End of the Trail: Tarpon Springs

Travelogue - March 21, 2006

Saturday, March 11, was a landmark day: We made it to the Anclote River, our north-most goal for the winter! The river marks the northern terminus of the sheltered ICW route of western Florida. From here, if you want to continue north you either meander along the coastal shallows, or strike across the open Gulf 140+ nautical miles to Carrabelle. Not us, not this year anyway: we are very happy with our progress, and will sit tight for a day or two congratulating ourselves before we turn around and cruise back south.

Anclote River anchorage

Here is Sea Gator at anchor in a small cove on the river. Our neighbors - a large catamaran, a small trawler, a sailboat - were each there only a night or two, so mostly we had it to ourselves. Or, I should say, the no-see-ums had us to themselves. The no-see-um-infested mangroves have lost some of their glamour; there they are in the background. Lurking. Just to the left you can peep around the mangroves and see downriver toward the Gulf of Mexico. Off the photo to the right is a fence which eventually encloses the regional power plant. It generated no noise nor smells nor lights to bother us, and the stack was a useful landmark from afar. This is not a wilderness anchorage, but it was very quiet at night.

Anclote River traffic The Anclote River is a popular weekend cruising ground - here is a shot downriver. Look at that traffic coming back from the Gulf, heading for the barn late on a Saturday afternoon! It's purely a miracle there were no wrecks. The pelicans and dolphins just ignored the whole mess and went about their business as usual.

Park boat ramps Opposite the mangroves described above is a County Park and its public boat launch, left. There are six ramps, with continual traffic as you can guess. Boats full of families and friends came and went all day on the weekend. The week days were also surprisingly busy, with boatloads of retirees and fishermen out for the day. Notably absent was honking and cursing, it was pretty orderly as far as chaos goes. To the left of the ramps is a tie-up dock and that's where we parked Bump Head.

Park On the right side of the photo, the Anclote River continues to town, and the rest of the Park extends along its shores including beaches, picnic shelters and many fine trees. I don't know the names of the trees, but I do know that they are cranking out pollen like there's no tomorrow.

A couple of miles up river, in a safe enclave of harbors and bayous, lies the town of Tarpon Springs. If you haven't seen the 1953 epic Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef, here is a synopsis: Mike and Tony Petrakis are a Greek father and son team who dive for sponges off the coast of Florida. After they are robbed by crooks Arnold and the Rhys brothers, Mike decides to take his men to the dangerous 12-mile reef to dive for more sponges.

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef Our hero, Tony (a youthful Robert Wagner with his hair dyed black), is a sultry hot-tempered Greek; Arnold is a blond, blue-eyed diver from Key West (portrayed by a pasty young Peter Graves). The film is noted for its beautiful score and groundbreaking cinematography, but that's not important to this discussion.

What is important is the central roll of sponging in Tarpon Springs and its eventual emergence as an island of Greek culture in western Florida. In the mid 1800s sponges of commercial value were discovered in the Gulf beyond the mouth of the river, and so movers and shakers of the day brought divers from the Greek isles. Many left after they'd made their fortune, but many brought their families to join them.

On our first day, I heard Greek spoken by most of the families in the Park, where many a lovely matron yelled for her son. "Nicko, hey NICKO!" was the only part I understood. Then we heard Greek-speaking DJs on the radios, and we heard Greek versions of the ubiquitous boy bands. Later we found that the majority of the restaurant owners in town spoke Greek to their clientele and their staff.

Orthodoxy is the main religion and there are beautiful ornate historic churches, lovingly preserved. On the sidewalks and in the shops, most elderly gentlemen sported crucifixes on gold chains over hairy chests.

We did not get to see the informative sponge-diver movie (sorry Gary and Mickey), nor did I buy any sponges (sorry Julie B), nor did we eat at Zantes (sorry Don and Gillian, but we tried and I'll tell you all about it later), nor did we tour the exquisite churches nor go on a boat tour of the sponging grounds... So how did we decide that we loved the town? Well, we had our own version of getting to know our way around, and that's what this travelogue is all about.

