In Gainesville, Fla., No Swamp Thing

Sunday, October 23, 2005

American college towns worthy of their degrees have a few common denominators -- pretty clock towers, leafy boulevards, expansive greens prime for a game of ultimate Frisbee. Gainesville -- home to the University of Florida, the largest university in the Sunshine State -- checks in on all those counts, and with a killer football program to boot. But there's another side of the city that appeals to folks searching for more than a Heisman hopeful.

Situated in north-central Florida, equidistant from the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, Gainesville is less than two hours from Orlando's theme parks and attractions. It's a swampy spot engaged in a playful personality struggle that pits its small-town, hippie roots against an influx of South Florida scenester students keen to inject some South Beach style into their temporary surrounds.

The best spot to gauge the student pulse is at Leonardo's Pizza by the Slice (1245 W. University Ave.), an institution across from the campus that's equally renowned for its pies and its alternative clientele. The place has been cleaned up in recent years, much to the disappointment of longtime Leo's loyalists -- the graffiti-covered walls made new with a fresh coat of paint and trendy artwork -- but the employees are still pierced and tattooed, and an anti-bookworm vibe prevails. Impromptu slam poetry and jam sessions are prone to ensue, with the best pizza in town fueling the fire (cheese slices go for $1.85).

Across from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is Original Alan's Cubana and Salty Dog Saloon (1712 W. University Ave.), dive bar extraordinaire, where scratched tables and dingy lighting are forgiven by the Yuengling, Tucher and Stella Artois on tap (pitchers of the latter go for an economical $10.50 . . . you just gotta love college towns). "The Dog," as patrons call their best friend, is one of the few Gainesville watering holes where you're likely to see flip-flop-clad students and equally casual professors sidling up to the same bar.

As you head east down University Avenue, the ramshackle houses of the "student ghetto" (slang for the cheap student housing neighborhoods) give way to the tidy city center, where Florida Cracker-style houses with broad porches squat under canopies of live oaks strung with Spanish moss. The dining and culture scene climbs the sophistication scale in these parts, too.

The heart of downtown is the Hippodrome State Theatre (25 SE Second Pl.), completed in 1911 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Corinthian columns and the building's enormous bronze doors lend a classic look to the surrounding square, while the theater's schedule of foreign films, one-act comedies and touring acts makes it an A-list destination for Gainesville's culturati. (Another preferred hangout for culture vultures is the on-campus Florida Museum of Natural History, the largest collections-based natural history museum in the Southeast.)

Downtown Gainesville offers foodies respite from the cheap student joints that dominate the west end of University Avenue. Occupying an old station master's house from the 1890s, the Wine and Cheese Gallery (113 N. Main St.) has catered to a loyal local patronage (and many a homesick foreign exchange student) since 1973. Gainesville old-timers Bunky Mastin and Wade Tyler travel frequently to Italy and France to keep their shop stocked with more than 4,000 wine selections, including boutique bottles from Transylvania and Napa Valley's elusive 1993 Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon ($125 per bottle).

"We have cheese that will make you run, it's so strong," Mastin jokes, opening the refrigerator to display a mouth-watering spread of Irish cheddar, blue Castello from Denmark and French Epoisse cheese that oozes from its casing like liquid gold. In the garden of the shop's attached restaurant, Panache, dine on simple delicacies such as the Danish ham and cream havarti sandwich ($5.95) and portabello, spinach and warm chevre salad ($7.95).

Within striking distance of the Hippodrome, at Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company (201 SE Second Ave.), bartenders/students with perfectly gelled hair and dewy faces prepare stiff cocktails (try the Margarita Mistress, $6) for diners awaiting tables at the perpetually packed restaurant. Be prepared for an assualt on the senses, what with the plush purple booths, deejay-spun lounge vibes and sushi rolls packed with more of the raw stuff than rice. The Mistake Roll is far from a faux pas, with grouper, crabmeat, lemon and fish roe for $4.35.

For something more buttoned up and Palm Beach-posh, head to the whitewashed surrounds of Paramount Grill (12 SW First Ave.). The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of someone's long-lost family that the owner picked up at an estate sale, but the food is nouveau all the way. The grilled angus filet with potato and blue cheese crepes and puff pastry, finished with a chanterelle mushroom and sherry wine sauce, is $31.75.

There's no shortage of nightlife, but for visitors looking for something beyond the booty-music realm, the Market Street Pub (120 SW First Ave.) is a good spot for quality drinks and conversation, even if the bar has a tendency to smell like a partied-out frat house. The 35-plus beers on tap include Gainesville Gold pale ale, and there are $1 draft happy hour specials. Cover bands perform most nights, with a few offbeat original ensembles getting stage time as well. Durty Nelly's (208 W. University Ave.) is the best Irish pub in town, and you can party with uninhibited South Beach wannabes (and all the attitude that comes along with that) a few doors down at the popular Bank Bar & Lounge (18 W. University Ave).

To experience Gainesville's real wildlife, however, look beyond the bars. From the banks of Lake Alice (on campus), you can often spot alligators, but the most impressive natural encounters await at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park (100 Savannah Blvd., 352-466-3397, http://www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie ; $4 per vehicle), 10 miles south of Gainesville in Micanopy. Designated Florida's first state preserve in 1971, the park is home to free-ranging herds of bison and horses that are difficult to spot but nonetheless entice nature lovers from across the country for the chance. Sandhill cranes, armadillos and alligators are regularly spotted here.

For the most impressive view of the latter, seek out Boulware Springs Park (3500 SE 15th St., 352-334-2170, http://www.natureoperations.org/pages/parks/boulware.html ; free), inside the prairie and closer to campus. While you can reach the park's entrance by car, you'll have to walk several hundred yards to view the alligators, some of which are likely to be stretched across the trail sunning themselves during the wetter months.

It gives new meaning to that favored mantra in this part of the state: "Go Gators."

-- Terry Ward

For more Information about what to see and do in Gainesville, contact the Gainesville/Alachua County Visitors & Convention Bureau, 866-778-5002,http://www.visitgainesville.com/.

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