We were in no rush to leave Florida. Nevertheless, the winter storms and bitter temps had passed through the Midwest. In their wake merely one week later, Indiana’s temperatures had soared, incredibly reaching near 50 degrees. We couldn’t use the bad-weather excuse now. But that didn’t make it any easier to put Florida behind us. Deciding it could do no harm to delay a few more days, we opened the map and looked for a place that held possibilities.
We looked to the north, checking out towns along our route. Not far north of the St. Petersburg Skyline Bridge, mixed in with a metropolis of cities, the small town of Dunedin caught our attention. We gave it a closer look, and then made it our next destination.
A town with Scottish origins, it is the oldest town south of Cedar Key. With a dock built to accommodate large sailing vessels, it became one of Florida’s chief seaport and trading centers. At one time Dunedin had the state’s largest fleet of sailing ships.
Today, it is an entirely different story. Having a population around 36,000, its downtown district is notable for the absence of large commercial signage, franchise restaurants or chain retail stores. It has more of a village atmosphere, with pleasant streets that entice people to stroll.
Dunedin is one of the few open waterfront communities from Sarasota to Cedar Key where buildings do not completely obscure the views of the Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. As an added bonus, this little town has three distinct beaches all within a short distance. The one on Caladesi Island is consistently rated among the best beaches in the world.
The attribute of this area that carried perhaps the most weight for us was Dunedin’s proximity to the Pinellas Bike Trail–it passes straight through the heart of their town. A rails-to-trails project with a total length of 39 miles, it stretches from St. Peterburg up to Tarpon Springs. Passing through some of the most densely populated areas in Florida, there are many overpasses to take bikers and walkers safely across busy thoroughfares. The section from Dunedin to Tarpon Springs is probably its most scenic part.
If we didn’t mind switching sites after one night, the Carefree RV Resort could fit us in on this moment’s notice. So we were in luck! A big place that was filled with snowbird campers, it was nevertheless a pleasant place to land. Having plenty of trees if you needed the shade, the sites were clean, albeit close together. The back portion contained a lot of park models for people staying the entire winter season. The best part for us was its location–the bike trail was easily accessible and the causeway was just a block away. We were going to like being here, no doubt.
It wasn’t difficult to fill the following three days, especially given the perfect sunny weather. We wasted no time the next morning, hitting the bike trail and riding north for a tour of Tarpon Springs. It was a very scenic ride.
If you’re looking for a quaint, neatly-kept town with a distinctive character to it, then you should check out Tarpon Springs. This city of around 24,000 makes the most out of its Greek roots and the sponge industry that was its foundation. Judging by the people filling its main street, I’d venture to say that tourism has supplanted any other industry that comes close. But if you’d like some authentic Greek food, then this is surely the place to be.
People actually built winter homes here back in the 1870s –talk about living on the frontier! Having noticed tarpons jumping in the harbor, it gave them the idea to name the place Tarpon Springs. The first Greek immigrants arrived in the 1880s and a few years later John Cheyney launched the first sponge-fishing boat. It turned out that the waters of the Gulf off of Tarpon Springs were one of the few areas in the world where species of natural sponges suitable for commercial use were found. When word spread back to their native towns that sponge divers were being recruited, many more Greeks immigrated here to work in the newly thriving sponge industry.
In 1905 the technique of diving for sponges replaced the hooking method previously used to bring the sponges up. By the 1930s it was a very productive industry generating millions of dollars each year. The town was in its heyday, having a very distinctive Greek look and culture.
Unfortunately, a disease substantially reduced the sponge beds by 1939. It would take a number of years for the beds to recover, but the community held on and managed to survive. But then in 1946 another disaster hit when a red tide algae bloom wiped out the remaining beds. Needing to find another livelihood, the divers and sponge boat owners turned to fishing and shrimping in the Gulf waters.
The city converted most of its sponge-related activities, especially the warehouses where they were sold, into tourist attractions. The Sponge Docks are now mostly shops, restaurants, and museums dedicated to what made Tarpon Springs the place it is today.
In the late 1980s, a local businessman managed to restart the sponge harvesting and it proved successful. Over the next 20 years, the activity grew and in 2007 a record harvest of sponges by a single boat was made. Things have continued to progress and the industry is now back on track here in town. But catering to tourists still seems to be the number one business. If you like to eat Greek food at all, then this is the place to come!
We had some of our best grouper fresh off the boat that day. We ate some at lunch along the sponge docks at Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill, and then went next door to their seafood market to purchase more for cooking at home that night.
FYI–a “rusty bellie” is the nickname given to a large male grouper. It ranges in size between 20-60 pounds, and is usually only caught by a tried and true fisherman.
And where there are fresh-caught fish, the pelicans are never far behind . . .
