again is a booming trade.
Visitors to Tarpon Springs can stroll along the Sponge Docks, where tourists can look over sponging and shrimping boats and browse through stores that opened in the 1940s. Antique and gift shops offer everything from Greek statues, vases and linens to T-shirts, seashells and, of course, sponges.
-- Kimberly Williams, Orlando Sentinel