The Greeks Have It: Tarpon Springs, FL

Tarpon Springs, FL - Sponge Docks

Greek shops and restaurants line the street across from the Sponge Docks.

Living, as I do, in the heart of suburban Tampa, seemingly a world away from the beaches and attractions, it can be difficult to remember why I live in Florida.  When this happens, I like to take a little road trip to the nearby town of Tarpon Springs.

Located about an hour away, Tarpon Springs is nestled among the bayous and inland waterways of the Anclote River, just off the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not easy to get here although I always find it worth the drive. Nowhere near an interstate, the roads into town seem to always be under construction (I’ve been coming here for over ten years) which keeps out some of the tourists and limits development. Even so, it’s usually crowded on weekends, with a mixture of locals and tourists.

Tarpon Springs, FL - Greek bakery

Bakeries filled with Greek delicacies.

Tarpon Springs is a place that’s hard to define.  Originally settled in the late 1800s, the main industry was sponge diving.  Greek divers were recruited from the Dodecanese Islands of Greece, and today this small city of just over 20,000 boasts the largest population of Greek-Americans in the country.  Combined with Tampa suburbanites, day trippers and vacationing snow birds, there is an interesting mix of people crowding the narrow streets surrounding the Sponge Docks.

The Sponge Docks are were most of the action is.  After the sponge harvesting industry was wiped out by a red algae bloom in the late 40s, this area was converted to shops, restaurants, museums, and a landing area for tourist boat excursions.  The area retains much of its Greek character with fabulous Greek restaurants and Baklava stuffed bakeries lining the streets.  Local tourist gift shops are full of everything to do with sponges and traditionally embroidered clothing.  The odd artisan gift shop can also be found selling homemade soaps or jewelry.

Tarpon Springs, FL - Miss Vicki's

My favorite watering hole in Tarpon Springs is Miss Vicki’s. It comes complete with sand!

In the bars, you’ll find people are pretty laid back, exuding a faint air of aging hippies.  Which I like.  A bit of a Key West vibe.  And who can argue?  They have great seafood, great location, great atmosphere, and they’re not expensive.  Sit back, relax and enjoy a fantastic oyster shot!

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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Florida Attractions


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The Secret, Sacred and Secluded: Kelleys Island Part III

Horseshoe Lake2 - Kelleys IslandKelleys Island has numerous trails and attractions highlighting a dedication to habitat preservation and wildlife conservation.  These areas offer access to the beating natural heart of the Island. 

The North Pond Nature Preserve is located off Ward Road and features a natural pond surrounded by marshland.  Known as a lake embayment, the water level rises and falls depending on the level of the lake.  A boardwalk takes visitors to a raised observation area overlooking the marsh offering great views for bird and wildlife watchers.

Horseshoe Lake1 - Kelleys IslandThe East Quarry trails, just across the road from North Pond, take advantage of land reclaimed from the abandoned quarries.  Peaceful and picturesque Horseshoe Lake is the main attraction here, and if you look closely into the clear waters you can see the historic remnants of an old narrow gauge railway once used to transport the quarried rock.  The lake is surrounded by forests featuring American Basswood which are lovely to walk through, although we found out that deer hunting is allowed in this area during hunting season.  To be safe, make sure to find out if it’s hunting season and dress accordingly, you never know when you’ll come across a hunter stalking the woods or hanging out in a tree blind.

If strolling along a secluded beach is more your style then you must visit the Scheele Preserve.  Located slightly east and north of the East Quarry, a short walk through the woods takes you to a wonderfully long stretch of white sand and rolling waves with not a house in sight.  Great for beach combing, there are drifts of shells and interesting bits of driftwood everywhere. 

Scheele Preserve - Kelleys IslandOne of the most mysterious attractions on Kelleys Island is Inscription Rock located just east of downtown.  The only visible remnant of the Native Americans who inhabited the Island long before the arrival of European settlers, the rock is carved with scores of ancient petroglyphs.  The surface is now severely eroded, but the messages of these early people can still be discerned, and there is a small-scale replica on-site that shows the details.  Many believe that these markings were messages about who had been there, where they went, and what the hunting and fishing was like.  An early form of Facebook perhaps?

