By Doc Lawrence –
GAINESVILLE, FL– The Sunshine State never fails to introduce a new surprise. After nearly 40 years of travel here, you might think I know every nook by now. However, I learned to peel back the tourism veneer and search for people, places and things beyond theme parks and crowded beaches. Welcome to Gainesville, a medium-size city with a major university that can keep you occupied, particularly if you like the live theater, zoos, beautiful homes, great restaurants, canoeing and luxury lodging.
Gainesville is the perfect jump off location to paddle wild rivers like the Santa Fe, hike in wild nature preservers like nearby Payne’s Prairie and immerse yourself in the Cracker Culture of Cross Creek, the little paradise made known to the world by Pulitzer Prize winner Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in her classic novel, “The Yearling.”
The modern and the primitive are juxtaposed in this region many call Florida’s Eden. Wildlife is near college campuses; classical music is stone’s throw from rock, country and jazz. Gainesville and environs offers everything
from butterflies to fishing and the food, from fresh Florida clams to Chicken Marsala, is fine any time of year.
Kanapha Botanical Garden is Gainesville’s bucolic paradise where a return to nature begins moments after leaving your car. Countless trees, flowers and shrubbery line the trails while songbirds serenade the weary traveler, boosting the spirits as only things free and wild can do.
Just a short drive away to Alachua is Mill Creek Farm, a fabulous retirement home for horses. This is the humane alternative to the wanton and cruel killing of horses beyond their so-called usefulness. And a mighty joyous place this is. Cracker horses mix and mingle with giant Belgians and Palominos, while senior dwarf horses nudge up to the guests for a little love. The price of admission? “A bag of carrots, “ says owner Peter Gregory, a gentle soul with a big heart. The equine sanctuary provides lifelong care for horses that are unwanted and destined for slaughter. “Retirees” enjoy their lives in spacious, tree-lined pastures where they roam freely with other horses, live in peace and die with dignity.
Canoeing the Santa Fe River, one of Florida’s protected wild streams, is worth the investment of a day. Boat rentals and guides are available year round. Jim and Sally Wood bought Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in 1990 and have seen it and the nearby town of High Springs grow into a lively ecotourism hub. Business has grown steadily to 100 canoes and 30 kayaks. “The Santa Fe River,” said the ebullient Jim Wood, “is now the axis to an outdoor recreation economy in the High Springs area where visitors can boat, swim, snorkel, dive and hike in our waterways, springs, parks and trails.”
After a day on the river with Jim Wood, my entourage dined at Great Outdoors, a High Springs restaurant that regularly garners culinary awards. The fresh local catfish platter and the Grouper Reuben made a solid case for even more acclaim.
Food was always in my travel itinerary and Gainesville is up to satisfying diverse tastes. Pizza at Blue Highway just outside the ancient Florida city of Micanopy was a prelude to gourmet dining at Leonardo’s 706 which featured Miles Davis’ classic jazz music playing in the background. I thought while enjoying a glass of a terrific Provencal along with the entrée that the “king of cool” was really there performing for us. Florida is home to some of America’s finest Cuban gourmet restaurants and few anywhere measure up to Emiliano’s Café. The pork and chicken entrees pair nicely with Sangria and always refreshing Mojitos.
Gainesville’s Florida Museum of Natural History is breathtaking, a mandatory stop for families who want to see the indigenous treasures of the Sunshine State. The Butterfly Rainforest, part of the museum, showcases some of nature’s most beautiful creatures. You’ll leave enchanted, feeling like a child again.
Each day began with breakfast, alternating between two magnificent B and B’s. Joe and Cindy Montalto’s romantic Magnolia Plantation serves an unforgettable spread of pastries, eggs and pancakes. Breakfast included conversations with visitors from the four corners. A block away is Laurel Oak Inn owned and managed by a delightful couple, Monta and Peggy Burt. Both provide the essential early morning meal to kick-start another glorious day in exciting Gainesville.
After a full day, I had a yearning to relax and be entertained. I walked over to the magnificent Hippodrome, one of Gainesville’s performing arts venues, beholding a scintillating comedy, “The 39 Steps” and was ready to call it a successful day.
It was time to head home the next morning, leaving enriched with new and exciting memories.