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Butterflies Among the Gators in Florida

By Louise Tutelian
March 6, 2009
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ON a recent winter night, the spine-tingling opening bars of the theme from “Jaws” thumped through a darkened basketball arena in Gainesville, Fla. “Ladies and gentleman,” an announcer bellowed, his voice growing louder with each word, “your Florida Gators!” Dancers in black tights and orange sequin tops bounced onto the floodlit court, followed by 10 tumbling cheerleaders. The University of Florida women’s team poured through the gantlet they formed, ending in a scrum of chest bumps and fist pumps.

Thousands of screaming fans leapt to their feet, waving orange-and-blue tinsel pom-poms and “chomping” their arms in the university’s signature cheer.

Welcome to the capital of Gator Nation.

Gainesville might be best known as the home of the reigning college football national champions, but there is much more than the pomp and pageantry of fall football Saturdays as seen on ESPN.

The city of about 114,000, 90 miles south of the Georgia border, has nationally known museums of art and natural history, and lush botanical gardens. Just out of town, guides in 1930s-style garb lead visitors through the home of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author from that era. Theaters on and off campus offer plays and concerts. Restaurant fare includes succulent coconut curry chicken and Caprese pizza.

Before setting out to explore, take note: In this city, a G.P.S. unit may be your best friend. Gainesville is divided into quadrants — southwest, southeast, northeast and northwest — and street signs can be confusing.

Indian tribes and Spanish settlers were the area’s first inhabitants, followed by farmers from Georgia and the Carolinas who arrived in search of more fertile land. Because of its location midway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and between Jacksonville and Tampa, the city became an important railroad junction in the early 1900s, said Kevin McCarthy, a former professor of English and linguistics at the University of Florida and the author of several books on Florida history. Its inland hurricane-resistant location also encouraged growth.

The University of Florida, set on 2,000 acres with an enrollment of over 52,000, is the heartbeat of Gainesville. But that pulse wasn’t always a sure thing. The university was originally located in Lake City, 30 miles away. Gainesville’s promise of free water — which Lake City couldn’t match — lured the institution down the road. It opened in Gainesville in 1906. These days, the business of education is the largest employer in town, serving Gators as well as nearby Santa Fe College’s 16,588 students.

Gainesville and its environs are a curious melding of academia and the arts with the natural sights of Old Florida. The campus is a world unto itself, with 900 buildings, including gracious red brick halls, a cultural plaza and an elegant sorority row. Downtown is its own commercial district. But drive a few minutes out of town and there are fields where horses graze and farmhouses with tall windows and wide verandas. Cypress trees line two-lane roads.

“We don’t have the ocean, spring training or Disney World,” Dr. McCarthy said, “but what we do have is the educational, the cultural and access to the rural parts of Florida.”

The butterfly rain forest at the Florida Museum of Natural History is a breathtaking place to start touring. On the Cultural Plaza at the University of Florida, the museum houses several first-rate collections, but none more impressive than the rain forest. Its 6,400 square feet contain subtropical and tropical plants, a walking trail, waterfalls and butterflies — lots of them.

At any one time, about 2,000 butterflies and moths are in the four-story enclosure, said Michael Boulware, a living exhibit specialist at the museum. It’s a calming spectacle. “Everyone’s blood pressure drops when they come in here,” he said.

The Hall of Florida Fossils is especially intriguing. Coming upon 17 huge skeletons bathed in shadowy blue light is not unlike walking into a scene from the film “Night at the Museum.” A giant ground sloth 15 feet high paws the air with bony claws as an armadillo-like glyptodon the size of a Volkswagen Beetle crouches nearby. Many of these bones weren’t discovered until 1963, when excavations to build Interstate 75 unearthed them.

Also in the museum are interactive exhibits, including a life-size limestone cave and a South Florida Calusa Indian welcoming ceremony.

In fact, the region that became Gainesville was home to many Indian tribes. The Timucua were the first recorded inhabitants, their presence noted in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their village became part of a Spanish land grant, and in 1821 the United States annexed Florida from Spain.

For the next 20 years, the Seminole Indians resisted government efforts to relocate them westward. Ultimately, starvation and defeat in battles forced their surrender. The settlement, originally dubbed Hog Town, was named Gainesville in 1854 in honor of Edmund P. Gaines, an Army officer who had led expeditions against the Seminoles.

For a change of pace from history to artistry, step over to the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art next door on the Cultural Plaza. Fortify yourself first with lunch at the Camellia Court Café, on the lower level of the museum. The sleek all-white space was pleasantly bustling one afternoon, as customers ordered crab bisque and loaf of ciabatta with wine or a cup of locally roasted Sweetwater organic coffee.

The museum contains nearly 7,000 works that span continents and epochs. Head first to the African collection, with wood sculpture, masks, ceramics, leatherwork, textiles and metalwork. “Between the Beads: Reading African Beadwork,” a show that runs through the summer, explains how intricate ornamental beading sewn on regalia and headpieces was used to convey meaning. Other galleries include strong collections of Asian, modern and international contemporary art.

