Gainesville, Florida: More Than Just Gators
By Shady Hartshorne
For college football fans, Gainesville needs no introduction. It’s the home of the University of Florida’s famous Gators, archrivals of FSU’s Seminoles.
In 1911, the University of Florida chose the alligator as their mascot and Gator Pride has ruled the city ever since. The 90,000-seat stadium is sold out for every game of the season.
I don’t follow college football all that closely, but I recently had the opportunity to visit Gainesville and I can tell you that the city is loaded with fun, interesting activities that don’t involve painting your body orange.
First, the city itself has a well-designed walking-friendly layout. You can spend a day visiting museums, shops and restaurants and never have to get in your car. Other popular historical and cultural sites are within a short drive of the city.
Nature lovers will be happy to know that Gainesville has real alligators, too. Lake Alice, on the UF campus, has so many that nighttime joggers are advised to stay away. Just across the street from Lake Alice there’s a bat house holding over 60,000 bats and while I didn’t get to see them all coming out in the evening, I’m told it’s a spectacular sight.
As the home of a major university, Gainesville has plenty of bars and restaurants, but one that was highly recommended to me is Emiliano’s Café and Bakery in the heart of downtown. They specialize in Latin and Caribbean food creatively spiced to make each meal an adventure. You can try Paella, Ropa Vieja or a meal of assorted Tapas. I would highly recommend the 2-inch thick Filet that was so tender you barely needed a knife to cut it. The highlight of the meal was the dessert, a chocolate brownie infused with chipotle pepper.
I had a chance to visit three of Gainesville’s B&Bs. Each one is centrally located, near (but not too near) downtown. They are historic buildings, lovingly restored and run by friendly enthusiastic people who love to share their knowledge of Gainesville’s history along with the history of their buildings.
One thing you will find the buildings have in common, is that they all suffered at one time from an infestation of hippies! Apparently Gainesville was the hippie capital of Florida during the sixties and they often chose to take over the nice older houses.
The Laurel Oak Inn
One of Gainesville’s most famous hippies was a young Tom Petty whose band, Mudcrutch, enjoyed wide popularity at the time. The Laurel Oak Inn can boast that Petty stayed in their beautiful 1885 Queen Ann Victorian when it was divided into apartments. Owners Monta and Peggy Burt meticulously restored it and now offer 5 bedrooms with private baths. One unit has its own porch complete with rocking chairs.
Cindy and Joe Montalto have been running the Magnolia Plantation B&B since 1990 and have also thoroughly renovated their 1885 Victorian. But this one is in the incongruous Second Empire style that is rumored to have been the favorite of Ulysses S. Grant. That’s not exactly something you’d expect to see in the south, but Joe theorizes that the original owner had married a northern woman and designed the home to entice her to move down to Florida.
In addition to the main house, the Montaltos have several cottages for rent that are done up in Colonial, Arts and Crafts, and Victorian styles. Brick walkways connect all the buildings, punctuated with numerous fountains that allow guests to see or hear water everywhere on the property. They also provide a lovely habitat for the Montaltos’ pet duck! Complimentary snacks are available throughout the day and wine is set out for “social hour” in the evening.
Sweetwater Branch Inn
This B&B has 7 rooms for rent in the 1885 Cushman-Colson house. A ghost is rumored to reside in the building but he seems to mind his manners for the most part. Another building, McKenzie Hall, caters to larger gatherings. It features a 2,300 sq ft central room that can hold 150 for a sit-down dinner or 200 for hors d’oeuvres.
The Butterfly Rainforest
Gainesville is home to the Florida Museum of Natural History that features a breathtaking array of fossils from pre-historic Florida. As you enter, you are greeted by the giant skeletons of a mastodon and a mammoth. Further in, you can see the bones of giant sloths, saber-toothed cats and massive sharks with mouths so big you could walk through them.
The newest addition to the museum, the Butterfly Rainforest is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Strolling through the 65-foot tall, screened enclosure, you mingle with 55 to 65 different species of butterflies that fly freely through the jungle of tropical plants.
The museum acquires the pupae from butterfly farms around the world and stores them in their glass-walled Rearing Lab where you can see the butterflies emerging from their chrysalises.
Once their wings have had a chance to dry, the museum’s scientists release them into the rainforest, where they live on average 2 to 3 weeks, much longer than they would in the wild.