Company on <em>Bump Head</em> As I said, we arrived at our chosen anchorage on Saturday. On Sunday morning we dingied in, turned on our cell phone, selected a shady park bench and waited to hear from our friends Fran and Phil M. Maybe you've had your teeth cleaned by Fran at Dr. Larson's; even so you may not recognize her at eye-level. Likewise, you may not recognize Phil with his head not under the hood of your truck or car at Flat Creek Automotive. Well, there they are returning with Rick from their tour of Sea Gator.

Their enthusiasm for our adventure has been inspiring. They live in their RV full time, summers in Jackson and winters in Florida, and for that reason Fran was Rick's first confidant about our plans (picture Rick reclined with a bib on his chest and instruments in his mouth, gazing up at Fran and earnestly burbling, "'e 'oin a yiv on a 'oat an cwoo un 'oaridah", and Fran responding, "Oh, that is so exciting!").

It was great having them both finally aboard in person! Goldie loved it, too (bored to feline tears as she is by the two of us at this point, she has lost her shyness and is eager to be petted by someone, anyone, other than me or Rick). After their tour of our home afloat, we piled into their microwave, er, auto (it's getting warmish around here, especially in parked cars) and motored on in to Tarpon Springs.

Phil and Fran, Pat and Rick As with most parts of Florida, I wish I had seen Tarpon Springs and its sponge docks about twenty years ago. Today, it's hard to tell what's "real" and what's been generated solely for the tourist industry. The historic Sponge Market building is now a series of souvenir shops, although, surely, someone is still selling sponges somewhere; the industry is still viable, we're told. The sponge docks are lined with shops selling tee-shirts and seashells. Nevertheless, there is a really cool town under the trappings, and the people were friendly and kind.

We chatted up the gentlemen gathering the bucks at parking lots and watched people working on boats that were tied up along the docks in town - I thought that the uncluttered decks and heavy lines were indicative of real working boats, and come to find out I was right. Rick and I located the city Marina for future reference.

We wove through the crowds lining both sidewalks and made our way to the far end of the Sponge Dock area where we had a terrific lunch at Rusty Bellies restaurant, as recommended by Rick's Uncle Arthur. Then we meandered, and I had someone to shop with - yea, Fran! - so she and I perused the various offerings while Rick and Phil discussed boat and RV engines and travel and so forth. I found a new scented candle for the boat, and Fran and I both bought these really cool rolling fabric shopping bags, perfect for flea markets. It was a fine day. Our friends had a much longer trip home than we did; they brought us back to the Park and we were aboard before dark.

Early Monday morning we brought the bikes with us and rode back toward town. Phil had thoughtfully shown us a good bike route, so we were safe. It came to a 30-minute ride and good exercise. When we came to the Sponge Dock area it was like a different town. That is, one with no people. None. We coasted our bikes slowly past the Marina and onto the dock, beginning to wonder if we'd have to wait until lunch (so NOT an option), and then as we drifted past a side street we simultaneously caught the fragrance of baking bread!

We turned left and entered Athens Street: a narrow, brick-paved street shaded by white-washed buildings hugging the sidewalks. The street turned and twisted and narrowed, and we came to a magical neighborhood of tiny cafes and shining bakeries. We chose a picturesque cafe with locals in fishing caps smoking cigarettes over their coffee at the outdoor tables, and as soon as we sat down the princess/ proprietress brought us cups of strong coffee in heavy mugs, the brew steaming and fragrant and fresh (OK, maybe it wasn't that fairy-tale perfect, but remember I hadn't had breakfast yet). We shared a gyro omelet and a Greek omelet with feta and olives. Whew, I felt much better and the hallucinations eased off.

