By Warren Resen, IFWTWA (International Food Wine & Travel Writers Assn.) Jeanne O’Connor, photographer
The aroma of fresh brewed coffee drifting up from the kitchen awakened us in our king-sized bed with the Tempur-Pedic mattress. My wife was looking forward to luxuriating in our room’s oversized tub with the air jets. We talked about what might be served for that day’s gourmet breakfast in our 5-star B&B. We were not in some exotic resort but guests at the historic Laurel Oak Inn in the Historic B&B section of downtown Gainesville, Florida.
The Laurel Oak Inn, a Queen Anne Victorian residence built in 1885, was totally renovated by its on-site owners, Monta and Peggy Burt. From the days when it had been a maze of small apartments in a college town, it now boasts five luxurious, antique filled guest rooms with stunning public areas.
This was to be our base of operations over the next several days during our tour of greater Gainesville. The Inn was only a short walk to Gainesville’s bustling downtown.
There is more to Gainesville than the ‘Gators, especially if you visit when school’s out. If you think of Gainesville as just the home of UF, or are an alum who has not visited in decades and only remembers the grind, Greek letter societies and football, then you don’t know modern day Gainesville.
If you’ve visited Gainesville only during special weekends, particularly football season, or Homecoming, then you will be pleasantly surprised at the easy availability of rooms, reasonable prices and uncrowded restaurants when school’s out. Cultural attractions including live theatre, restaurants and outdoor venues can be enjoyed without crowds and noise.
Yes, it’s home to an ever expanding university and yes, football brings a loyal following each year to root for the home team, but it’s also an important and growing metropolitan area, home to the arts, theatre, night life, fine dining and world class accommodations. It’s a modern city with one foot still rooted in Old Florida.
Before looking at Gainesville’s urban side, let’s travel away from the city’s center and visit some of the natural and historical attractions only a short drive away.
Gainesville’s famous “sink,” the Devil’s Millhopper, is the only geographical site in the Florida state park system and possibly the only vertical one. At 120 feet deep and 500 feet across at its widest point, it has been civilized from the old days when explorers could freely descend into its depths from any point on the rim.
While some might think it was more fun “back then,” it is definitely much safer visiting today while still retaining its mystical qualities with its cut-away views of central Florida’s geologic past. Visitors of all ages now have safe access to its interior. The 232-step stairway is the gateway for exploration of the sink’s bottom, aerobic exercise or preparation for attempting more challenging terrains.
Moving to a watery venue, kayaking the Santa Fe River and heading to the place where this part of the river emerges from its underground source is about as far as you can get from the trappings of civilization and still be close to home. The ban on motorized boats in this section ensures your peace and tranquility. Bring your own equipment or rent a kayak or canoe from the Santa Fe River Canoe Outpost in High Springs.
To the south of metropolitan Gainesville is the famous Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. I use the term famous because its 22,000 acres is home to a herd of cracker horses and cows. They are descendants of the first modern day horses and cows brought into the Continental United States by the Spaniards beginning with Ponce de Leon in 1521. Then there is the herd of bison, which is confusing to many people.
Bison in Florida? Yes, they were native to Florida long before Europeans arrived. And then there are the alligators, lots of them and some of the biggest ones you will probably ever see in the “wild.” Alligator sightings are guaranteed. Unlike Disney though, the ‘gators are just “there.” They don’t perform on a regular schedule, only when they want to.
Unknown to most visitors, Paynes Prairie is a major source of water replenishment for the Florida aquifer. Stop for a look at the Alachua Sink on its northern end. This is where all the water is channeled before disappearing deep into Florida’s limestone reservoir.
To the south of Gainesville, a dot on the map, is Cross Creek made famous by Pulitzer Prize winner Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings because of her book, “The Yearling.” But there were other books to come, one of which had the unusual name of “Cross Creek.” Her “Cross Creek Cook Book” is considered to be one of the first truly American cook books.
Ms. Rawlings is still famous. Her world-wide reputation remains unabated since her death in 1953. The Rawlings house and grounds are now a Florida Historic State Park and guided tours are available.
Back in the city, the Florida Museum of Natural History is a must see.
This state run museum is on the campus of UF. Its exhibits begin with a tour of Florida’s pre-history and continue to the present. The extent and depth of the world-class exhibits is amazing. A wonderful walk-through Butterfly Rainforest right in the museum will delight all ages and a program of visiting exhibits guarantees visitors something new and interesting throughout the year.
Also in the city is the delightful 62 acre Kanapaha Botanical Gardens named for the nearby lake which famed naturalist William Bartram is said to have visited in 1773. Its peaceful and diverse habitats, along two miles of trails, offers strollers a delightful escape from city life. Most impressive is a water course in which float huge Amazon lily pads, something I’ve only seen once before during a trip on the Amazon River. It’s a sight you will not soon forget.
Now it’s time to get back to the inner city and make your choice for that all important experience: dining out. The options are seemingly endless even when eliminating the fast food franchise stops. Almost any ethnic food is available and it is hard to make a bad choice.
Before dinner though, if you are a fan of live theatre, you might want to take in a performance at the Hippodrome Theatre in downtown Gainesville. This is a professional company producing works of Broadway and off-Broadway shows and is open year-round. The Hippodrome is surrounded by many of the fine downtown restaurants, making it easy to walk to the theatre after dinner or visit for drinks after the show.
My three days in Gainesville were a whirlwind of activity and I could only scratch the surface. There is so much to see and do in this “college town” that it requires several trips. Hopefully I will get back again soon and continue the journey.
For a complete guide of what to see and do in Gainesville, go to VisitGainesville.com.