Inscription Rock - Kelleys Island

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Kelleys Island OH


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Rocky and Romantic: Kelleys Island Part II

North Shore Trail 4 - Kelleys IslandKelleys Island has many moods.  From its rugged windswept north coast to the more sheltered and manicured south shore, there are delightful pockets of forest, sandy beaches, and rocky coastline to discover. For such a small Island, there is a remarkable amount of land preserved for wildlife and recreation, and we explored a lot of it during out visit.

On the north shore we explored the North Shore Loop Trail and Glacial Grooves.  Although only a mile long, the North Shore Trail leads you through diverse areas of woodland, wetland, and rocky coast. The trail begins with a short peaceful stroll through the woods.  Even in November some of the trees were still dripping with fall color; eastern cottonwood, easter red cedar, green and white ash, and maple.

North Shore Trail - Kelleys IslandThe trail then opens up to the lake.  It was a blustery, damp day, and the change was shocking after the hush of the woods.  We followed the path along a limestone shelf that lines the rocky shoreline – dodging the waves that crash and foam, flinging fingers of cold lake water over the edge.  It’s about as rugged and romantic as it gets.  From here you can see other Lake Erie Islands; Canada’s Middle Island to the north and the Bass Islands to the west.  Definitely a must-do when visiting Kelleys Island.

Just seconds down the road, visitors can see the Glacial Grooves.  These grooves were created as a result of glacial scouring when the ice wall bore down with embedded boulders on the Island’s softer limestone rock.  The grooves here are said to be the best example of this type of geology in North America, and is worth taking a look.  It is pretty impressive to view the grooves, knowing that the spot where we were standing was once buried under over a mile of ice. 

Glacial Grooves - Kelleys Island


Posted by on February 10, 2012 in Kelleys Island OH


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A World Apart: Kelleys Island Part I


Downtown Kelleys IslandHave you ever found yourself somewhere you had never heard of?  Amazed that somehow this place had escaped your notice until now?  That’s exactly where I found myself last fall when my husband and I found Kelleys Island.  Just off the coast of Ohio in Lake Erie, the Island is not on most maps and you really have to zoom in with Google Maps.  But there we were, fresh off the ferry from Marblehead, in downtown Kelleys Island.

Not knowing where we were going, we headed directly to one of the few businesses that were open, The Village Pump.  The dim, wood-paneled interior was warm and friendly after the blustery weather outside.  Fortunately for us, The Pump is the central meeting place for locals in the off-season, and our visit in early November definitely qualified as off-season.  We were able to quickly make a few friends and got the lay of the land.

The Village Pump - Kelleys Island OHOnly two and half miles by four miles, the Island is small (although touted as the biggest US island in Lake Erie) and supports a community of only 200 or so year-round. During the summer the population grows to over 1300.  Nowadays, tourism is the biggest, really the only, industry on the Island.  Our visit in late fall was unusual and there were very few other visitors aside from a small number of hunters and sport fishermen.  For three days we enjoyed the beauty of the Island tourist-free and had a great time getting to know the friendly and colorful locals.

Over the next few posts I’ll introduce you some of the charms of this little known Island.

Sunset on Kelleys Island, OH


Posted by on February 7, 2012 in Kelleys Island OH


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Bok Tower Showcases Florida’s Lush Landscapes

At times, Florida seems like a sea of theme parks broken up by the occasional beach, but if you look, there are other things to do and see.  A good example is located just outside Lake Wales, about an hour’s drive south of Orlando, where Bok Tower rises majestically above the surrounding landscape. 

This Gothic-inspired tower serves as the focal point for 50 acres of lush sub-tropical gardens.  Dedicated in 1929, the gardens display Florida landscape at its best, and with its panoramic vantage points, provides a rare opportunity to gain altitude and get a better idea of what Florida looks like. Designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the beautifully manicured gardens were born out of the sandy scrub of Iron Mountain, Florida’s highest point at around 300 feet above sea level. This may not seem high, but in Florida, it stands out.