Back on the trail, leaving Tarpon Springs, we wanted to make one more short stop at a place we had seen from the bike trail. The Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, located on the west side of Palm Harbor, cares for more than 70 animals that have been removed from zoos, other sanctuaries or research centers, or retired from working in the film industry. Staffed and operated by volunteers, they can treat ill or impaired primates that come to them. It was a fascinating place to learn about as we spent some time walking the grounds . . . observing them as they were observing us.
And so ended our first full and eventful day in Dunedin.
Just another good day in Paradise. That’s what we were thinking as we took our morning walk around the campground, planning out Day Two. With the good warm weather still hanging around (nothing we were taking for granted), we planned a day that involved seeing new places and biking to get there.
First, we would begin with a hearty breakfast and a bike ride would take us there.
Dunedin has plenty of good eating places, with a wide variety of choices in both cuisines and atmosphere. Most are located near the heart of town, all within easy walking or biking distance. We selected Kelly’s for their good reviews, varied breakfast menu, and close proximity to the trail. Plus they were serving on their outdoor patio, which cinched the deal for us.
It was very late morning when we were finally ready to head out. We had places to see and a ton of food to work off. Melinda led the way back up the trail to connect with a spur leading across the Dunedin Causeway. Two-and-a-half miles in length, the causeway was a scenic start to our destination on Honeymoon Island. Lined with towering palm trees, the causeway was completed in 1964. It is the last bridge spanning the Intracoastal Waterway before boaters head out into the open waters of the Gulf. With blue skies above and the turquoise waters below, it’s easy to become distracted by what’s around you here. Fortunately, the bike lane is extra wide.
We took a break at the mid-point of the bridge, just to stop and soak up the view. Blue skies . . . bluer water . . . should we have brought our swim suits with us today?
Or maybe rented a kayak instead?
We biked on. Honeymoon Island State Park lay just across the causeway, on the northernmost barrier island of the Gulf of Mexico, at least until you get to the Panhandle. Except for two high-rise condominiums, the 2,810-acre state park claims the rest of the island. As soon as you pay the fee and pass through the park entrance, even those buildings are soon lost to sight. The road winds through native habitat; the island is a refuge for many indigenous plants and trees. The park has a nature center, as well as a building for concessions and restrooms. Other than some parking areas, the rest of the land is pretty much natural–unspoiled, many would say.
Originally known as Hog Island, it was purchased in 1939 by a New York developer, Clinton Washburn. After failing to resell it, as was his plan, he came up with an idea and followed through with it. He built fifty 10’x12’ wood and palm-thatched bungalows (no electricity or plumbing, but a gas stove and row boat were furnished) and collaborating with Life Magazine, held a contest for newly married couples (probably more like a lottery today). The winners were awarded a two-week “honeymoon,” in those bungalows, which gave the island a better name. Shortly afterwards, WWII began and the contest ended abruptly. The thatched huts fell into disuse and decayed. When the island was turned into a state park, the structures were all torn down.
It still remains a pretty place to go, for hiking the two trails, or beach walking, or sunbathing at the water’s edge. The nature center is first class, having exhibits about the natural and cultural history of the island. You might spend some peaceful time sitting out on the elevated deck overlooking St. Joseph’s Sound, your thoughts drifting wherever the warm breezes take them.
Ranging from sandy to rocky, the southwest side of the island has the 4-mile stretch of beach. Extending to the northern tip, it’s an important location for resting and foraging shorebirds. Looking across the clear blue waters, a short distance away lies another chunk of land. Originally part of Honeymoon Island, a major hurricane in 1929 caused a breech. Today, Caladesi Island is still separated, the channel of water now being called Hurricane Pass.
Accessible only by boat, Caladesi is a 600-acre state park. It’s even more of a wild place than Honeymoon Island, with virgin pine forests, salty estuaries and mangrove swamps. It’s a popular destination for kayakers, leaving from the causeway, and then exploring the mangrove channels before landing at the sandy beach. If that isn’t quite your style, there’s a ferry departing from Honeymoon Island’s dock. Caladesi’s pristine beach along the gulf was named the top U.S. beach in 2008. It’s still ranked as one of the best in the world.
After exploring the length and breadth of Honeymoon Island, the afternoon was winding down. Retracing our route, we left the park behind.
Our stay here in Dunedin had been near perfect—factoring in weather, location and recreation. I guess we couldn’t have asked for a better last days in Florida. Leave on a High Note is how the saying goes. That seemed to fit our ending.
You know she wouldn’t/couldn’t let a last sunset pass her by. Despite a low-lying fog bank hanging over the gulf’s horizon, Melinda returned to Honeymoon Island that last night. It really didn’t matter that there wasn’t a climatic ending to the sky . . . she already had captured a few of those. But she was there . . . watching the sky change its colors . . . feeling the warmth on her skin . . . and the distinct scent of salt in the breeze . . . and that was all that mattered.
Chris and Melinda