No Sand, No Surf, No Problem!

Alachua County is Not Your Average Florida Destination

Natural Beauty From the Old Florida Heritage Highway

You hear the word Florida, and you think beach, right? Well, not anymore! Let me tell you about the natural areas I visited recently in Alachua County. You won’t find sand or surf, but I can tell you that you won’t have time to miss those Florida beaches. To learn more about this area, and plan your visit, use the Natural North Florida website. You will find the answers to all your questions. There is a “Dial & Discover” free audio tour of Old Florida. The 48-mile Old Florida Heritage Highway weaves through moss-draped trees along natural, scenic areas and historic communities, starting just south of Gainesville. To begin your tour, you will need a guide—which you can print from Gainesville Cell Tours.

The Wild Side of Florida

I know; you’re still thinking palm trees, am I right? A day at Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park will change that image. Instead, you will envision bison and wild horses, over 300 bird species, alligators, deer, armadillo, squirrels, and many other animals–yes, in Florida! This Park is a National Landmark. Located at the north end of Payne’s Prairie, visitors will find La Chua Trail, a one-mile path leading to a sinkhole with a boardwalk and panoramic views of the prairie.

Wild Bison, and wild horses in the background
Wild American Bison and the wild horses (in the background) freely roam the prairie

Sweetwater Wetlands Park, just south of Gainesville has more than 3.5 miles of boardwalks and trails. From the observation deck at the Wetlands, birders will spot birds on the list of 215 species seen in the Park.

TIP: Of course, there are alligators. So here, like everywhere else, stay on the path, pay attention, don’t take your dog, and keep a close eye on the little ones!

Amazingly, Alachua County has over 20 parks within its borders. One that isn’t quite as “wild” as some would be Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. This garden has hidden corners and gazebos, perfect for the picnic you thought to bring along (you did pack one, right?) Florida’s weather promotes long growing seasons, perfect for the 6-foot wide Giant Victoria Water Lilies. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens have Florida’s most significant public display of bamboo and the largest herb garden in the southeast. The twenty specialty gardens are displayed along a 1.5-mile paved walkway that winds throughout the park’s 68 acres. The park is open daily except for Thursday.

The Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo is the only AZA-accredited zoo located on a college campus. Open daily from 9-2 pm (guided tours by reservation); the zoo has ten acres of trails through a wooded forest and a walk-through aviary.

TIP:  Take cash with you. Many of the parks have an envelope payment system for entrance fees. You put cash (or check) in the envelope, tear off the hang-tag stub, drop the envelope in the deposit box and hang the stub on your mirror. And bug spray—don’t forget your bug spray!

Gator ’Ville

Bull Gator statue on University of Florida's campus
Bull Gator statue on University of Florida’s campus

Alachua County’s largest town, Gainesville, is known as the home of the University of Florida. Gainesville offers the best of “big city life,” a plethora of restaurants, museums, a butterfly rainforest, bike trails, sculpted gardens, and Victorian architecture from the late 19th century. The city has five historic districts, with 1,500 historic structures and ten buildings of architectural significance listed on the Local Register of Historic Places. Gainesville also participates in the National Register Historic Districts with four districts. There are 34 buildings listed individually on the National Register of Historic Places. A list of those homes is found on the city’s website. Armed with that list and a map, you could take a walking tour and enjoy the view.

Friday night of Homecoming week, UF’s Gator Growl will fill the student center with live music and food trucks. A tradition for over 90 years, the largest student-run homecoming parade and pep rally in the country features floats, bands, and more. Circle October 8 on your calendar!

Photo of one of the Victorian houses that are a part of the Sweetwater Branch Inn
Sweetwater Branch Inn’s McKenzie House

Plan your visit so that you spend a few days at The Sweetwater Branch Inn. The 1885 Victorian beauty is located in historic downtown Gainesville, surrounded by the magnificent McKenzie Gardens. The McKenzie House is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Cute little Florida bungalows are part of the 25-room property so that you can have a house to yourself. Although the cottages have full kitchens, since it is a Bed & Breakfast, you can enjoy the delicious breakfast in the main house. I had Decadent French Toast Casserole (and yes, you know I left with the recipe!) Be sure to pack a swimsuit for the jacuzzi and saltwater pool. There is a wine and cheese hour each afternoon just in time to re-energize you for the evening.

