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Adventures in Fun and Artsy Gainesville

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Gainesville has transformed some of its facades into attractive spaces for artwork thanks to murals such as this one. (Jennifer Merrick/Vacay.ca)

Story by Jennifer Merrick
Vacay.ca Writer

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA — A three-hour tour.

It was the start of an unexpected adventure for the gang at Gilligan’s Island, and for us, too, on the Pub and Mural Tour in Gainesville, a university town in Northern Florida. This bike excursion was far from typical since  we were not touring on bicycles exactly, but on a “Bar Cycle,” where multiple riders (there are eight of us) pedalled while sitting around a wooden bar with music blaring.

“You’re very much a carnival float,” said co-owner and guide Amber Shelton. “So be prepared to wave.” And wave we did as we laughed and pedalled to our stops.

Like most university towns, Gainesville is more committed to arts and culture than the average small town, and the downtown mural initiative illustrates this commitment. Approximately a dozen large works of art by local and international artists grace the brick walls of local businesses, transforming the exteriors into an outdoor gallery.

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This mural is among the artwork on display in Gainesville. The city’s mural project will be expanding. (Jennifer Merrick/Vacay.ca)

Our group’s favourite mural portrayed a goddess done in the likeness of a beloved local teacher, holding the swirling energy of the galaxy in her hands, which is meant to inspire those looking at it to “contemplate what’s important in their lives.” This project has been so well-received that expansion plans are in the works.

Also, like many university towns, Gainesville has more than its fair share of pubs and drinking establishments. We found our way into a few of them on our bike tour, including OAK, where we could pour our own pint using a pre-paid card. We sampled a few of their brews along with a selection of appetizers, even trying deep-fried macaroni and cheese, a dish I had no idea existed.

“My guilty pleasure,” admitted one patron.

Southern Flavours and Libations in Gainesville

One taste that did win me over completely was our meal at Southern Charm Restaurant. Many of the recipes here came with a story, and we relished each southern-flavoured morsel of the Sweet Corn and Seafood Fritters, Pentecostal Fried Chicken and Okra and Cherry Tomatoes and Smoked Bacon. Other excellent Gainesville dining options include The Top (popular for weekend brunch), Big Lou’s Pizzeria, Harry’s Seafood and Emiliano’s Latin Cafe.

At First Magnitude Brewery about 60 people, armed with yoga mats and extra-large water bottles, braved the heat to participate in a yoga brewery class. It didn’t seem a likely pairing, but it worked. Our knowledgeable yoga instructor took us through a series of vinyasa poses. The best part? After an hour of participating in an activity that is so beneficial to the body, there was no guilt attached to nipping to the tasting bar. Might I recommend the Siren Blonde Ale? Equally impressive was the cost of this class was a PWYC (Pay What You Can) donation to a local charity. “We strive to make the brewery a part of the community,” said co-founder and president Meg The Losen. And judging by the families, students and people of all ages enjoying board games, outdoor and indoor picnic areas and, of course, a brew or two, First Magnitude has succeeded.

Natural Highlights

A strong cultural presence and good food and drink are par for the course in almost any university town worth its salt, but Gainesville has added allure in its proximity to so many state parks and wilderness preserves. The outdoors is why our First Magnitude yoga instructor, Lauren Douma, also a Ph.D student in genetics, wants to stay in Gainesville after she graduates.

“All around here are parks and bike baths,” she says. “It’s just awesome.”

Paddle Boarding on the Santa Fe River

Near Jacksonville, visitors have the opportunity to try stand-up paddleboarding on the Sante Fe River. (Jennifer Merrick/Vacay.ca)

We experienced this awesomeness firsthand on a stand-up paddle board excursion with DriftSUP in nearby High Springs. Paddling down the Santa Fe River was a peaceful way to explore the Floridian nature and wildlife. The river shore was lined with trees draped with Spanish moss. We saw egrets, cormorants and even an alligator basking in the sun. We explored the freshwater springs, underground water sources easy to spot because the muddy waters suddenly turned crystal clear. At Lilly Spring, we saw a sign alerting us to a more unusual wildlife sighting. “Naked Ed Ahead” it reads. Turned out, this not-so-shy nudist is an attraction in these parts, and there are even T-shirts honouring him.

And so we had yet another adventure on a three-hour tour. There is no chance of boredom in this town.

More outdoor activities: Climb 232 steps to see the sinkhole at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park; bike on the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail; spot bison, horses and alligators at Paynes Prairie Preserve or go tubing at the Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Sweet Water Branch Inn, a popular spot for weddings because of its historic property and beautiful gardens. The convenient location (within walking distance of downtown), wine-and-cheese hour, and hearty homemade breakfasts made it a lovely home-away-from home.