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Florida High Five


By Chelle Koster Walton


For purchase only


Enough with the “best beaches in Florida” rankings. Who hasn’t rated them? Top restaurants? Finest hotels? Anyone with an opinion and an audience has made a list. Florida has a lot of fine qualities that go beyond what visitors seek. So we’re giving a “high five” today to some of the state’s less touted characteristics -- from dive bars to yummy spa treatments.


Monkey Businesses

Monkeys are THE hot new Florida motif and you see ‘em hanging out in local bars as often as trees these days. Some places have always been about monkeys. Here are our favorite spots to monkey around.

1.       Monkey Jungle, Miami (305-235-1611): The original Florida monkey attraction, circa 1933, where people are in cages and primates run free.

2.       Caribbean Gardens Zoo, Naples (239-262-5409): Monkeys, gibbons, siamangs, and lemurs have their own island here, where guests visit them by boat.

3.       Mizner’s Monkey Bar at Boca Raton Resort, Boca Raton (561-447-3185): The first and classiest of monkey bars recollects founder Addison Mizner’s celebrated pets, serving drinks called Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Speak No Evil.

4.       Monkey Room, Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, Sarasota (941-383-6464): This newcomer deserves mention for its whimsy value. The comical monkey mural behind the bar will have you falling off your stool BEFORE you try the Monkey-tini.

5.       The Monkey Bar, Homosassa Riverside Resort, Homosassa (352-621-5090): See real live monkeys from this second-story bar overlooking Monkey Island, home to descendants of escapees from Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.


Orchid Donors

Susan Orleans’ true account of orchid lust, Orchid Thief, inspired the sleeper movie Adaptations starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep. The setting: Florida’s steamy corners. Steal a peek at sensuous blossoms in these places.

1.       Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Everglades City (239-695-4593): Orleans sloshed through the swamps with her unlikely hero searching for the coveted ghost orchid. You can, too, through ranger programs held in season.

2.       Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota (941-366-5731). Of course, an easier, dryer way to look at orchids is at this historic bayside home, where more than 6,000 orchids thrive in a moist rainforest setting.

3.       International Orchid Center, Delray (561-404-2000, 877-ORCHIDS): Headquarters for the American Orchid Society, its new greenhouse gushes orchids. It also hosts how-to classes for wannabe legit orchidteers.

4.       Homestead: A hotbed for orchid-growing, Homestead plays a major role in Orleans’ book. Some of her mentionable growers include R. F. Orchids, Mote Orchids, and Fennell Orchid Company, once Orchid Jungle, a longtime tourist attraction but fatality of Hurricane Andrew.

5.       Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami (305-667-1651): Site of the International Orchid Festival every April.


Ghost stories

Many Florida communities -- particularly the old ones -- guide unsuspecting tourists about in the dark on fright-seeing tours, searching for ghosts and dastardly bygones. Through the decades, we Floridians have discovered some very loveable ghosts among our spectral population. A few of our favorite haunts:

1.       Tampa Theatre, Tampa (813-274-8981): TV parapsychologists once filmed Fink, the theatre’s projectionist who refused to give up his job for a flimsy excuse like death.

2.       Don CeSar Beach Resort, St. Pete Beach (727-360-1881, 800-282-1116): An aching tale of unrequited love precipitates hand-holding sightings of the “Pink Palace’s” builder, Thomas Rowe, and the woman, Lucinda, he was denied.

3.       Safety Harbor Resort & Spa, Safety Harbor (727-726-1161, 800-458-5409): Developer of the mineral springs’ sanatorium here, the late, health-conscious Dr. Salem H. Baranoff takes current displeasure in seeing salt on the table and has been known to move salt shakers.

4.       Palace Saloon, Fernandina Beach (904-261-6320): Long-gone Uncle Charlie the bartender appears in the original 1903 mahogany-framed mirror behind the bar. May have something to do with the powerful Pirate’s Punch.

5. Lillian Place B&B, Daytona Beach (386-323-9913): One of Daytona’s favorite ghosts, Lucile occupies an old home on Orange Avenue where author Stephen Crane once recovered from near-drowning, an event memorialized in his short story “The Open Boat.” The house, known through the years as Lillian Place, opens in September as a B&B.