On the south end of Gainesville, Depot Park has grown up around the Historic Train Depot. In this park is the Boxcar Beer and Wine Garden, a sub shop, a burger shop, the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention, and the beginning of the Gainesville to Hawthorne Rail Trail.

Businesses surrounding Depot Park

Natural Beauty

Just up the street is the Butterfly Rainforest, a screened, outdoor tropical paradise filled with the sound of waterfalls. As you walk through or relax on a bench, you will be surrounded by more than 50 species of butterflies, vibrant birds, foliage, and flowers. TIP:  Go on a warm, sunny day—the butterflies will be much more active.

Gainesville’s free Matheson History Museum allows visitors to experience the history of the area. You can examine a 1,500-year-old Timucuan canoe, arrowheads and points, and drawings and documents tracing Alachua County’s history through the Spanish and British periods into the 20th century. The museum is housed in the 1867 Matheson House.

The University has lovely walking trails, over creeks, between historic buildings, and beside peaceful ponds. Enjoy your time on this downtown campus by enjoying Lake Alice.

Lake Alice

Historic Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1856 with the burial of the 10-day-old daughter of cotton merchant and landowner James Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth. She was laid to rest at the base of a young cedar tree, roughly in the center of their vast acreage. Evergreen draws visitors interested in genealogy, tombstone art, or photography. The charming site has a cell phone tour of the 38 graves and monuments of particular note. A cell phone tour of This Wondrous Place is found at the entrance or their website.

Small Town Life

Micanopy is the oldest inland town in Florida and officially labeled “One of the 12 Cutest Small Towns in America” by the Huffington Post. The moss-draped town is plumb full of charm: vintage shops, an antique store with a bank vault and the most extensive array of Cameos EVER, local crafts, southern food, a museum, and a breathtaking B&B. Plan your trip right, and you can experience downtown’s Fall Festival Halloween weekend. While you’re in town, grab a bite at Blue Highway Pizzeria or Pearl Country Store and Barbeque. Schedule your Micanopy visit for October 30, and you can experience crafters, food, and music at the town’s Fall Festival

Did you ever see anything so inviting? Dip into this fabulous Shrimp Bruschetta with fresh-from-the-oven focaccia at Blue Highway…It should be called Blue Heaven!

The town may be small, but you need at least two days and nights, so call Herlong Mansion and book your stay. Fresh cookies on the hall table are the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. Sip your late afternoon glass of wine on the second-floor veranda and enjoy the darkness as it settles around you. The pergola’s tiny lights beckon—answer “yes.” When you have your scrumptious breakfast, eat an extra Peach Cobbler Muffin for me (you can thank me later!) 

Windsor, originally planned to be the home of the University of Florida, is the home of the annual Zucchini Festival (37 years and counting the first weekend of October.) It is also home to Bluefield Estate Winery, a family-owned winery. They specialize in blueberry and muscadine wines, which are handcrafted and bottled on the grounds. The tasting room is open Thursday-Sunday. It has gift items, so come prepared to shop. During the season, you can pick muscadines for $1/pound.

Alachua started life as a railroad town and now has a walkable historic district. A map is available on the town’s website. Check the calendar and enjoy a night under the stars at Legacy Park Amphitheater when they hold a concert or movie night. Don’t forget to bring a blanket or chair. The streets are lined with Bradford Pear trees and historic lampposts. 

Tony and Al’s Restaurant and Bar has a wood-fired pizza oven, and the Shrimp Frangelica dripped with so much cheese I expected to be charged by the pound! And did I mention the Cannoli? (Plan ahead, ask for a to-go box and save room for this made-to-order dessert—fresh, crunchy, and filled with gooey goodness!) This historic area wasn’t far from the Hampton Inn, my home for a couple of nights. The hotel is new to the town, and I nearly missed my tour the next day because I asked to be picked up at the Hampton in Alachua. But my guide thought I was “confused since there isn’t a Hampton in Alachua.” LOL! There is now!