The gardens and tower are the gift of Edward Bok, well-known editor of the influential Ladies’ Home Journal, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.  After his retirement, Bok wintered in a nearby community and used to take walks up the hill to savour the sunsets and the views, giving him the idea to create this sanctuary.  The tower was built to house a carillon in memory of the carillon’s of his youth in the Netherlands.

Also called the Singing Tower, the carrillon nestled at the top of Bok Tower consists of 60 bells played by a keyboard called a clavier.  The sound is truly divine, similar to hand bells, but the height and the beautiful setting serve to create a feeling that these mellow peals are showered from heaven.

All in all, Bok Tower Gardens is a great place to stretch you legs, explore, journal, sketch or just relax. If you want more privacy, make sure to get there early.  If you want company, they offer a good selection of special events, concerts, tours and classes. They’ve even got Geocaches!  It is clear that the Gardens are well run and have strong community support.  I really enjoyed my visit and am sure you will too.

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Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Florida Attractions


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Views From Above: Zion National Park Part III

If you stay on the main road leading through Zion National Park, you’ll find yourself on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Instead of heading deeper into the canyon, this road climbs out of the canyon via steep switchbacks and the view opens up below you with every turn. Thankfully there are a lot of pull-outs on this road for the frequent photo stops you’ll feel compelled to make.

The road then enters a long tunnel and once you emerge on the top of the canyon wall, the rock seems to move and fold in curves and angles as it passes by out the car window.  The colors vary from deepest red to whitest white.  Vegetation consists largely of hardy scrub bushes such as Juniper and Sage.  The dirt is sand.  We saw a group of Big Horn Sheep grazing on a distant rocky hillside. 

A great way to get a taste of this wilderness is the Canyon Overlook Trail located at the east entrance to the tunnel.  Only one mile roundtrip, it’s short on length, but long on thrills.  You get introduced to the drop-offs that feature prominently in many of the longer Zion hikes.  But there is the safety of rails and platforms for those who are timid with heights. 

The trail twists and turns its way to the top of the pass.  We made our way around folds in the rock and under alcoves with dripping springs, carved out as sandstone erodes under its covering of shale. As we rounded a corner on the trail, the late afternoon sun hit the red rocks surrounding us just right and it seemed as though the entire world was red.  Even the air surrounding us. 

There are impressive panoramic views from the top with the entire valley laid open below.  The grand temples of Zion Canyon in the distance and the switchbacks in the road we came on visible far beneath us. Definitely a must-do on even a day visit to Zion.  

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Posted by on January 12, 2012 in Zion National Park UT


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The Icing on the Cliff: Zion National Park Part II

All along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive there are conveniently placed pull-outs and short hikes to points of interest close to the road.  One of these short walks is Weeping Rock Trail.  Less than half a mile long, this trail climbs fairly steeply up the cliff to an alcove featuring a dripping springs. 

Beautiful in the summer with its mist of cool refreshing water and the splendour of its hanging gardens, in the winter Weeping Rock takes on a much different character. Huge icicles hang from ledges overhead. Ice coats the corrugated interior of the alcove and the surrounding sheer rock faces, creating a slick, shiny surface. The entire area is a fairyland of ice that includes in its frosty grip any surrounding foliage. 

The weeping comes from Echo Canyon above when water meets the impermeable layer of Kayenta rock and is forced to saturate the Navajo sandstone layer above it.  This causes a line of springs (also known as a spring line) to appear where the sandstone outcrops and is ultimately carved out to form the alcove seen here. 

The view here is magical, but beware!  The icicles do fall from the overhang sending these potentially deadly slivers crashing down and you don’t want to be under one.  I stayed a safe distance while my companions ventured onto the platform under the overhang.  Proper shoes help as the path becomes quite icy.

Weeping Rock Trail is a wonderful introduction to the beauty of Zion National Park and is accessible to almost any fitness level.  However, I wouldn’t try it with a wheelchair or stroller. This trail also offers the benefit of a view back down the canyon as you return to the trailhead.


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Posted by on January 5, 2012 in Zion National Park UT


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