- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. — This has been the year to mark anniversaries: Rembrandt’s 400th birthday; Benjamin Franklin’s 300th; Mozart’s 250th; Josephine Baker’s 100th — and the 100th anniversary of the first time Tarpon Springs celebrated the Greek Orthodox Feast of the Epiphany.

Every year since 1906, this Greek-American town 12 miles north of Clearwater has celebrated the baptism of Jesus Christ — and the first appearance of the Holy Ghost — with a Greek Orthodox Divine Liturgy and a cross-diving event.

The patriarch throws a white cross into the waters of Spring Bayou, and the young men of the town, ages 16 to 18, dive for it.

Whoever comes up with the cross receives great honor and a special blessing. The event combines the commemoration of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan and Tarpon Springs’ sponge-diving heritage. The three-day celebration surrounding the Jan. 6 feast day is held every year, but any time is a great time to visit, to join festivities that go on throughout the year.

The Epiphany celebration begins with a blessing of the fleet — including the sponge divers, their families and even a stray dog or two.

The 2006 event was particularly festive because His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of more than 250 million Orthodox Christians, came to Tarpon Springs from his home in Istanbul to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to throw the cross into the waters of Spring Bayou.

The 56 contestants — chosen from among 200 youths who applied — came from the five Orthodox churches in the area, which serve many of the 160,000 Orthodox adherents in Florida. Qualifications for participants are to have Greek origins and be in good standing in their respective churches.

Cousins and former winners Jim Hughes (2004) and Andrew McAdams (2005), whose mothers are Greek, confirmed that they had a year of good luck. The luck often includes some monetary benefits, especially when a parishioner contributes money to the church in the name of the successful cross diver; the pastor, as a rule, gives a percentage to the winner.

The service in St. Nicholas Cathedral started early and went on for several hours.The choir — attired, like the altar boys, in different colored robes to indicate the churches they represented — sang with professional skill and beauty. The sanctuary of St. Nicholas Cathedral itself was painted by a young Greek artist from New York in the style of the Byzantine paintings of Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia.

At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the procession was led by the barefoot divers down to Spring Bayou. Groups of costumed Greek dancers from the Eastern United States pranced along, followed by the smiling gray-bearded patriarch. About 50,000 people crowded around the bayou, a circular basin that opens to the Anclote River. A sign on the grassy bank requests visitors not to feed the manatees that swim into the bayou in winter.

Half a dozen small boats were moored in a circle around the area where the cross would be thrown. The young divers swam to the boats, climbed in and waited, shivering in the cool wind, for the patriarch to make his speech and give the blessing.

The cross was thrown, and with a great splash, in they dived. It took just 18 seconds for the 16-year-old victor to come up with the cross, proudly holding it aloft. Afterward, everybody went to the sponge docks to celebrate with Greek dances and food.

Most of the townships in Pinellas County date to the late 19th century. Tarpon Springs is said to have been named by a woman who saw a large fish jumping out of the bayou, spraying water, and mistook a mullet for a tarpon. Never mind.

The town has several houses built just after the Civil War, including the graceful 1883 Safford House where Dr. Mary Jane Safford, the first practicing female physician in Florida, lived with her brother and his family, as well as the winter home of landscape painter George Inness and his son, George Jr. The old downtown near St. Nicholas Cathedral is a pleasant mix of antique shops, art galleries and restaurants.

Just about 20 percent of the population of Tarpon Springs is of Greek ancestry, but the sponge docks and many of the shops and restaurants exude a Mediterranean flair. The Greeks arrived about 1900, primarily from the Dodecanese Islands of eastern Greece, to dive for the wealth of sponges.

By 1905, 500 divers in rubberized diving suits and helmets and 50 boats were based in Tarpon Springs. The Sponge Exchange was built in 1907 to give each diver a place to store sponges while waiting for the auction.

The blight and red tide of the 1940s almost destroyed the industry, and divers turned to fishing and shrimping. The sponges recovered, and today, according to George Billiris, who was born in Tarpon Springs and has been involved with the sponges all his life, demand for the sponges is 12 times greater than supply. The Mediterranean sponges have almost died out because of pollution.

Sponges come in several grades:

• Wool sponges are the best, last longest and can absorb more water than others.

• Yellow sponges are good for the body, as they are somewhat abrasive.

• Grass sponges are shaped like vases

• Wire sponges are used by artists and as insulation.

• Finger sponges are used for decorative purposes.

Large bundles of wool and yellow sponges hanging on the boats to dry are very photogenic.

Mr. Billiris continues to bring several divers from Greece every year, as young Americans are reluctant to go into a trade that involves considerable hardship and widely inconsistent pay.

Divers work from daybreak to dark; they are on the water 10 to 30 days at a time and go down to a depth of 60 to 70 feet; they are paid by shares of the profits. They carry 172 pounds of diving suit, brass and copper collar, helmet, shoes and lead shoulder weights. Master helmet maker Nicholas Toth continues a family tradition in town and makes highly regarded handcrafted brass and copper diving helmets.

The Billiris family has long been involved in the tourist business as well as sponge diving, and Mr. Billiris is doing his best to see that the town retains its unique character. However, real estate developers offer huge sums for the old buildings along the sponge docks. The owners can’t afford to renovate, but the developers can.

Tourists pour into Tarpon Springs to enjoy its quaint winding streets, the old-fashionedbuildings, Greek restaurants and shops. The developers want to build hotels and condos to accommodate the tourists, but when high-rises replace the Old World quality that attracts the tourists, there won’t be much left of the charm. This is the dilemma of most of the fishing villages along Florida’s west coast, so come down soon.


Although fishing villages and orange groves have had to make way for condos and hotels along the coast, towns remain that have kept or regained their old charm. Dunedin, between Tarpon Springs and Clearwater, is one.

