West Coast Wandering: Tarpon Springs and Dunedin
Winter is a good time to explore some of Florida’s vintage attractions on the Gulf coast: the Greek fishing community of Tarpon Springs and an artsy town settled by Scottish families in the late 1800s.
The drive up I-75 from Miami is uneventful and uninteresting until you reach the mile-long Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which soars over Tampa Bay and provides spectacular views of the water from over 430 feet. Highway Alt 19 takes you to the heart of Dunedin, a charming town with tree-lined brick streets, art shops, restaurants and breweries. Dunedin also hosts the annual Highland Games and Festival (It’s April 1, 2017). Running through the center of town is the Pinellas Trail, 34 miles of linear park on old railroad tracks, and the old depot is now the Dunedin Historical Museum.
It was a spectacular Florida afternoon, so I headed straight to Honeymoon Island State Park, a Gulf barrier island named after the publicity stunt of a developer in 1940 who offered rustic huts to honeymooners. Those huts aren’t around anymore, but you can see some corny pictures in the Nature Center. Take a ferry or rent a kayak to paddle to Caladesi Island State Park and one of Florida’s top-rated beaches. Or stay on Honeymoon Island, with a popular dog beach, beautiful beaches and a great nature trail where you can enjoy osprey, armadillos, gopher tortoises and the occasional rattlesnake, and wonderful solitude floridastateparks.org.
In Dunedin, the breweries were hopping: Dunedin Brewery, the state’s oldest microbrewery, and newcomer Woodwright Brewing Co. down the road, to name just two. I decided to have dinner 10 minutes away in Safety Harbor, another sweet little town that’s home to the historic Safety Harbor Hotel & Spa, founded in 1925 when visitors flocked to the healing springs. The pizza was excellent at Pizzeria Gregario. Chef Greg truly sources his ingredients locally, making his own mozzarella, sausages and sourdough. Bottarga from neighboring Oldsmar added a briny punch to the puttanesca pizza.
Dunedin has a few B&Bs and a pet-friendly Best Western on the water, so once you find a place to stay, it’s easy to walk or bike everywhere. Early the next morning I stopped at Dunedin Farmers Market (Fridays and Saturdays) for coffee and fresh pastries, then checked out the bike rental shops, where $20 gets you a bike for the day.
An easy nine-mile ride from Dunedin, Tarpon Springs’ historic downtown has antique stores and a Greek market where I picked up a couple of cans of the local “It’s Greek to Me” soup (the tangy lemon chicken soup, avgolemono, and bean). The famed sponge docks are a few blocks north on Dodecanese Blvd. You can still find some local sponges, although most are imported. Sea life explorers can take Odyssey Cruises’ two-hour cruise on the Anclote River to the Gulf of Mexico. Tour narrators point out dolphins, manatees and waterbirds and tell about the city’s history. Lunch at the Hellas Restaurant is pure Greek sparkle, with a flashy bakery and a fine salad, complete with a scoop of potato salad in the middle.
Riding around, I saw Victorian houses, some beautifully restored and others decrepit, shady oak trees laden with Spanish moss and bayous. Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek Americans in the United States, and the culture is highly visible throughout the city, from churches to bakeries to festivals. Spring Bayou is the place to be on Jan. 6, Epiphany, when Greek Orthodox teens dive for a white wooden cross thrown in the water by the archbishop. The one who retrieves it gets a year of blessings. On the way home, I stopped in Plant City for the first crop of strawberries. The family-owned and operated Parkesdale Farm Market on Hwy 92 is filled with strawberry preserves, pickles, marinades, cookies and bread plus berries and citrus. The Florida Strawberry Festival (Mar. 2-12, 2017) attracts crowds for name bands and strawberry treats. Downtown has vintage stores with farming memorabilia and cookware. I took country roads south, driving through thousands of acres of strawberries, then citrus, then tomatoes – truly a country drive.
The Bottarga Coast
Bottarga, the golden salt-cured roe of the grey striped mullet that thrives in the waters off the central Gulf coast, is a prized delicacy in Italian and Asian cuisine, where it’s known as karasumi. Grated on pasta, sliced and layered with radishes, or added to dishes for a boost of briny umami, this Mediterranean caviar is now created by a number of Florida companies as an alternative to the costly process of freezing the roe, shipping it overseas for processing, then selling back to the U.S. at top dollar. These businesses include Anna Maria Fish Co. in Cortez and Bemis & James in Palm Harbor, just north of Dunedin. “It’s a simple, ancient process,” says Michael Lassiter of Bemis & James, who supplies such restaurants as Mario Batali’s Enoteca Otto. The result, he says, is a saltwater brininess that tastes like the ocean. “Bottarga on an oyster makes it taste like five oysters,” he says.