Shellfish motives

You adore gobbling shellfish fresh from the briny. Who can blame you? You’ve got shellfish motives, and Florida specializes in curing the craves at these famed crustacean stations.

1.       Apalachicola oysters: Oystermen in this antebellum town brag that their annual commercial harvest produces enough “sliders” to cover a football field three deep.

2.       Everglades stone crabs: Legend has it that stone crab was “invented” by a character name of Totch Brown, the late Everglades alligator poacher and author who, along with his uncle, introduced the highly prized shellfish to Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach, now world-renown for its specialty of the house. Everglades City is the place to buy them fresh off the boat.

3.       Steinhatchee scallops: Recreational scallopers scoop ‘em up by the bucketful (limits apply) from the grass flats of Florida’s Big Bend, headquartered at fishing hamlet Steinhatchee.

4.       Fort Myers Beach shrimp: An annual fleet-blessing and festival celebrate the succulent pink shrimp that has provided livelihood and sustenance in these parts for generations. A waterfront boardwalk expounds on the town’s fishy heritage.

5.       Cedar Key clams: The climate is clammy these days in Cedar Key since the net-fishing ban has forced fishermen into farming the bivalves, which thrive in its pristine, unpolluted waters.


Spa treatments in good taste

In Florida, spa treatments often sound good enough to eat. Local spas transfer the good energy that bursts forth from our fauna to energize, cleanse, and replenish the human body and soul.

1.       Tuscan Citrus Cure, The Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, Orlando (800-576-5760): Grande Lakes is the first resort on the books to have a citrus consultant on staff. As such, one of its signature treatments involve a citrus scrub, lime shower, and vitamin C-charged massage using extracts of green mandarin and lemon, followed by a hydro soak in a latte milk concoction and a sweet orange body wrap.

2.       Key Lime Coconut Body Scrub, Mango Raw Sugar Body Scrub, Coffee Mocha Scrub, and Rum Molasses Waterfall, The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne (305-365-4158): These recently unveiled treatments give new meaning to the phrase “spa services menu.”

3.       Flavor-of-the-month body scrubs, The Breakers, Palm Beach (561-655-6611, 800-833-3141): Choose from mango, key lime, chocolate, coffee, or -- just in time for Halloween -- pumpkin spice.

4.       Margarita Key Lime Pedicure, Little Palm Island, Torch Key (305-872-2524, 800-GET-LOST): This one you actually can taste. Sip on a key lime margarita whilst the therapist scrubs your feet and legs with key lime juice, Dead Sea salts, and Key West Aloe’s lime soufflé.

5.       Florida Fruit Fresh Facial, Naples Beach Hotel (239-261-2222, 800-237-7600): It’s not just for breakfast anymore. Fresh-squeezed oj also makes a refreshing mask.


Dive bars

And we mean that in the most flattering way. For those who like nothing better than hoisting a cold one in the company of locals who don’t equate bars with high heels or chinos, pull up a stool at any of these:

1.       Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa (813/971--0666): Local-colorful, this prime example of shack chic serves up smoked mullet, gator ribs, black bean gator chili, and live zydeco and blues in an inimitable (ie, probably should be condemned) old Florida setting.

2.       Bert’s Bar, Matlacha, Pine Island (239-282-3232): Fishermen make some of the liveliest drinking companions and here the only dress code seems to be those white rubber boots endearingly dubbed “Pine Island Reeboks.” Great wings and water views add to the attraction.

3.       Flora-Bama Bar, Pensacola (850-492-0611): At the intersection of Florida and Alabama, it holds an annual Interstate Mullet Toss. Need we say more?

4.       Woody’s, St. Pete Beach (727-360-9165): Besides fishermen and mullet-tossers, surfers can make a hang-out gnarly and off-beat. Problem is, there’s no surf here, but there are surfboards hanging from the ceiling and the waterside stance makes it feel appropriately Maui-esque.

5.       Stan’s Idle Hour, Goodland (239-394-3041): Shove your fists into your armpits, flap your elbows, and carry on like a roadkill-inflamed turkey vulture. They call it the Buzzard Lope at Sunday’s Buzzard Bash in this funky Marco Island waterfront bar.


City strolls

Okay, so some of these are touristy, but we locals slap our heels here too when the city social mood hits.