Outside the rainforest, you can see the 210-foot long Wall of Wings that features over 13,000 butterfly and moth specimens and photographs.
The ongoing study of Lepidoptera goes on in laboratories adjacent to the rainforest, and they, too, have glass walls so visitors can watch this exciting scientific research as it happens.
Just outside of town…
When you’re ready to start exploring the area outside of Gainesville, you can start with a state park called Paynes Prairie, which has an interesting history. From 1873 to 1891 a sinkhole in the middle of the park got mysteriously plugged up. Rainwater had nowhere to go and a lake was created that supported boat traffic for 18 years.
Then the sinkhole mysteriously unplugged itself and the lake drained away leaving thousands of fish stranded to rot on the bare ground. The smell was so bad that residents had to leave the area for a while. Now the park is home to herds of American bison, wild Spanish horses, sandhill cranes and other wildlife.
For a peek into Florida history, the best place to go is Dudley Farm, an authentic working replica of the farm originally owned by Captain PBH Dudley and held in his family for almost one hundred years. The 325-acre farm was donated to the state by Captain Dudley’s granddaughter Myrtle in 1983 to give visitors a chance to see how farming families lived in the late 19th century.
The park’s staff continue to perform the same chores that kept the original farm going: grinding and boiling sugar cane, feeding chickens, harvesting corn and much more. There are nature trails that wind around the 18 buildings and you can pick up a self-guided tour pamphlet to help you identify the various buildings including a general store, a smoke house and a sweet potato cellar.
The friendly and knowledgeable volunteers are there to answer questions about the history of the farm and the Dudley family. The visitor center has a short video explaining the history of the farm, exhibits of artifacts as well as old Dudley family quilts.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
If you’ve read the Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Yearling, you might be interested in visiting the house where it was written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in 1938. The house is located in Cross Creek, a small farming village southeast of Gainesville whose residents became the inspiration and often the subjects of Rawlings’ work. She moved there with her first husband, Charles Rawlings, in 1928 and fell in love with the wild, remote area.
As you enter the house, you’ll see the typewriter displayed on the front porch where she did most of her writing. Further on, you’ll see the kitchen where she created her non-literary masterpieces. She loved cooking both gourmet meals and the Cracker cuisine that made its way into many of her books, including a cookbook called Cross Creek Cookery published in 1942.
She once said, “For my part, my literary ability may safely be questioned as harshly as one wills, but indifference to my table puts me into a rage.”
The grounds fell into decay after her death, but the Park Service has recreated the orange groves and gardens that were there in Rawlings’ time. Chickens and ducks wander freely around the barn, the tenant house and the outhouse that inspired Marjorie to invest in indoor plumbing.
The park is open for tours Thursday through Sunday but it is closed in August and September for maintenance.
The little town of Micanopy (mick-uh-NOPE-ee) is named after a Seminole chief and retains a lot of the charm of an early 20th century Florida town. There are a number of old buildings from that era including the Dailey building that had a drugstore and a doctor’s office with a hotel on the second floor.
There’s also an old garage and a general store. You can grab a bite to eat at the Old Florida Cafe. (The Cuban sandwich is excellent!) Next door you can shop for souvenirs at the gift shop or get ice cream on a freshly-made waffle cone. The town is also well known for its antique stores.
Just outside of Micanopy you’ll find the Herlong Mansion B&B,which started out in 1845 as a Cracker-style wood frame house. By 1910, the owners of the house had amassed enough wealth through their lumber mills, citrus farms and other ventures, that they decided to upgrade their home. They encased the existing house in brick and put Corinthian columns out in the front and the result is this spectacular mansion that hosts small weddings and family reunions throughout the year.
If you go…
This is just a short list of things to do and see in the Gainesville area. If you enjoy outdoor adventures, historical sites and museums, shopping, antiquing, or just hanging out and listening to people talk about how much they love college football, you’ll be glad you visited Gainesville. And if you really want to paint your body orange, no one there is going to stop you.
Husband and wife team Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis of Arlington, Massachusetts are among our most adventurous travel writers. Whether it’s open-water swimming in the British Virgin Islands, house-boating on the Suwannee River, zip lining in Costa Rica or soaring over the Grand Canyon in a Maverick helicopter, they go the extra mile to bring us great stories from all over the world. They live in Arlington, Mass.