A good place to discuss the day’s viewing is over dinner about a mile and a half east of campus at Liquid Ginger, an Asian grill and teahouse that offers tasting plates and complete dinners impeccably served in lacquered boxes. The setting is serene, the portions are generous and the price is moderate.

Gainesville’s compact downtown has clubs offering live music, including jazz, as well as the Hippodrome, housed in the historic Federal Building. The Hipp, as locals call it, offers theater productions, films, occasional guest artist presentations and visual arts exhibits. “Shipwrecked!” a play by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies, will have its Florida premiere there April 17. Back at the Cultural Plaza on campus, the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts presents the Peking Acrobats (March 21) and the banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck (April 5) .

Another Pulitzer recipient, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won in 1939 for her novel “The Yearling,” was a local luminary. A visit to her former home and citrus farm in nearby Hawthorne is an ideal Sunday excursion — and a trip back in time. Nearly all the furnishings in the farmhouse are original, down to a pie safe, linens and framed photographs. On a recent afternoon, a guide wearing a polka-dot 1930s-era housedress and smock stood on the veranda where Rawlings wrote her novel, about a young boy and a deer he adopts.

“Most people who come here have read the book as children and want to see where she wrote it,” said the guide, Joy Goodall. Although she lived in what was then remote farm country, Rawlings, who died in 1953, entertained Gregory Peck, Robert Frost and Zora Neale Hurston, among others.

The Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, back in town, is one of Gainesville’s most alluring attractions. Paved walkways wend through the 62-acre facility. Around each bend, a different garden awaits. The one-mile loop of the East Garden path skirts one of the largest herb gardens in the country. Towering stands of bamboo sway and clack in the wind. In season, a spring flower garden blooms and giant Victoria lily pads float on adjacent Lake Kanapaha. Along the half-mile West Garden path are waterfalls and gazebos as well as azalea, camellia and rose gardens.

After such a contemplative day, you might want to channel your inner college student once more. Do that at Satchel’s Pizza, where Satchel Raye has created a restaurant/toy and magic trick garage/live music space and boccie court that is a far cry from Domino’s. In an out-of-the-way neighborhood and ornamented with all manner of gewgaws, Satchel’s requires a certain adventurous spirit, but the restaurant is surprisingly congenial and the pizza and salads justly famous. With luck, you’ll snag a table in the 1965 Ford Falcon van permanently moored out front. Your order may take a while, but in this town, there’s always one topic to kick around while you wait: How ’bout those Gators?

IF YOU GO

Jacksonville International Airport, about 70 miles northeast, is the largest airport serving the Gainesville area. Visitors can also fly to Gainesville, usually with a connection in Charlotte, N.C.

WHAT TO DO

The Florida Museum of Natural History (Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road; 352-846-2000; www.flmnh.ufl.edu) is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free; the Butterfly Rain Forest costs $9.50.

The Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art (Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road; 352-392-9826; www.harn.ufl.edu) is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

The Hippodrome (25 Southeast Second Place in Suncenter East; 352-375-4477; www.thehipp.org).

The Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road; 352-392-2787; www.performingarts.ufl.edu).

The Marjorie K. Rawlings Historic State Park (18700 South County Road 325, Hawthorne, Fla.; 352-466-3672; www.floridastateparks.org/marjoriekinnanrawlings). Tours are offered on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 10 and 11 a.m., and 1 through 4 p.m. (House tours are not available in August and September.) Fee for the tour is $3.

The Kanapaha Botanical Garden (4700 Southwest 58th Drive; 352-372-4981; www.kanapaha.org) is open Monday to Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Thursday. It is open Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to dusk. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children 6 through 13. Children under 6 are free.

Gatorzone.com lists University of Florida sporting events.

WHERE TO EAT

Camellia Court Café (lower level, Harn Museum; 352-392-2735) is open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sandwiches, salads and the signature crab bisque are $6.95 to $9.95.

Liquid Ginger (101 Southeast Second Place; 352-371-2323). Entrees like Thai red curry chicken come with soup, salad and rice for $14 to $19.

At Satchel’s Pizza (1800 Northeast 23rd Avenue; 352-335-7272; www.satchelspizza.com) you can get a slice for $3 or a 14-inch cheese pizza for $12.50.

WHERE TO STAY

The Laurel Oak Inn (221 Southeast Seventh Street; 877-373-4535; www.laureloakinn.com) is a Victorian bed-and-breakfast near downtown. It has five rooms and a two-bedroom cottage. Rates begin at $129 at the inn, and $150 for the cottage.

The Hilton University of Florida Conference Center Gainesville (1714 Southwest 34th Street; 352-371-3600; www.ufhotel.com) is on the campus. Rates are $132 to $325.

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