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EXPLORING GAINESVILLE

At first glance, Gainesville might seem like a quiet college town. But beyond the campus, the many businesses and Gainesville home rentals within walking distance, is a dynamic city with a rich mix of historic spots, natural wonders and cultural activities. Spend a little time among them and you’ll realize just how special Gainesville is.

To get you started on your explorations, here is a list of top sites you’re sure to want to check out.

DEVIL”S MILLHOPPER

Early settlers and Native Americans thought this 120-foot-deep sinkhole was a porthole to the spirit world. Now we know it’s the remains of a limestone cavern that collapsed more than 10,000 years ago. Regardless of its origin, Devil’s Millhopper and the 63-acre park that surrounds it are interesting places to spend an afternoon.

The park is filled with lush vegetation and wildlife. At the centers is Devil’s Millhopper itself. You can travel a series of stairs and walkways to the bottom of the sinkhole and watch Deer Run Creek pouring into the bottomless hole at the center. Or, you can stroll the nature trail that circles the top of the 500-foot-wide sinkhole and enjoy the woodlands. Call 955-2008 for more information, or visit www.floridastateparks.org/devilsmillhopper.

DOWNTOWN GAINESVILLE

Thanks to investments by a number of savvy businesspeople, Gainesville’s Downtown is undergoing a renaissance that is making it a must-visit for anyone who settles in the city. If you like the arts, you can check out the hippodrome, a national historic building that now houses a live theatre and arts cinema. Is eating and drinking more your cup of tea? Visit the many fine restaurants, coffee shops, nightclubs and bars around the Sun Center and on neighboring streets.

Want to shop ‘til you drop? Check out the retail stores in Union Station and the seasonal farmer’s market. Parking was a problem in years past, but the new 850-space parking garage that opened at the end of 2004 has taken much of the strain off the streets.

The heart of Downtown Gainesville is at the intersection of Main Street and University Avenue , with stores and businesses stretching in both directions.

GAINESVILLE DOWNTOWN FESTIVAL AND ART SHOW

A tradition since 1981, this festival draws top-rated entertainment and first-class artists. It’s so good, in fact, that recently, in competition against 10,000 similar art shows and festivals, the event was named one of the top 100 in the U.S.

The Downtown Festival runs for here days in early November. One night is devoted to live blues performers, a second to a live jazz show. Art works are displayed and are for sale over the entire three days. For more information, contact the Gainesville City Department of Cultural Affairs at 334-2787, or visit their website at www.gvlculturalaffairs.org.

GAINESVILLE RACEWAY

Smoking tires, a ton of noise, and some of the fastest machines on Earth.

Sound tempting? Then you’ll definitely want to take a run out to the Gainesville Raceway, one of the top drag racing tracks in the country.

The Raceway operates year-round and features a variety of races for cars and motorcycles, including the well-known Gatornationals, which are held each spring. If you’d want to do more than just watch, the Raceway also runs a drag racing school. Call 352-377-0406, or visit www.gainesvilleraceway.com to learn more.

GINNIE SPRINGS

One of many freshwater springs that feed the Santa Fe River , north of Gainesville , Ginnie Springs provides a wealth of activities for people who love the water. You can tube the river, swim in the springs, snorkel, scuba dive, canoe and kayak. If you hit the river at the right time of year (usually summer), the water will be so clear you can check out fish, turtles and maybe even the occasional alligator. Call 454-7188 for more information or visit www.ginniespringsoutdoors.com.

HOGGETOWNE FAIRE

If you’d like to sample life in ancient times, be sure to check out the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire, which is held each year over two weekends toward the beginning of February. The faire features jousts between knights, actors performing in period costumes, a medieval marketplace with more than 150 artisans, and a food court filled with tasty offerings. To learn about the next festival call the Gainesville Department of Cultural Affairs at 334-2787, or visit their Web site at www.gvlculturalaffairs.org.

KANAPAHA BOTANICAL GARDENS

Want to get away from the grind and enjoy a little time with nature? Head to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, where one can lose themselves in the luscious gardens. Just a short ride from the UF campus, this 62-acre facility contains 16 major plant and flower collections, including a water garden featuring Victoria water lilies that grow as large as 6 feet in diameter. You can view the collection while strolling along a 1 1/2 mile-long walkway that weaves through the property. Gazebos and benches along the way invite you to rest and enjoy the atmosphere. For more information, call 37-4981 or visit www.kanapaha.org online.

MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS HOMESTEAD

A visit to author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s old homestead is like a trip back into time. The buildings and the surrounding land look much as they did in the late 1920s, when Rawlings settled in and started her prolific career. You can see the rustic front porch where she wrote many of her books, including The Yearling, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Park rangers dressed in period costumes provide guided tours on select days from October to July. At other times, you can tour on your own. The homestead is located 20 minutes southeast of Gainesville . To learn more, call 352-466-3672, or visit www.floridastateparks.org/marjoriekinnanrawlings.

PAYNES PRAIRIE

At one point in the 1870s, Paynes Prairie was a lake so deep that steamships ferried people and produce from shore to shore. Eventually, the drainage plugs beneath this giant sinkhole opened up and the land dried out, leaving the 21,000-acre wildlands we see today. If you take a walk along the natural trails in the park, you may see buffalo, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, and a wide variety of trees and plants. To learn more, call 466-3397 or visit www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie.

Printed with permission of Insite Magazine.