1.       Duval Street, Key West (305-294-2587 or 800-LAST-KEY): Iguanas on shoulders, dogs on the backs of bike riders, street artists, and fruit vendors: once you’ve seen Duval, you’ve seen it all.

2.       Lake Dora waterfront (352-383-2165): Between the venerable Lakeside Inn and the end of the Palm Island boardwalk, you’ll pass antique shops, lawn bowlers dressed in tournament whites, the world’s smallest lighthouse, fishermen, picnickers, ducks, alligators, oaks, and cypress trees.

3.       Daytona Beach Boardwalk 386-255-0415, 800-544-0415): Kitsch but classic, the walk takes in beach action, a mini-fair, and a 1930s bandshell.

4.       Downtown Delray Beach (561-278-0424): One of many downtown renaissance success stories in Florida, this stroll will get you to the Pineapple Grove Artwalk and a new Cultural Loop, in addition to sidewalk cafes and one-of-a-kind shops.

5.       Jacksonville’s river walks (904-798-9148, 800-733-2668): A water taxi ferries between lively venues on both sides of the St. Johns River, where restaurants, shopping, museums, and festivals happen.


Tea time

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony know as afternoon tea,” wrote Henry James. You’ll get more than a caffeine buzz when partaking at these rituals:

1.       Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach (561-495-0233): Participate in the traditional sado tea ceremony one Saturday each month. For the untraditional, sample delightful green tea manju ice cream at the Cornell Café.

2.       The Ritz-Carlton Naples (239-598-3300, 800-241-3333): All of Florida’s Ritz-Carltons put on a grand affair of afternoon tea that could make the queen smile. Once a year at Christmas-time, the Naples property hosts a precious children’s Teddy Tea with stuffed animals from the local Teddy Bear Museum. (In Sarasota, the Ritz often invites Barbies, rather than Teddies.) (941-309-2000, 800-241-3333)

3.       Sisters’ Tea Room & Gallery, Perry (850-838-2021): Borrow a pair of gloves and a proper “tea hat” from the sisters and have a seat for scones, watercress sandwiches, clove chicken puffs, carrot cake, and other treats at this unexpected pleasure in out-of-the-way Perry. The sisters -- Sharron and Carolyn -- also sell well-chosen collectibles and gourmet foods.

4.       Cobblestone Gallery & Tea Room, Sarasota (941-954-4494): Order the Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, or Norman Rockwell tea as you gaze up at name-artist signed originals and limited edition graphic prints.

5.       Whitehall, Palm Beach (Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, 561-655-2833): Gilded Age Tea (during season only) recalls the days when Henry Flagler built this monument to excess and Europia.


Stare-Worthy Staircases

Nothing makes an elevated statement like a sweeping staircase. Here are some of the state’s more dramatic climbs.

1.       Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, Daytona Beach (386-761-1821): Florida’s highest climbable lighthouse features 203 steps right out of Vertigo and step-into-windows where you can rest, catch your breath, and stare at ocean and sea marsh vistas.

2.       Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach (561-832-5196): In the Tsai Atrium, an enchanting stairway wraps around itself in a free-form manner with no visible means of support, an expression of gravity-defying architecture.

3.       Don Vicente de Ybor Inn, Tampa (813-241-6104): Built circa 1895 by Ybor City’s founder in a clinic for cigar workers, the lobby’s original marble staircase has been restored with cherry oak rails, gilded filigree balustrades, and an ornate mirror at the landing.

4.       Doral Resort Spa, Miami (305-592-2000): Frankly my dear, this double circular ascent feels as elegant as the staircase in Gone With the Wind.

5. WinterHaven Hotel, South Beach (800-395-2322, 305-531-5571): An example of “Steamline Moderne” Art Deco architecture, its restoration brought back to life a molded steel staircase that makes a solid flashback statement in the lobby.


West Wing, FL

Presidentially sweet throughout its history, Florida has played both resort and office for visiting Chiefs.


1.       Little White House, Key West (305-294-9911) Harry S. Truman’s tropical “Camp David,” where Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Carter have also stayed.

2. Peanut Island, West Palm Beach (Palm Beach Maritime Museum, 561-832-7428): JFK built himself a bunker on this tiny island during the Cuban missile crisis, when he often visited the family home on Palm Beach. Today the site holds a park and maritime museum you can visit by ferry.