Bikes laden with groceries While we sipped our after-breakfast coffee, Rick made a very astute observation (one of many, let it be said). This one concerned the unforeseen benefits of not having a car. The most immediate example of which, he suggested, is that we would not have located the excellent OPA Famous Family Restaurant if we had been inside an auto - the aroma of fresh bread and coffee would not have penetrated the defenses of the air conditioning. Very true.

Well, I discussed Greek cooking with Mrs. "Opa" (the advantages of sour cream over yogurt in gyros - like I care, I just wanted to chat), and then we reluctantly left the fabulous coffee kingdom. Following Mrs. Opa's directions we found the post office - located in a refurbished grand hotel on the outskirts of the historic Downtown. The building was very wonderful, its tile sidewalk shaded by arched awnings, and the lobby gleaming and polished (that's another thing I've found in Florida: post office stations can be found in many unexpected places), and I mailed my parents' 50th wedding anniversary party invitations.

Another mile or two down the road we found a Winn-Dixie and loaded up. Next year's advanced provisioning should be much more efficient since we've learned so much, but shopping is a project this year. Since we are happily car-free (unless friends or family are chauffeuring us, in which case we are extremely grateful) we have been searching for breakfasts and hauling our supplies by bike. We have provisioning down to a science, which relies upon the structural integrity of cereal boxes and takes as its guiding principal the relative densities of various fruits and vegetables. The theory in practice: strap boxes and paper towels on the carrier where you can cinch them down tight, and don't put ripe bananas on the bottom of the knapsack then drop cans of tomato soup on top of them.

Simple. The result is pictured above: we have boxes and rolls strapped on the carriers with nylon parachute cord, and both our knapsacks are stuffed with bags, and Rick carries additional plastic bags in his hand if necessary.

This time the extra bags were necessary...

Rick and Bikes all folded into <em>Bump Head</em> We had come back down Athens Street on our return ride and entered a wonderful bakery with a cement floor and glass cases on all four walls. As we entered, out from the back room came a tall dark haired man in a tee shirt and apron, carrying fresh loaves of bread in his arms. He was young and covered in flour and the aura of a bygone day; he was Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, except for the hand. I had to ask him about some of the bakery items (baklava, cinnamon cookies) and then had to ask him to repeat himself as his English was very thick with a Greek accent. I thought we might step out on the street and find ourselves in Athens, not just on Athens Street.

So, Rick was carrying fresh bread and baklava in addition to his usual groceries. We stopped at Doc of the Bay marine suppliers on our return trip but they were still waiting for the Tohatsu outboard parts that Rick had ordered the previous week, so we rode back to the Park.

Loading Bump Head after a grocery expedition is always exciting, as shown in the photo above. The bikes fold down into half their size (note the hinged frame) and the groceries and backpacks find their places as best they may. My spot is on the bow, with my feet under the bike behind Rick. It's not as precarious as it looks, and our PFDs (personal floatation devices, Peggy) are safely aboard... although wedged beneath the seat and packages and therefore virtually inaccessible, hmmm. Unloading is fun, as Rick drives or rows up to the swim platform on Sea Gator's stern and I grab it and "hop out" (he says) with the line, then bring items aboard and up the steps to the sundeck as Rick hands them over. It's an art and a science.

The next day found Rick ferrying me and my bike to the dock. My mission: seek out and obtain replacement washers to faucets installed at a boatyard in Taiwan seventeen years ago. Oooo-kay. I boldly went where no woman has gone before: ACE Hardware near the Winn-Dixie, then back to the opposite end of town to Tarpon Springs Wholesale plumbing, then back to a mythical marine parts shop on yet the other end of the sponge docks (here I found the real working marina, and a tattooed sailor with gold piercings to offer me directions, but no secret cache of Taiwanese plumbing parts).

Old Depot and bike path I did spread cheer whither and yon because everyone found the bizarre faucet stem a vast source of wonder and they were all compelled to call their buddies from the back, "Hey, Tommy, see if you know what this is!", and although they didn't actually have the washer nor a suitable replacement for the stem, they all had ideas of who else might have such a device... and so finally back to ACE Hardware to get supplies for Rick's Plan B.

