Saturday, May 10, 2008

15. Florida's West Coast

We expected to see more Panama City type beaches as we continued along Florida’s west coast. But the highway is far from the shoreline and much of the area is heavily vegetated and protected. There are many wildlife refuges with names such as Lower Suwannee, Cedar Keys, Gulf Hammock, Homosassa Springs and Chassahowitzka. A portion of this area is known as the “Nature Coast”. Great place for birders. We saw lots of birds, too many gators, and came across this family of dolphins while on a boat ride.

Tarpon Springs is an interesting coastal town. It was once the center of sponge production. More than 100 years ago there was a labor shortage, so the owner of a Greek sponge company turned to his homeland for fresh workers. Many new sponge workers came here from Greece and other European countries to dive for sponges. Today, the community is proud of its Greek heritage. It maintains its character with lots of Greek restaurants, bakeries, stores and the largest Greek Orthodox church in the U.S. (Don't know the guy waving in the background)

Large fleets of sponge boats worked the gulf until a red tide killed off most of the sponge beds in the 1940s. It took about four decades for the beds to recover . . . but the sponge industry didn’t. Today, just a handful of sponge boats satisfy the market for “real” sponges, while cheaper synthetics have taken over most of the market. We took a boat tour of the Tarpon Springs harbor, saw some old shrimp boats (photo) and some of the beautiful homes that line the waterways on the way to Anclote Key. The old lighthouse, constructed in the 1890s, is still operating. It was fascinating to see and learn about sponges. We “soaked up” as much information as possible about the many different kinds. An excellent car-washing sponge could be purchased for about $8, but Ron decided to stick with his dollar store model (made in China).

A few remnants of past hurricanes still litter the byways. The owners of these have been piling up fines of $50/day for years but don't seem to be too concerned about it.
A little farther down the west coast we found a very nice RV Park in Dunedin (pronounced DUN-EE-DIN). The name comes from the Scots Gaelic “Dun Eideann” which, according to local authority, means Edinburgh (is that right, Melinda?). This is where the Toronto Blue Jays do their spring training. The city is also proud of its portion of the 39 mile Pinellas Trail, a walking/cycling trail system through several coastal communities. We took the Honda to a local car wash. The machinery broke down half way through and we weren't sure we'd ever get it out of there. But, after poking around in the gears with large bars, the guys got it going again and our car emerged extra clean.

Dunedin was a good jumping off location for side trips to various sites on the St. Petersburg peninsula, across the bay from Tampa. St. Petersburg was our first destination. We were impressed with its modern downtown, lots of new construction, and very little traffic congestion. We were amazed at how easy it was to get around, and to find a free on-street parking space right at the base of the 2,400 ft. city pier. At the far end of the pier is a large upside-down triangle shaped building that contains small shops, several restaurants, public observation decks and an aquarium. It's a beautiful pier but you don't see many tourists or other people in the photo. It's the off season and business is very slow.

Do you see what appears to be a hat floating in Tampa Bay? The hat once belonged to Ron. He bought it in Sandpoint, Idaho last August. As we were walking along the city pier, a gust of wind lifted the hat off his head and over the rail it went. A fisherman on the pier tried several times to snag it with his fishing line, to no avail. Fortunately, the first shop we came to at the end of the pier was a hat shop, so we both got new hats.

Old Fort DeSoto was built at the extreme south end of the peninsula. It’s now a public park that covers five interconnected islands and 1,136 acres of parkland and some of the best beaches in the state. We spent some time there wading and relaxing.

On our last evening in Dunedin, we went out to Honeymoon Island to watch the sunset. It’s a popular activity and the roads and beaches were very busy. It was a nice lazy way to end our stay in the Tampa Bay area.