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Florida: Road trippin' in the Sunshine State

Here’s just a few of the hidden gems for travellers along the Gulf Coast and Central Florida.

It takes a while for Tarpon Springs sponge diver Frank Notte to get suited up before jumping off the side of the St. Nicolas VII to search for sponges off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

First he squeezes into an air-tight rubber suit, weighing 8 kg (18 lb.), straps up iron boots with a combined weight of 10 kg (24 lb.) then puts on a 9 kg (22 lb.), copper and brass breast plate before getting help from a deckhand to tighten its screws.

Next, two rock necklaces, each weighing nearly 16 kg (35 lb.), are hung around his neck before the final piece of diving equipment, an old-fashioned metal helmet, weighing 17 kg (38 lb.), is placed over his head.

All together that’s 78 kg (172 lb.) of weight on Notte’s small, but wiry body to ensure he sinks to the bottom of the sea floor to search for sponges. Once he’s overboard, bubbles surface on the water as Notte walks on his tip toes, pressing forward against the current. He’s at a depth of about 30 feet, but divers can go as deep as 200 feet, where they are more likely to harvest better quality sponges.

Notte’s air hose runs from the back of his helmet to an air compressor on board and he has a line he’ll tug on to communicate to his crew mates when he wants to come up.

It’s not long before Notte finds his first sponge, which he raises in the air on a spear to show those of us watching on board the St. Nicholas.

Boat Captain George Billiris, a third-generation sponge diver, no longer dives himself but continues the family’s long history of taking tourists out on one of his family’s vessels to explain the town’s sponge diving industry.

While sponge divers have been active for thousands of years in the Mediterranean, its legacy began in the United States in the early 1900s, he says, after rich sponge beds were discovered in Tarpon Springs. The community is now known as the “Sponge Capital of the World.”

“My grandfather started the family business 99 years ago,” says Billiris. “This is the 7th in our line of St. Nicholas sponge boats. I grew up working on number three and number six.”

Billiris is part of Tarpon Springs’ Greek community, who make up half of the 25,000 population in this seaside town, northwest of Tampa near Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The first Greeks came to Tarpon Springs to harvest sponges and since the area’s climate is much like the Mediterranean they stayed, says Billiris.

“This is why all the Greeks are here. If it hadn’t worked out there would be no Greek restaurants or pastry for you,” he says.

Billiris’s family’s sponge diving cruise is considered one of the oldest tourist attractions in Florida, and it’s just one of the reasons why visitors to the Sunshine State should explore beyond the big cities.

Here’s just a few of the hidden gems I discovered on a recent road trip along the Gulf Coast and Central Florida.

Just a two hour drive east of Tarpon Springs, I visit Ocala, also called the “Horse Capital of the World” and arrive in time to catch part of the final sale day of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company four day auction of 2-year-olds thoroughbreds in training.

After being warned by a staff member not to twitch on the auction floor, I watch as a horse named Lookin At Lucky is sold to the highest bidder for $500,000.

While I thought that price was high I’m told the day before a colt named Good Magic sold for a record-setting price of $2 million.

Six Kentucky Derby winners have come from this region, which has more than 600 thoroughbred farms that have also produced 45 national champions and six horses of the year.

Horse lovers have lots to check out in Ocala. You can stop in to view one of the many horse shows featured at the World Equestrian Center, the largest equestrian complex in the United States, do a farm tour and take a horse carriage ride and visit the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Museum and Gallery, featuring Florida’s first Kentucky Derby winners’ gold trophy, won by a horse named Needles in 1956.

Another of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions is in Ocala at Silver Springs State Park, which has a lovely boardwalk trail, but is best known for its glass bottom boats.

The park tours started in the late 1870s after a piece of glass was fixed to the bottom of a rowboat to view the sea life below in the clear waters. Clear kayak and paddle boards can also be rented for those who want to explore the springs on their own.

I preferred the boats for two reasons. First, you learn so much from the captain, like how the park has been featured in many Hollywood movies, including the 1954 horror movie classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (his lair is one of the stops the glass bottom boat tour makes), six Tarzan movies and the television show Sea Hunt, which shot more than 100 underwater productions at Silver Springs between 1958 and 1961. Secondly and most importantly, I felt a lot safer on a boat then a paddle boat after spotting a few alligators in the springs.

If you go here’s where to stay and eat

Just a 20 minute drive from Tarpon Spring is the small, community of Dunedin, known for its annual Scottish celebrations. I stayed at the historic Fenway Hotel in order to spend time at nearby Tarpon Springs and explore Dunedin’s quaint downtown. This oceanfront property, built in 1924, has undergone a multi-million dollar update providing it with a fresh, modern design. The hotel restaurant called The HEW Parlor & Chophouse has a good selection of seafood and meat dishes, and its rooftop bar is ideal to enjoy a cocktail and watch the sun set. There’s also live jazz performances.

Downtown Dunedin has many shops and restaurants, including a favourite among locals called The Living Room on Main, with cuisine ranging from classic devilled eggs and burgers to fancier dishes like saffron fennel salmon.

In Tarpon Springs you’d be remiss not to eat at one of the many Greek restaurants, and there’s no better spot than Demitri’s On the Water. The restaurant serves up some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever taste, as well as classic Greek dishes, like spanokopita and baklava.

In Ocala I stayed at the Hilton Ocala, which was conveniently located near the highway but on a pastoral setting. For an upscale dining experience, Mark’s Prime Steakhouse in downtown Ocala has plenty of choices, from seafood to steak, and stellar service. For a less formal meal, try lunch at Stella’s Modern Pantry in downtown Ocala, where tables are set up at the front of a specialty shop and you order at the bakery counter.

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Visit Florida, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.

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