Hawthorne holds a few surprises. Enjoy the view on your drive along the Old Florida Heritage Highway to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park in Cross Creek. The renowned author of The Yearling owned the farm and land. The ranger (in period attire) conducts tours of the house and property. The guides are both knowledgeable and entertaining; you will leave with a newfound respect for this pioneer in woman’s literature. 

In walking distance is The Yearling Restaurant, serving old Florida dishes since 1952. Rawlings likely ate similar foods during her time in Florida. Meals on the menu include alligator, frog legs, clams, cooter, venison, and quail—oh, and conch fritters (YUM!) My friend had a salad with the house-made mango dressing. Instead of dipping my fritters into the remoulade provided, I tried her salad dressing. Oh my goodness! The waitress had to bring more since I was sopping up all her dressing! The restaurant sources some of its “fresh catch” from the freshwater lakes that surround the community. More standard dishes like burgers, salads, and steaks are also available. Desserts vary, but Buttermilk Pie is pretty much a staple. Don’t question this; just order it! There are also cabins for rent at The Yearling. Nothing fancy, but a great get-away spot.

Photo of a bottle of "Sorta Sweet" Blueberry wine
Tasting Time

Also tucked away in the area is the Island Grove Winery Tasting Room. The winery produces blueberries on their Florida plantations. When you taste the wines, you’ll be surprised to learn that these naturally low in sulfite blueberry wines contain no grape juice or flavorings. If you’re paying attention, you may also catch this statistic—Alachua County grows 25% of Florida’s blueberry production. Island Grove Winery also creates wines by blending blueberries or other fruits with traditional wines. I especially enjoyed the Backporch Peach, a peach blend with a crisp Chardonnay, and the Crisp Green Apple, which combined apples with Gewürztraminer. The Coastal Blue is a creation of 100% Florida blueberry juices that are barrel-aged for two years. The result is an elegant sipping wine reminiscent of port. Tours of the winery are offered weekdays, but for tastings, you’ll want to visit the Tasting House. And trust me, you want to taste!

Festivals – This Area Celebrates Everything!

Alachua County must have a festival every week. They cram in more fun than the law should allow. Coming up on October 2 is the 37th Annual Windsor Zucchini Festival. There are art festivals, plant sales, orchid shows, even a Bat Fest on October 23—just in time for Halloween! And that’s just in October! 

Other events include Medieval Faire, Book Festival, Spring Garden Festival at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, Newberry Watermelon Festival, Art Festival at Thornebrook, with over 100 exhibitors in a park-like setting. Get an early start on your Christmas shopping at The Downtown Festival and Arts Show. This annual event sees 240 of the nation’s finest artists come together with music and food to kick off the Holiday season. An insider tells me that this is considered a top festival in the nation!

Information about upcoming events and festivals is found in the weekly What’s Good event guide. You can receive it by email or read it on the website’s homepage: That website is a one-stop shop for all things Gainesville. You can research places to eat, things to do, and places to stay.

An up to date visitor’s guide is easy to request at this link: 

Ring in 2022 at Gainesville’s Downtown Countdown. The event starts with fireworks at Depot Park, and bands play until midnight at Bo Diddley Plaza. More information is found on Gainesville’s Cultural Affairs page.

International Food Flavors

Gainesville restaurants range from sushi to Vegetarian to American fusion. There are breweries and coffee shops, and a winery. Visit First Magnitude Brewing Company and taste their craft brews that have received national and international awards. There is indoor and outside seating, events, and food trucks. Just check their web page for schedules.

Comfortable seating and food – what else could you ask for?

Bordering the UF campus, there is a Food Truck “park” with permanent setups. I found a burger truck that serves burgers, sammies, wraps, their unique “Frenchy fries,” and a delicious Citrus and Berry Chicken Salad. The park has a spot for vegan Mexican, too, so everybody’s happy! The Adirondack chairs are a comfortable place to enjoy the day while you eat. If you need a nap afterward, there are hammocks at the ready!

As for me? Well, I’ll be right here on the swing bed, enjoying the breeze blowing through the veranda…resting up for my next adventure!

Writer Jo Clark settling in for a nap at Herlong Mansion