Most of Florida is marked by land so flat it would make a pancake seem hilly.
Not so Tarpon Springs.
Enter this fascinating village on the Gulf Coast and you'll notice, almost immediately, that there are rises and falls in the road. Not mountains, mind you, but distinct undulations. Add a temperate climate, a series of saltwater bayous and the riches of the Gulf, and you have a spot not too different from the eastern Mediterranean. So it's easy to see why, in all of Florida, Greek immigrants would have been drawn to this spot at the turn of the century.
Today it's impossible to picture Tarpon Springs without its Greek heritage. From St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church to the baklava-laden bakeries that line the docks, this is a true Greek community.
But its roots run deeper than the whitewashed facades of the tourist shops that sell Greek caps and icons. The foundation of Tarpon Springs is built on the sponge-diving industry. To this day, it is "the sponge capital of the world," and boats leave regularly to return laden with the porous creatures.
"At one time, the sponge industry was the largest industry in Florida," said George Billiris, an international sponge distributor who has been a part of the Tarpon scene for most of his 72 years. "It was larger than citrus."
Today, the industry is at its lowest ebb since 1946, a condition caused by a lack of divers, said Billiris, who dived for sponges until he was in his 60s. There is also competition from the manufactured sponge industry, but anyone who has ever used a real sponge knows the differences between the two, most notably the durability of the natural product.
Though sponging is not as great a force as it once was, tourism has certainly helped Tarpon Springs, especially among those who eschew the artificial reality offered at the theme parks in Orlando and nearby Tampa. "Here, there's no entrance fee," said Billiris, who is also director of the chamber of commerce. "It's real. It's a way of life."
You can also watch it up close as tourist boats take divers out and demonstrate how they comb the floor of the gulf wearing old-fashioned diving suits with metal helmets.
Stroll along Dodecanese Boulevard and you'll find more than a dozen restaurants, all serving Greek food.
Each place, however, is distinctive on its own terms. A chef at one may use different spices from another, reflecting traces of his regional origin. And don't stick just to a gyro sandwich because it may be familiar. Try the flaming saganaki, kefalograviera cheese set on fire, or the taramasalata, a caviar spread. At Mykonos, the octopus can be had pickled or charbroiled.
Or you could find some variation on an old favorite, such as the chocolate-covered baklava at Hellas Bakery.
Leave the waterfront and head into the neighborhood around Spring Bayou. Surrounding the water is a crescent of old Florida homes, most of which have been lovingly restored. "These were all playhouses for the rich before the Depression," Billiris said.
"Playhouses" is an apt description as the Victorian mansions -- their gingerbread turrets and lace decorations make them appear to have been designed for dolls.
As beautiful as the homes are, they cannot begin to touch the natural beauty found in the bayou. During the winter months, the relative warmth of the water proves a draw for manatees, and you'll likely find at least one or two frolicking about. On a recent sunny day, seven or eight of the gentle aquatic mammals, including an infant, seemed to have gathered for a reunion.
The sighting of manatees you won't find in Greece, but no one in Tarpon Springs seems to mind.