Gator in Lake Alice on the UF campus (courtesy Random McRandomhead at Flickr’s Creative Commons.)I’m going to honor the Boys of Old Florida.

As a former short-term resident of Gainesville, the hometown of the University of Florida Gators, it is clearly time to offer up a quick tribute now that another team got the Big Chomp and the Gators are national champions again in college basketball. We’re not even going to mention the national championship that they’re also currently holding in football.  Or going to the 2005 NCAA College World Series final in baseball.

I hear you out there, muttering about “what the heck does this have to do with travel?”  Well, watch me pretzel into that one!

Too many people think only of Orlando, theme parks and maybe Miami when they consider Florida, but that is a partial picture of an amazing state.  Because of the differences in topography and demographics, the further south you go in Florida, the less “Southern” the culture.  I like Miami and the Everglades, the beaches are great (tip: head to the Gulf of Mexico side for the best ones) and Key West is a special place, but there are hidden treasures in north central Florida, in and around Gainesville, that you might enjoy.

**  Micanopy (Mick-an-OH-pee) is the perfect little movie-set Florida town, just south of Gainesville.  Stroll languidly past massive gnarled Spanish moss-draped trees and poke into crammed curiosity shops.  Around noon, pause at the friendly local ice cream/sandwich joint, the Coffee N Cream, when local fiddlers and banjo players stage a porch concert.  Menu recommendation? Aunt Sherry’s chicken salad.  Another dining option:  the perfectly-named Blue Highway Pizzeria.

**  Sinkholes. Walk down the wooden stairs next to lushly burbling streams that disappear into the bottom of Gainesville’s massive Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park.  This self-contained ecosystem is pretty interesting for just a big ol’ hole in the ground.

**  Fast Car.  Drag racing fans already know about the yearly pilgrimage to whiff those nitro fumes and enjoy 7,000 pounds of deafening dragster horsepower at the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Gatornationals, but don’t miss a quick visit to see the Big Daddy.  Racer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing and Classic Cars is south of Gainesville in Ocala, an easy jump from Interstate 75.  What’s it like at the drag strip?  I wrote about it here and here.

**  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park in Cross Creek.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling lived in this Cracker farmhouse for 25 years, stashing her booze in the closet during Prohibition and typing her manuscripts on the front porch.  Stubbed-out cigs in the ashtray make it seem that she’s just stepped out to tend to her orange grove.  Hungry for primo gator tail, cooter (turtle) and frog legs?  Go to the Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek.

**  Springs and Rivers.  On a sticky Florida midsummer day, take the proverbial flying leap into refreshing clear turquoise spring waters at Poe Springs, Blue Springs or Ginnie Springs or O’Leno State Park.  For a bit more forward motion, laze down the Ichetucknee River in a giant inner tube.

**  Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History.  Join the other lepidoptera fanatics of all ages walking gently through hundreds of colorful butterflies.  You can also observe human researchers at work, but it’s more interesting to watch baby winged ones struggle valiantly to escape cocoons.

**  Unique Local Eats.  Floyd’s Diner (now called the Fleetwood Diner) in High Springs serves up homestyle grub plus live music.  Conestoga’s in Alachua is all about humongous burgers and steaks.  Satchel’s Pizza in eastern Gainesville is always hopping with both students and locals (try to snag the VW bus in front — the table somehow inserted within it seats about 6.  And you have to order their salad.)     Want breakfast?  You can’t beat the 43rd Street Deli, fairly near campus.

**  Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.   Sweeping open prairie grasslands and marshes contain wild bison and horses.  Look for hundreds of bird species (including Sand Hill Cranes) from the many marked trails.  There’s even the hulk of an 1800’s steamboat from the days when this was Alachua Lake.

**  University of Florida Athletics.  Florida Gator fans make any sports contest an event.  Rowdy Reptiles scream their orange and blue heads off supporting O’Dome basketball, the Swamp Things taunt other football teams (Gator Bait!) but the hollering and enthusiasm also continues for gymnastics, softball, soccer, even intramurals….just pick a sport and go.

**  Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico.  Funky Old Florida atmosphere makes this a perfect day trip from Gainesville.  Nope, that tiny public beach is not what you came for.  Wander the art galleries, chow down on fresh seafood, then kayak out to Atsena Otie Key offshore, just before the vermilion sunset.  Check with Adventure Outpost in High Springs for guided kayak outings here and all over north central Florida.

Bet you didn’t know all that, right?  Thanks for following the slender thread from basketball to travel.

Update 23 April 2007:  This post was featured in the Southern Fried blog carnival, hosted by Cass Knits! Stop by and tour the South.

Technorati tags:  travel, Gainesville, Florida, UF, Gators

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I'm a writer and speaker specializing in tourism, travel and social media. NHRA drag racing fan. Co-founder of Tourism Currents. U.S. Navy veteran. Caffeinated.