It snowed in Gainesville, Fla., this month, an event rare enough that odds are good the rest of the winter will be nice.
The city itself is nicer than most people suspect. Best known for the University of Florida’s flagship campus, Gainesville is a leafy oasis of vintage architecture, serious theater and art and tropical forests, with nary a beach or theme park in sight.
Dead center of north Florida, it is midway between Jacksonville (the closest major airport) and Tampa. If you’re driving from Atlanta south on I-75, you come straight into Gainesville, through a watery inland landscape of shimmering blue lakes and canopied trees.
In a charming, slow-paced Southern way, Gainesville feels like Old Florida. Georgina Revival-style academic and fraternity buildings sprawl across a pedestrian-friendly downtown; UF is one of the nation’s largest universities, with a lively Jewish scene and active Chabad house.
Several of Florida’s most interesting sights lie right on that campus. No critter at a theme park, in my opinion, can match the magic of the Butterfly Rain Forest at The Florida Museum of Natural History — a lush, contained paradise of tropical ferns, blossoms and waterfalls, peppered by thousands of flitting butterflies and the occasional turtle.
The museum is particularly interesting for those of us whose knowledge of Florida history begins and ends in the age of air-conditioning. Long before there were condos, dozens of native tribes lived amid the area’s swamps and banana groves; many of the state’s signature creatures, like the alligators that still populate its lakes, date back millions of years.
In the Hall of Florida Fossils, massive jaws, teeth and dinosaur skeletons — 90 percent of which were unearthed around Gainesville! — attest to the state’s exotic natural record. The Hall plays up the spooky, monster-like qualities of its fossilized fauna, with thoughtful timelines that contextualize hundreds of millions of years of evolution.
Also on campus is the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, which offers an eclectic, well-arranged selection of terrific things you don’t often see. These include a major photography collection spanning decades (one of the country’s best); first-rate Latin American and American urban art, including the work of numerous 20th-century Jewish painters; and diverse ceremonial sculpture from across Asia and Africa, from gilded Buddhas to intricately carved obelisks.
Any excuse will do to visit the Hippodrome Theatre, a downtown landmark housed in the city’s historic Federal Building. It’s a thrill just to walk inside the lavish, columned façade, where a high-quality lineup of plays — classic and new — is on offer alongside art-house and independent cinema.
Just outside central Gainesville, two tropical wonderlands await. One is the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, a favorite of weekend picnickers. Follow an easy, mile-long path past gazebos and waterfalls through two dozen gardens including a bamboo grove, huge sprays of lilies, oriental and tropical displays, a children’s garden and the region’s largest (and most fragrant) herb collection.
Spring comes early in Gainesville, and it’s the ideal time to explore these gardens as they come into bloom. In late March, Kanapaha hosts its annual Spring Garden Festival, a showcase for the colorful blooms that have made the South famous.
Amid the loveliness at Kanapaha is a sinkhole, a curious feature of the Floridian landscape. Another sinkhole is actually the main attraction nearby at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park — a green, jungle-like rainforest surrounding a bowl-shaped cavity that sinks 120 feet from the surrounding terrain.
You can access the limestone sinkhole through a series of vertiginous staircases that descend through waterfalls, ferns and palmettos. A mile-long trail loops through the rainforest, which is considered a natural landmark for its unique, fossil-rich ecosystem.
It might seem an odd spot for the resettlement of European Jews, but that was Moses Elias Levy’s plan when he first developed the nearby village of Micanopy. A 10-minute drive south of Gainesville takes you on a 200-year detour into Florida’s Jewish heritage: Levy, a Moroccan-born Sephardic merchant and activist, spearheaded the first American settlement in this corner of Florida, intending to create a New World refuge for Eastern European Jews.
Levy’s Floridian Jewish utopia never came to fruition — many would say Miami won that battle — but the town he founded, Micanopy, remains a quaintly preserved vestige of 19th-century Florida. (Levy’s son, David, later became America’s first Jewish senator.) A plaque honoring Levy’s contribution stands in downtown Micanopy, where rows of brick buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.