3.       Florida House Inn, Fernandina Beach (904-261-3300): Grant really did sleep here. As one of Florida’s earliest resort towns, Victorian Fernandina Beach hosted the Yankee general with Southern hospitality at this 1857 landmark.

4.       Tampa Bay Hotel (now the Henry B. Plant Museum, 813-254-1891): Teddy Roosevelt turned the grounds of this ostentatious folly into barracks for his Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. From the hotel itself, officers planned war strategy.

5.       Gasparilla Inn, Boca Grande (941-964-2201): Both Bush presidents frequent this grande dame when they’re in town casting for tarpon rather than votes.


To purchase this story for publication, please contact Copyright Chelle Koster Walton; it is illegal to reproduce this article or photograph without author's permission.

Tarpon Springs is Florida's Big Fat Greek Town

By Chelle Koster Walton

For purchase only; updated 4/28/03.

Tarpon Springs is fat with Greeks. It boasts the highest percentage of Greek residents in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With all the aroma of baklava, feta cheese, and roasted lamb wafting through the streets, visitors risk coming away a few fat Greek pounds heavier themselves. At the same time, they are likely to get their fill of Greek heritage and its hand-in-hand sponging traditions.

Early Tarpon Springs sponged off the sea to make a living. When wealthy banker John K. Cheyney discovered sponges in local waters at the turn of the century, he recruited spongers from Greece to don 200-pound diving suits and embark upon the treacherous enterprise of sponging. Fungus and synthetics eventually wrung the importance out of sponging in the Greek community, but the traditions and heritage still saturate the town with Mediterranean appeal.

Down Dodecanese Boulevard, named for the Mediterranean islands many of the original spongers called home, runs the colorful core where the old way of life lives on, although in a somewhat tourist-spoiled manner. Along the old sponge docks, charters hawk their voyages to Anclote Key, a natural offshore refuge and picnicking island, and to sponge beds in glass-bottom boats. For the latter, a young Greek will suit up in ponderous, old-time diving gear and helmet to entertain patrons with a historical splash-back.

Spongeorama Exhibit Center on Dodecanese Boulevard relates, through timeworn dioramas, the dangers involved in sponging, some of the 5,000 species of sponges, as well as the Greek religious traditions that became enmeshed with the industry. The most important religious holiday is celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. The diving for the cross highlights the day. The young diver who is able to retrieve the cross is blessed with good luck all year long. Colorful religious processions, festivities, and banquets proceed and follow the main event.

Year-round, sponge and tacky souvenir shops, upscale boutiques, Greek eateries, and bakeries line Dodecanese Boulevard. This is a good place to buy natural sponges for a fraction of what trendy bath shops in Key West charge. At Dodecanese's west end, Konger Coral Sea Aquarium, a small, family-run attraction, doesn't try to keep up with the sophistication of new, state-of-the-art aquariums. It touts its shark feeding in a 100,000-gallon glass tank. Divers get into the huge windowed tank and try to rouse the lemon and nurse sharks into a feeding frenzy.

Along Dodecanese's half-mile strip, the sweet lure of pastries and spicy aroma of Greek specialties make eating a top priority for visitors. A bite at famous Louis Pappas or smaller establishments along the way and down side streets offer the most authentic taste of Greek culture. Others come to shop. Beside sponges, they boutique-hop for tropic fashions, jewelry, and gifts.

The onion domes of Byzantine-style St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church define the skyline of Tarpon Springs as they define the persistence of local Greek heritage. Inside, ornately painted icons of the Blessed Virgin and saints are said to weep on occasion, presumably having nothing to do with the onion domes. Most chalk it up to condensation. In any case, its a lucky thing to have all those sponges handy.

The church is modeled after St. Sofia Cathedral in Istanbul and enshrines an Old World vision of worship and ecclesiastical excess. Stained glass windows and icons carry Greek inscriptions. Heavy, gilded frames, silver plating, and 60 tons of glossy marble adorn the interior. Sightseers should enter the church only when services are not in session and when dressed in proper attire.