Meanwhile, I had spent an hour in the company of good strangers discussing common problems and common solutions, and there I met a fine old timer who asked whether I'd seen the bike path? Well, no I hadn't, I confessed I'd been too busy playing Urban Girl Bike Messenger and weaving among cars and jumping curbs. He clucked his tongue, and told me about the Pinellas Trail - a bike path that runs 35 miles from St. Petersburg through Tarpon Springs. WOW! How cool!

So I found the Trail and used that, and even though I missed my Urban Speeder thrills the Trail was great! As you may discern, it is the former railroad right-of-way, resurrected for recreational use (we would later spot it in unexpected places throughout Largo and St. Petersburg).

Here is the old Depot in historic downtown, now an information site and museum. Through this section the trail is between the two brick-paved, granite-curbed auto lanes. After downtown it goes unattended by roads. It's a great amenity, and I used it on my journeys after that.

Downtown old town Tarpon Springs Well. The items I had found for Plan B were inappropriate, so the next day Rick and I rode in together. I showed him the excellent downtown, which is known for its antique shops. We had lunch at a Greek pizzeria, and enjoyed the bike path. Here is a row of downtown shops, and the bike path in the middle and brick roadway in the foreground.

On the way back through town we again followed Athens Street and found a different bakery, and Rick selected a fresh loaf of artisan bread for our dinner. Then we went WAY north to a Home Depot, and stopped to chat with a lady walking her Boston Terrier - I told her about how great our Boston Terrior, Kimbo, was when we were kids. Finally, home to Sea Gator. That night we were ready for our dinner of fresh bread, cool grapes and rich cheese - and we were very happy.

Rick pointed out another significant benefit to not having a car: that we are thus willing to make that extra stop for fresh bread. He's right: who would drive through tourist-town traffic, find parking, unbuckle then rebuckle then cross town again in a car, all for a loaf of bread? But on bicycles, it is easy and well worth it.

Well, that was Tarpon Springs, and we are really glad we went there.

Collard/Hebert clan Since then we've been to Madiera Beach and spent St. Patrick's Day with Rick's family. Uncle Arthur took us to dinner at an English pub (right), and I dutifully represented the Irish among our table of Frenchmen and Pakistanis. We all got along very well, setting a precedent for nations everywhere.

Entertainment after the meal was provided by two very modern-looking bagpipers playing very ancient instruments. They played jigs and ballads, and Danny Boy and Amazing Grace and people sang along.

Piper Piper The bagpipes wailed at a volume sufficient to frighten the armies of the British - or pretty much anyone else for that matter - clear out of the hills and right into the sea. I understand that the pipes were to rally and inspire the troops, which would be great as long as the piper was on your side. If not, the sounds could instill fear and I can understand that, too. Anyway, inside an enclosed, medium-sized restaurant it was pretty overwhelming, even with my hands over my ears. It was awe-inspiring; it really made one's blood race.

This guy, right, tapped his sneaker-clad foot with great enthusiasm:

The other fellow, left, was really skilled on the sliding notes especially. He let us have our picture taken with him, but I blinked and there went my chance to be a famous groupie.

We told the piper how much we'd enjoyed their playing, and he said in a very heavy brogue, "Wait 'teel we've had moore ta' drrrrink. Ye shud hearrr us then."

Unfortunately, we had to leave and so that happy experience would not be ours.

Vinoy Basin anchorage It took awhile to write this Travelogue, so now we are anchored at St. Petersburg, and it's a lovely town as far as I can see. We arrived Sunday, and we've found a source for Rick to buy bread, and we've meet some nice people, and we intend to explore the town tomorrow. I get to do an errand on the fun tourist Trolley, and I'm looking forward to that.

Here we are, anchored in front of St. Petersburg's wonderful historic Vinoy Hotel:

Well, I understand that enough snow has fallen in Wyoming and now it can stop, just stop. I hope, then, that it does.

Best wishes to everyone.

- Pat

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