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Opa! Florida RNC delegates celebrate the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks

Delegate Carol Hurst of Merritt Island wore her patriotic sunglasses Wednesday during the visit to Tarpon Springs. Among the items she purchased were sponges, olive oil soaps and cigars.

Jay Nolan | Special to the Times

Delegate Carol Hurst of Merritt Island wore her patriotic sunglasses Wednesday during the visit to Tarpon Springs. Among the items she purchased were sponges, olive oil soaps and cigars.

TARPON SPRINGS — For an afternoon, they put politics aside and got to be tourists in their own state.

They ate Greek salads — the kind with a scoop of potato salad. They learned the Greek meaning behind Dodecanese Boulevard. They squeezed natural sponges.

"Can I get an opa here?" a guide cajoled members of the Florida delegation to the Republican National Convention as they toured the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs.

"Opa!" they cheered in return.

Dozens of Florida delegates, guests and staff in town for the Republican National Convention spent a few hours in the Greek community Wednesday. Arriving in buses from the Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor, they lunched at the Riverside Grille House Veranda before exploring the docks.

Michael John Targakis, owner of Native Tours of Tarpon Springs, led them past shops and by the sponging and fishing boats anchored in the Anclote River.

"We are the real thing," he said. "We're not Disney World."

The crowd applauded.

"A lot of pride here," a woman murmured. "A lot of pride."

Sporting Mitt Romney T-shirts and pins, the delegates nodded and wowed as Targakis explained sponge harvesting. They chuckled at his jokes and shouted Opa! again at a sponge diver in an iconic old dive suit. They savored Greek heritage, biting into baklava.

After the tour, Carol Hurst of Merritt Island went hunting for a Greek fisherman cap, like the one Targakis wore. Already in a bag to bring home: sponges, olive oil soaps and cigars.

"This is totally cool," she said, eyes shielded behind star-shaped American flag sunglasses.

She bought two black caps, part of the boost in business that Seaside Paradise shop owner Gloria Krutzik said she has seen from conventiongoers since Monday.

It was fitting, said alternate delegate Pat Fahey, for the Florida delegation to support local businesses.

"We gotta put our money where our mouth is," said Fahey, 72, of Daytona Beach.

She sorted through sponges, looking for one to take home to wash dishes, and admired the charm of the Sponge Docks.

"They have put their best foot forward, showing their industry," she said.

What will Fahey tell her friends in Daytona Beach about Tarpon Springs?

"Go!" she said.

That's exactly what Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce President Sue Thomas wants to hear.

"That really is the important part," she said, "to get them back here."

The city's rich history and culture impressed delegate Alan Winslow and his wife, Diona, both 72, of Mount Dora.

"To be honest," Diona Winslow said, "I've never really thought that much about sponges."

She picked one up and asked her husband to buy it.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com.

Opa! Florida RNC delegates celebrate the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks 08/29/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 5:57pm]
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