2006: The coast with the most
Look for the neon Hooters sign. That’s the standard landmark on U.S. 19 for Palm Harbor visitors looking for the entrance to the Westin Innisbrook Resort. Once inside the gates, it’s tempting to make camp among the 72 holes of golf, four restaurants, fitness center and spa.
Don’t. Explore instead.
Ten minutes down the road, past the usual chain-food suspects, the most cultured corner of Pinellas County is waving the Greek flag.
The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks consist of more than 100 unique shops and restaurants, each with a distinct Grecian flair. Where else can you browse through $5 flip-flops and $4,000 alabaster statues of mythological gods in the same store while listening to a radio broadcast in Greek?
Fertile sponge beds brought divers from the Dodecanese Islands of Greece to Tarpon Springs in the early 1900s and the Gulf Coast community thrived.
Mercury Giallourakis, an amiable Greek whose grandfather opened a restaurant on the docks in the early 1920s, today runs Athens Gift Shop on the same property. Sponges are his most popular items, but visitors can buy everything from Florida bumper stickers and key chains to Greek feta cheese in his hodgepodge curio shop.
Outside The Sponge Exchange, a collection of 40 shops and diners at the Sponge Docks, it’s hard to ignore the portly man passing out restaurant flyers and shouting, “My mom is the cook, you’ll love the food!”
Maybe if he advertised Greek belly dancing on Friday and Saturday nights like the neighboring Santorini Greek Grill, he’d get a few more nods (as long as he’s not the one dancing).
Hellas seems the most boisterous eatery in town. Owned by the Karterouliotis family, Hellas boasts a clientele that is 75 percent local, always a comforting sign.
Fire up the senses with a Saganaki starter – flaming goat cheese doused in brandy – and shout “Opaa!” (“Whoopie!”) Pair it with Greek salad and red snapper but be sure to leave room for dessert. The Hellas bakery churns out more baklava than any restaurant in the country.
Golfing the Gulf
Golf is full of characters. The first round of my trip found me paired with Mike and Mark, two locals eager to impart their knowledge of Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course. While the Westin Resort is unique in its 72-hole spread, everyone wants to boast they’ve played a PGA Tour site, even if all they can remember about last year’s Chrysler Championship is that “what’s-his-name” (Carl Pettersson) won and not Vijay Singh.
Mark’s suggested target lines were helpful in navigating the Copperhead’s twisty and unusually undulated Gulf Coast layout. Nothing, however, was more unusual than Mark’s minute-long preshot routine.
After taking a few practice swipes with an upside-down clubface, my middle-aged playing partner fell into a sort of meditative trance. He’d roll back his head, close his eyes, regrip a half-dozen times, rock back on his heels and finally let ’er rip. Somehow, we managed to finish our round on the demanding 18th with seconds of daylight to spare.
Innisbrook’s four courses are unique in their character: Copperhead (Carolina mountain course); Island Course (reminiscent of the Georgia lowlands); Highlands North (typical Florida fare) and Highlands South (links style).
Those looking for a change from a resort pace, however, needn’t look farther than World Woods Golf Club. Located an hour away in Brooksville, there isn’t a house or backyard pool shouting distance of this Tom Fazio-designed facility.
Mother Nature, uninterrupted.
The reputation of World Woods’ vast practice facility – including a 22-acre, circular driving range with eight teeing areas – carries farther than word of its 36 holes. That being said, you can imagine the look on the face of the man in front of me when the assistant pro said, “The range is closed today.”
The 2-acre doughnut-shaped putting course, however, likely kept him busy before he tackled the tightly crafted Pine Barrens, World Woods’ signature course. There are plenty of risk-reward opportunities on this par-71 layout. Waste areas, long carry shots and massive putting surfaces keep even the most skilled players on their toes.
Like World Woods, Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club is located in a low-key, largely undeveloped area. Rolling hills and an abundance of old oak trees gives this 36-hole complex in Dade City a serene setting.
Shortly before my tee time on Lake Jovita’s year-old North Course, designed by Kurt Sandness, the cart attendant informed me that my 18-hole journey would be mostly uphill, while a trip around Tom Lehman’s South Course (1999) funnels downhill.
Either way, it’s a wild ride.
Stogies and bogeys
It’s not entirely clear how cigars and golf became inextricably linked. But they are. So it’s worth noting that 25 miles from Innisbrook, you’ll find what’s known as the “Cigar Capitol of the World.”
In the early 1900s, Ybor City (pronounced EE-bore) upstaged Havana as the epicenter of fresh smokes. While production has tapered off over the years, the Spanish-American culture is as spirited as ever at the shops of 7th Street. Here Florida’s oldest restaurant, the Columbia, sells its own private-label cigars, Gonzalez y Martinez, at the corner gift shop. Sitting at a table near the back of the store, Ibis Cruz, a Cuban native, rolls 100 cigars a day to the delight of curious tourists. Cruz uses tobacco from Columbia, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic to fill bundles of Churchills, Torpedos and Coronas.
While the atmosphere in the cigar shop is relaxed and methodical, traffic is always heavy at the adjoining Spanish restaurant. Built in 1905 to serve the influx of immigrant cigar rollers, the Columbia has grown from a 60-seat cafe to a sprawling 15-room restaurant that seats up to 1,700 people and covers a city block.
The Cuban sandwich remains a hearty lunch staple, and other menu favorites include the Original 1905 Salad (perfect for garlic lovers), Spanish Bean Soup and Paella. The Columbia’s wine selection now hovers around 30,000 bottles.
To keep the atmosphere as authentic as possible, generations of the Hernandez Gonzmart family traveled to Spain to bring back Old World trimmings such as hand-painted tiles and chandeliers. The family worked hard to create 15 unique dining experiences at its flagship location.
A 100-year-old mahogany bar, for example, anchors the casual Cafe, while the walls of the dramatic Red Room are covered in velvet-flocked paper and trimmed in gold. The Patio, a two-level dining room built in 1937, features a retractable skylight, encouraging a romantic mood to slip in with the moonlight. And on a wooden dance floor in the Don Quixote Room, Flamenco dancers have entertained diners twice a night for the past 30 years.
To celebrate the Columbia’s 100th birthday, the Gonzmart family opened its seventh restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla. None can compare to the original, however, where the likes of Babe Ruth and Marilyn Monroe have savored the Spanish cuisine.
And then disappeared in a cloud of smoke.