The church marks Tarpon Springs' historic downtown district along Tarpon Avenue, which is less commercial than the sponge docks, and more typically American in its antique shops and restaurants. The nearby circa-1909 historic train depot was recently renovated for a museum focusing on local railroad history, complete with re-enactments.

The paved, 34-mile Pinellas Trail follows the path of that long-gone railroad, accommodating joggers, skaters, and bicyclists from here to St. Petersburg.

Also for outdoor recreationists, Lake Tarpon, east of town, is headquarters for watersports. Anderson Park provides access for bass fishermen and boaters. It also holds picnic grounds and a nature trail. Fred Howard Park hides far from the mainstream in Tarpon Springs, but is the best beach in these parts accessible from the mainland. The generously oak-canopied grounds are a favorite for picnickers. A mile-long causeway delivers you to sand beach.

Newly opened, Brooker Creek Preserve sets aside 8,000 acres for wildlife. Currently, you can visit the preserve along an 11.8-mile nature trail. In fall 2003, its hands-on Environmental Education Center is expected to open.

Tarpon Springs has its chain hotels, for those who need more than one day to ingest the hardy Greek culture. But for something with more charm, check out Spring Bayou B&B in the historic district. Westin Innisbrook is a family-friendly destination golf and tennis resort in nearby Palm Harbor.


  • Getting there: Six hours drive time from Miami.
  • Best for: People who loved the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
  • Also good for: Families, shoppers, foodies, culture travelers, outdoor enthusiasts.
  • Highlights:
    • Dodecanese Boulevard shops and restaurants
    • Sponge docks (Dodecanese Blvd.)
    • Boat tours (St. Nicholas Boat Line, 693 Dodecanese Blvd., 727-942-6425)
    • St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church (36 N. Pinellas Ave., 727-937-3540)
    • Spongeorama (510 Dodecanese Blvd., 727-942-3771)
    • Fred Howard Park (1700 Sunset Dr., 727-937-4938)
    • Spring Bayou (Tarpon Ave.)
    • Konger Coral Sea Aquarium (850 Dodecanese Blvd., 727-938-5378)
    • Brooker Creek Preserve (727-943-4000)
  • When to go: Its least crowded weekdays and in summer and fall.
  • Special events:
    • Epiphany, Jan. 6
    • Greek Fest, March
    • Arts & Crafts Festival, March
    • Christmas boat parades and luminary walk, December

Information: Contact St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau,, 877-FL-BEACH (toll free) or 727-464-7200, or the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce,, 727-937-6109.


(Rates reflect high season range and double occupancy.)

  • Westin Innisbrook Resort, 800-456-2000 or 727-942-2000, Its rooms and suites look out onto lush cypress-edged links with 90 holes of top-rated golf. The Loch Ness water park features slides, a sand beach, and a zero-entry pool. A fitness center, putt-putt golf, kids playground and program, nature walk, 11 Har-Tru tennis courts, and tennis and golf schools round out Innisbrooks athletic skills. $221-$389.
  • Spring Bayou Inn, 727-938-9333, This B&B occupies one of Tarpon Springs first homes, built around the turn of last century near the towns centerpiece saltwater bayou. $90-$125.
  • Tarpon Inn, 72-/937-6121. Nearby, this newly renovated motel is a more affordable option close to downtowns attractions. $69-$89.


  • Louis Pappas Riverside Restaurant, 727-934-4752. This old-guard establishment overlooks the Anclote River and serves Greek and seafood specialties. $10-$25.
  • Costas Restaurant, 727-938-6890. Down a side street off Dodecanese, it promises and delivers "Mamas Greek style." Lunch $6-$9, dinner $9-$12.
  • Hellas Restaurant & Bakery, 727-943-2400. Here's where to get a running start on "big and fat" along Dodecanese Boulevard. It serves all the traditional Greek dishes and desserts, plus French pastries and seafood.
  • Bridie Gannons Pub & Eatery, 727-942-3011. For a switch from Greek, visit this wood-lined pub serving authentic Celtic cuisine. $11-$17.
  • Molly Goodhead Raw Bar & Seafood, 727-786-6255. Travel south to the town of Ozona for this corner of whimsical delight and fresh seafood. $5-$15.


To purchase this story for publication, please contact Copyright Chelle Koster Walton; it is illegal to reproduce this article or photograph without author's permission.

Chelle Koster Walton