The shops along Dodecanese Avenue in the Sponge Dock District of Tarpon Springs are thriving as both a historic and a current tourist destination. The street winds its way from the bayou towards the Tarpon Springs Aquarium at the far end. Along the way it passes the marina and Sponge Boats docked along the north side of the street and the Historic Sponge Exchange on the south. There are many restaurants serving traditional Greek cuisine and fresh seafood that dot the street as well as quaint boutiques that sell everything from real sponges to imported goods. The street is narrow and reminiscent of a seaside village in Greece, with delivery trucks parked in the right of way and locals that greet each other in Greek and stop to chat without regard to the traffic.
The nearby beaches at several of the Pinellas County Parks are popular for swimming, windsurfing, picnics, boating, and other watersports. People also come to the beaches to watch the beautiful sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. Sandy barrier islands off shore shift position over time with the waves and storms. They are accessible by boat and are especially ideal for shell spotting and watching bottlenose dolphins at play. One permanent island, Anclote Key, is a State Park Preserve with a historic lighthouse, bird nesting colonies and pristine beaches.
Tarpon Springs is known for elaborate religious ceremonies related to the Greek Orthodox Church such as Epiphany celebrated every January 6 with the blessing of the waters and the boats. Since the livelihood of the initial Greek immigrants hinged around the sea and their boats, their attachment to a religious service centered on requesting divine protection for what used to be a highly risky job can be easily explained.
The celebration attracts Greek Americans from across the country, and the city’s population is known to triple in size for that day. The Metropolitan of Atlanta usually presides over the blessings, sometimes joined by the Archbishop of America. The blessings conclude with the ceremonial throwing of a wooden cross into the city’s Spring Bayou, and boys ages 16 to 18 dive in to retrieve it: whoever recovers the cross is said to be blessed for a full year. Following the blessings, the celebration moves to the Sponge Docks where food and music are made part of the festivities.
On January 6, 2006, the 100th anniversary celebration of the Epiphany services in Tarpon Springs was the occasion for a visit by his all- holiness, Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is considered “first among equals” of all hierarchs of the Orthodox Church. He presided over the Epiphany services in one of the few visits to America by an Ecumenical Patriarch.