Dunedin’s pretty Main Street of shops and restaurants exists thanks to its location on the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, a conversion of an abandoned railroad track into a 47-mile-long scenic bike and hiking trail that runs the length of Pinellas County from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.

The spectacular wide beaches of powdery white sand running down the coast of Pinellas County remain untouched despite the high-rises. At the bottom of the long, skinny peninsula that is Pinellas County is Fort De Soto on Mullet Key. The fort is named for Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto, who came ashore near the south shores of Tampa Bay in 1539.

The fort, built during the Spanish-American War in 1898, was never the site of a battle. After World War II, it was sold back to the county. Little is left of the fort except for storage rooms and the last four 12-inch M1890-M1 mortars remaining in North America.

A splendid view of the Gulf of Mexico is available from the top of the ruins of Battery Bigelow, with dolphins playing in the water and pelicans skimming the waves, looking for a tasty lunch.

Fort De Soto Park is made up of five keys, with more than six miles of beach frontage. Coastal geologist Dr. Stephen Leatherman, known as “Dr. Beach,” ranked Fort De Soto Park as America’s best beach in 2005, which made it ineligible for consideration in 2006.

The beach is protected by mangroves and pines, which flourish behind the ranks of sea oats. Shells abound along the waterline, and nothing obstructs the serene, romantic beauty of the landscape. The park provides guides for nature trails and rents family and youth-group campsites.


A few miles northeast of Fort De Soto lies St. Petersburg, a large city with an active art scene as well as a beautiful beach of its own. Along the city’s graceful harbor are a number of museums, including the pride of St. Pete, the Salvador Dali Museum, a bequest from industrialist Reynolds Morse and his wife, Eleanor.

The Dali museum has 1,400 pieces, said to be the largest collection of the artist’s work in America. The state-of-the-art museum shows some of the surrealist’s best-known works. It also has temporary exhibits, such as the delightful series of Dali illustrations of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”

The St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts has an impressive collection with more than 4,000 objects extending from antiquity to the contemporary. It has beautiful French impressionist paintings; Asian and pre-Columbian collections; a sculpture garden; Greek, Roman, African and American Indian objects; and a gallery devoted to photography. Among its American collection are works by such artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, James Whistler, Robert Rauschenberg and George Inness.

Nearby is the St. Petersburg Museum of History, which focuses on the city’s past, including some of its earliest inhabitants. The first people living in the area, around 2500 B.C., were Paleo-Indians. Manasota villages existed on the Pinelles peninsula as early as 500 B.C., followed by Tocobaga Indians from about A.D 1000 to 1500, when they died out because of disease and violence brought by the Spanish. Archaeological digs have shown the Tocobaga to have been highly skilled potters.

The Florida International Museum, open since 1995, is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and concentrates on temporary exhibits such as ones dedicated to treasures of the Russian czars and sacred treasures of the Bible. The Florida Holocaust Museum endeavors to teach the public about the Holocaust; it owns one of the railroad freight cars in which the Nazis transported the Jews of Europe to the extermination camps.

A few blocks away is Bay Walk, a delightful conglomerate of high-quality shops, including first-rate craft boutiques, restaurants and a movie theater constructed around an open-air plaza. The Saturday farmers market, where local performers entertain the customers, is a short walk away. The city’s young mayor, Rick Baker, is often seen playing guitar with his band on Saturday mornings.


Clearwater is home to the Suncoast Bird Sanctuary, where injured birds, especially pelicans, are cared for in a beachside facility.

From Clearwater Beach, lunch and dinner cruises sail around Tampa Bay, offering good food, lovely vistas and live entertainment. Weddings, birthdays and anniversaries can be celebrated on board.

For those seeking something really special, Clearwater boasts America’s first floating wedding chapel, 60 feet long, with space for 125 guests. It has a beam ceiling and stained-glass windows and is a perfect locale for couples who want a wedding at sea and a traditional church ceremony in one package. Many spots on Florida’s west coast have a certain charm, and you can’t beat the sun and those magnificent beaches.

• • •

US Airways has nonstop flights from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Tampa, Fla. From the Tampa airport, it’s a 30-minute drive to Clearwater Beach.

Clearwater Beach has many hotels and is constructing more. The Sheraton Sand Key Resort is a large, pleasant, well run hotel right on the beach, adjacent to Sand Key Park. Rooms have small balconies, many overlooking the beautiful swimming pool and beach. The hotel also operates a summer children’s camp.

Sheraton Sand Key, 1160 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater Beach; 800/325-3535 or 727/595-1611; fax 727/596-8488; dining is informal everywhere.

For traditional Greek food: Mama’s, 735 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; 727/944-4408

Cafe Alma, 260 First Ave., South St. Petersburg; 727/502-5002; excellent sandwiches and good Mediterranean-style entrees.

Guppy’s on the Beach, 1701 Gulf Blvd.

Indian Rocks Beach, 727/593-2032; sophisticated contemporary cooking with very good seafood dishes

Safford House, built in Tarpon Springs in 1883; 727/937-1130

St. Nicholas Boat Line, 693 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; 727/942-6425; half-hour boat trips through the sponge docks with a narration of the history of sponge diving and a demonstration of sponge harvesting with a diver in traditional diving gear

Salvador Dali Museum 1000 Third St. South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727/823-3767 Fax. 727/894-6068 www.salvador dalimuseum.org

Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727/896-2667 Fax. 727/894-4638 www.fine-arts.org

St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727/894-1052

Florida International Museum, 244 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727/821-1448

Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg; 727/820-0100

Fort De Soto Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde; 727/582-2267; campsite reservations: www.pinellas county.org

StarLite Cruises, P.O. Box 3335, Clearwater; 800/444-4814 or 727/462-2628; or visit www.starlitecruises.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide