The home of the Gators also is an idyllic place to commune with nature, soak up some culture.
BY TOD CAVINESS
ORLANDO SENTINEL (TNS)
From the highway or the window seat of an airplane, it can be easy to dismiss Gainesville as a small but sprawling town with a very big college. On your way through the Alachua County seat, you’re likely to see more green than gray and not much skyline to speak of in the downtown area near the massive University of Florida.
So much the better. If you think a community is best enjoyed from a comfortable balcony, look elsewhere. With its breathtaking parks and a vibrant metropolitan scene, this North Florida jewel begs to be explored at ground level.
Situated just over 100 miles and less than two hours north of Orlando, the wider Alachua County area enjoys a prolonged, balmy springtime that fosters a wide array of deciduous trees. It’s easy to see why early American settlers touted the region as a health resort in the mid-1800s.
Path to beauty, butterflies
Panoramic proof can be found just outside the city limits at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens (kanapaha.org), a 62-acre Eden on the shores of Lake Kanapaha. Admission ($8 adult or $4 ages 5-13) opens the gates to two distinct paths filled with Zen-inducing sights that include a butterfly garden and a scintillating yet serene walk through several towering species of bamboo — the largest such garden in Florida.
Sinkholes are a common Florida nuisance, but rarely do you find one as impressive as the main attraction at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park (devilsmillhopper.com) in northwest Gainesville. A wooden boardwalk winds its way to the bottom of a limestone sinkhole 120 feet deep, 500 feet wide and thousands of years old. Through the years, conditions in this national landmark have made it a picturesque home for a diverse network of plant life. Admission is $4 per vehicle or $2 for pedestrians, and the park is open Wednesday-Sunday.
Those who like to commune with nature more actively are also in luck. Hikers or bikers can take their pick from one of many woodland trails, including three short but scenic lakeside paths at Newnan’s Lake Conservation Area or the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, which starts a short drive east of the University of Florida (UF) campus and winds 16 miles through hills and around lakes to nearby Hawthorne.
Life near ‘The Swamp’
When you’ve had your fill of sweat, Gainesville’s already hip downtown district has become even cooler in recent years. It’s impossible to overstate how large the University of Florida looms over the social scene here, both literally and figuratively.
In the shadow of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (“The Swamp,” to loyal Gators football fans), a row of fraternity houses sets the tone along West University Avenue on the north end of the UF campus.
Give the sports bars a pass and keep walking east to Main Street to find a downtown filled with eclectic surprises, starting with The Top at 30 N. Main St. With ceramic oddities and old-school wrestling trading cards packed into every nook, the decor at this eatery is pushing the saturation point for maximum kitsch. Luckily, the menu of jazzed-up American favorites and craft cocktails is much more carefully calibrated.
For somewhat more traditional fare in the downtown area, loosen your belt for a wood-grilled, 20-ounce rib-eye at Ember’s (embersofflorida.com). And the house-made, organic pastries make Vine Bread & Pasta (vinegainesville.com) a scrumptious spot to linger for breakfast or lunch.
From soul to goth
There are just as many flavors — if not more — in the downtown Gainesville nightlife. Lest we forget, this was the town that gave us bands such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ska stalwarts Less Than Jake and most recently, the ethereal indie foursome Hundred Waters.
Catch the next wave of musical exports at High Dive (highdivegainesville.com, formerly Common Grounds) or the Atlantic (theatlanticgainesville.com), which also hosts dance parties in every genre from soul to goth just across the street from The Top.
There’s also a willing collegiate audience for craft beer. You can find brews from Swamp Head Brewery (swamphead.com) on tap at nearly every bar in town, but don’t let that stop you from visiting the welcoming brewery and taproom in southwest Gainesville. A bit closer to downtown is First Magnitude Brewing Co. (fmbrewing.com), a promising newcomer whose taproom is a frequent stop for several area food trucks.
Cocktails? The hard stuff goes down smooth at the small but funky Dime on University Avenue or the dark and velvety 2nd Street Speakeasy (2ndstreetspeakeasy.com), two notable cocktail bars.
And the name says it all at Whiskey House (whiskeyhouse.com), a knowledgeable but unpretentious joint that caters to whiskey snobs and weekend warriors alike.
Gainesville’s culture is no less alive during the daylight hours. Art mavens won’t even need to leave their car to sample one of the city’s most well-known guerrilla galleries: the 34th Street Wall.
This stretch of concrete just south of Southwest Second Avenue serves as a colorful public diary, chronicling tributes to fallen students, marriage proposals and art from the political to the whimsical in a patchwork of constantly changing graffiti.
For a double dose of more official (and air-conditioned) culture, spend an afternoon at UF’s Cultural Plaza. There you’ll find works by painter Claude Monet and photographer Jerry Uelsmann in the permanent collection at the Harn Museum of Art, or massive megalodon shark fossils and a walk-through limestone cave at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Admission is free at both, though special exhibits are extra at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
Toward sunset, the Hippodrome Theatre (thehipp.org) has the rest of the arts agenda covered.
From the outside, the former post office and courthouse is a stately example of early-20th century architecture.
Inside, critically acclaimed films are on show when the house theater company isn’t mounting professional productions on the main stage. Surrounded by several of the aforementioned eateries and bars, a show at The Hipp (as it is locally known) is a great way to start the night.
Downtown Gainesville may be the undisputed cultural hub in the city proper, but the larger Alachua County area holds many rural treasures worth the drive. The pioneer-era Dudley Farm Historic State Park in nearby Newberry is the perfect tonic for the rat-race blues just a few miles west of the city.
To the southeast, Cross Creek is the former home of “The Yearling” author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose longtime estate is preserved at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park.
Take a weekend to explore Gainesville, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself lingering.
Whether you’re getting lost among the trees or the townies, this is one college town with an ample supply of extracurricular activities.
IF YOU GO
Population: According to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the population of Gainesville is 128,460.
Accommodations: Gainesville features a variety of hotels, from locally owned bed-and-breakfasts (mostly on the outskirts) to national chain hotels. The area is known for its robust campus life, music and visual arts scene and parks.
•Canterbury Equestrian Showplace, 23100 W. Newberry Road, Newberry: This high-end equine training facility boasts a 2,000-seat arena and hosts frequent dressage shows throughout the year. Hours and admission vary. Visit canterburyshowplace.com.
•Historic Haile Homestead, 8500 S.W. Archer Road, near Gainesville: Just a short drive southwest of Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, this stately but strange estate is a living chronicle of mid-1800s plantation life. For reasons unknown, the family of Thomas and Serena Haile kept a diary of sorts by writing on the walls of the house, leaving more than 12,000 words for modern visitors to explore. Tour hours: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Cost: $5 per person (cash or check only), ages 12 and younger free. Visit hailehomestead.org.
•Morningside Nature Center and Living History Farm, 3540 E. University Ave., Gainesville: Just east of downtown, this park offers hands-on animal experiences, a wildflower walk and a taste of pioneer life at the re-created 1870 cabin of an Irish immigrant family. Hours: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (November-April) or 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily (May-October); Living History Farm open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday year-round. Cost: Free. Visit cityofgainesvilleparks.org.
•Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, 100 Savannah Blvd., near Micanopy: Just north of the charming town of Micanopy, this National Natural Landmark is a habitat to bison, wild horses and more than 250 species of birds. Take in the view from the visitor center’s 50-foot-high observation tower or explore the northern part of the park on the western half of the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail. Hours: 8 a.m.-sundown daily. Cost: $6 per vehicle (limit 2-8 people), $4 single-occupant vehicle, $2 pedestrians or cyclists. Visit floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie.
Call: 866-778-5002 (Alachua County Visitors & Convention Bureau)