Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sponges, RVs, and Mermaids All in One Weekend

There is always so much to explore in Florida so road trips are always a blast. We used the Tampa RV Super Show as an excuse to head south and explore some of the unique and kitschy areas of Florida. Instead of taking the rig we decided to rent a pet-friendly cottage which worked out great because our friend Debbie Long joined us for the four-day jaunt.

Just northwest of Tampa is one of my favorite towns, Tarpon Springs. The region's springs, bayous and close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico drew farmers and fishermen to this town and when the railroad was constructed, tourists were delivered. Legend has it that when visitors spotted a tarpon jumping out of the water the name Tarpon Springs came to be.

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Tarpon Springs bagged the title “Sponge Capital of the World” – an industry that dates back to the 1880’s and is celebrated throughout the town with colorful murals and memorials.  In the 1880’s John Cheney founded the first local sponge business and it wasn’t long until he was selling nearly one million dollars in sponges. Sponges flourish in the fluctuating temperatures of the northern gulf waters that rise and fall with the seasons. Many blacks and whites from Key West and the Bahamas settled in Tarpon Springs to hook sponges and process them for sale. The industry flourished and the Greek population exploded in 1905 when John Cocoris introduced the technique of sponge diving to Tarpon Springs and recruited divers and crew members from Greece. The use of rubberized diving suits and helmets was a major advance in increasing harvests and by 1905 over 500 Greek sponge divers were at work on 50 boats making this one of the leading maritime industries in Florida at the time.

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In 1947, a decimating red tide algae bloom wiped out the sponge fields in the Gulf of Mexico forcing many of the sponge boats and divers to switch to fishing for their livelihood, while others turned to other business opportunities. Over time, the sponges recovered, and the industry still exists today. In the 1980's, the sponge business experienced a boom due to a sponge disease that killed the Mediterranean sponges. Tarpon Springs still is the “Sponge Capital of the World” and you will still see sponge fishermen working at the historic Sponge Docks and boats draped with sponges. Tour boats take visitors out for sponge collecting demonstrations or you can opt for a quicker explanation from a video in the Sponge Museum at Spongeorama Sponge Factory

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Tarpons Springs celebrates their lively Greek heritage and a trip to the sponge docks is a lively experience where Ouzo is flowing into shot glasses, shouts of “Opa” fill the air, gyros are on the menu, and flaming saganaki (a cheese dish) is being served as often as the second hand on your watch clicks.  As a lover of Greek food, you can guess why I love Tarpon Springs.

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If you are an RVer and have never been to a Super Show you are in for some major “Wow!” factors. The Tampa show has over 20 acres of RVs, accessories, and vendors which creates an RV frenzy. Everything from tear drops to Prevosts are on hand for you to view and ponder. We came for the day and were saturated by the time we left. If you are in the market (or just looking as we were) this is a great way to see everything that is available and learn from others. We find the most valuable information comes from just sitting in a unit and listening to what others say about it.

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On our way home we passed a sign that said “live mermaid show” so you know we had to stop. Once before in our travels through Florida’s “Nature Coast” we tried to stop at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to see the famed mermaid show but their “pool” was closed for repairs and we were so disappointed. On this trip we were ecstatic to learn shows were being performed everyday so we were going to finally get to see this unique roadside attraction. And Debbie was equally game to partake in this adventure.

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The name “Weeki Wachee” comes from the Seminole Indians meaning “little spring” or “winding river.” The spring is so deep that the bottom has never been found but each day more than 117 million gallons of clear, fresh 74-degree water bubbles up out of subterranean caverns. In 1946, Newton Perry, a former U.S. Navy man who trained Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II, came to the area in search of a location for his new business featuring underwater performers. Perry invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from a compressor instead of a tank strapped to the back. This air hose allowed swimmers to appear more like graceful underwater creatures than divers.

With an 18-person amphitheater carved out underwater into the limestone and his air supply in place, Perry set out to find pretty girls who would want to perform aquatic ballets, drink beverages and eat bananas underwater. Being a mermaid is not as easy as having a pretty face and wiggling into a tail. The job can be physically demanding and trying out for the cast involves a 300-yard timed swim which at times is against the rivers strong current and a 10-minute water-treading exercise.

Weeki Wachee’s heyday came in 1959, when the spring was purchased by the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) and was heavily promoted. ABC built the current theater, which seats 400 and is embedded in the side of the spring 16 feet below the surface and then developed more themed shows with props, music, and storylines.  Over the years ownership changed hands and in 2008, the city handed over ownership to the state of Florida and this famed roadside attraction was established as a state park. The mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park have been captivating and entertaining visitors since 1947 and we were also quite entertained.

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The 538-acre park that is Weeki Wachee State Park features more than just mermaids. There are wildlife shows, narrated river boat cruises, a waterpark, and you can paddle down the clear waters of the Weeki Wachee River and look for manatees.

We had a great time on our jaunt down what is known as the “Nature’s Coast” of Florida and were glad our friend Debbie accompanied us. It is a wonderful area to explore and there is so much to do and see; but, it was back to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park for us girls as we had to get back to work at our volunteer jobs.

























2 comments:

  1. Glad you enjoyed the Tarpon Springs and Tampa RV Super Show (It's better if you stay on site and you get to enjoy the evening Entertainment as well). Take in the Homosa State Park as well as swimming with the Manatee.
    Be Safe and Enjoy!

    It's about time.

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