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Florida state of mind

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Beach at St. Augustine, Fla.2 / 7
Bat house and bat barn on the University of Florida campus3 / 7
Gators stadium on the University of Florida campus4 / 7
Statues of Heisman trophy winners at the University of Florida football hall of fame, including Danny Wuerffel, who has ties to southwest MInnesota.5 / 7
Don, Margaret, Beth and Bryan at the Yuengling brewery facility in Tampa, Fla.6 / 7
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, Fla.7 / 7

It was -14 degrees when we headed to the airport early on that early December morning, and 84 degrees when we landed at the Tampa-St. Petersburg airport — a welcome 98-degree temperature swing.

0 Talk about it

Bryan and I had some qualms about planning a trip south for early in December, wondering if we wouldn’t be more in need of an escape a month or two later. But we managed to miss some of the coldest days of the month in Minnesota and celebrated Christmas a bit early with the Hinchey clan — my sister Margaret, her husband Don and niece Alexis.

Don and Margaret — usually Colorado dwellers — are currently living in Gainesville, Fla., while they fill an interim pastor post at a Lutheran church there; and Alexis is a graduate student at the University of Florida — home of the Gators. We planned our visit around an airfare special, and while our visit was of short duration, we packed a lot into that time.

College city

Gainesville isn’t one of the more popular tourist destinations in Florida, but there is a lot to see and do in this university community. Our first stop upon pulling into town — before even dropping off our luggage at the Hincheys’ temporary abode — was a unique spot on the University of Florida campus. At dusk each day, a crowd gathers at the bat house and bat barn — the world’s largest occupied bat houses with an estimated population of 300,000 bats. At evening the winged critters leave their lodging to go out and feed, with an average nightly consumption of 2.5 billion insects. They depart the buildings in a steady stream, swooping just over the heads of the assembled spectators. It is quite the sight to behold.

We saw more of the university campus the next day, including Gators football stadium, the second largest college stadium in the country, and its adjacent hall of fame. Outside the stadium are bronze statues of the three Florida Heisman trophy winners: Steve Spurrier (1966), Danny Wuerffel (1996) and Tim Tebow (2007). Wuerffel has a connection to southwest Minnesota, as his grandfather was a Lutheran pastor in Lakefield.

Our Gainesville tour also included a stop at the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention, where Margaret is a volunteer. The museum is named for Dr. James Robert Cade, a professor of renal (kidney) medicine at the University of Florida and the lead inventor of the sports drink Gatorade. The original lab where Gatorade was created has been moved into the museum, and the history of the invention is recorded thusly on the Cade website:

Gatorade was the result of an offhand question posed in 1965 by former University of Florida linebacker Dwayne Douglas to Dr. J Robert Cade, a professor of renal medicine. “Why don’t football players ever urinate during a game?”  Cade and his team of researchers — Drs. Alejandro de Quesada, Jim Free, and Dana Shires — began investigating dehydration on the sports field — a topic on which no reliable data existed.

They soon designed and tested a drink that replaced the electrolytes lost through sweat during intense exercise. With the permission of the coaches, Cade’s team was allowed to test the drink on the freshman football team, which unexpectedly beat the upperclassmen in a practice session. Ray Graves, Florida’s head coach, immediately ordered up a large batch for his varsity squad, and in October of 1965, the Gators beat the LSU tigers in an upset. Soon other teams wanted to know what the Gators were drinking on the sidelines.

Now, the museum’s classes, programs and exhibits are designed to engage visitors in “purposeful creativity,” the kind that leads to great inventions, new businesses and ideas that change the world.

Old city

About an hour and a half drive east of Gainesville is St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied settlement and port in the continental United States. It was founded by the Spanish in 1565 and served as the capital of Spanish Florida for 200 years. Its attractions include the Castillo de San Marcos, Ponce de Leon’s “Fountain of Youth” and the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse.

Our first stop was the beach to get a view of the Atlantic Ocean and collect a few shells as souvenirs. Then it was on to the downtown shopping area, where we ate lunch, did a bit of shopping and indulged in a dessert of luscious Limóncello gelato.

Unfortunately, we needed to be back in Gainesville for evening Advent services, so we had to forego some of the standard tourist sites, only stopping briefly to take pictures of the old fort and not even a glimpse of the famed Fountain of Youth.

But our impressions of St. Augustine were of a charming Old World city, a place we would certainly visit again.

Cigar city

The final day of our Florida getaway was spent largely in the Tampa area. A must see for Hubby Bryan and me was Cigar City Brewing, one of the big success stories of the craft brewing craze.

Founded in 2009 and named in honor of Tampa’s history as the world’s largest cigar producer, Cigar City Brewing has grown significantly in its own short history. We got there just in time for a tour, led by one of the outfit’s several brewers, then wandered around the beautifully outfitted tasting room and gift shop. Brother-in-law Don even bought a cigar, hand rolled on the premises by Cuban immigrant Luis.

We also had time for a tasting — including a unique Key Lime beer — and stopped for lunch at the Cigar City Brewpub a bit down the road.

Because of our lingering at Cigar City, we missed the last tour at another brewery, Yuengling, but got there in the nick of time for a sample in its biergarten and some souvenir purchases. Yuengling is known as America’s oldest brewery, founded in  Pottsville, Pa. The Tampa facility — which formerly produced Stroh’s — was purchased in 1999.

Next on the agenda was Ybor City, a historic district that was Tampa’s Latin Quarter for more than a century. After a quick stop at Tampa Bay Brewing Company, we made our way to the Columbia — known as Florida’s oldest restaurant, in operation since 1905. Dinner there was a belated celebration of our 21st wedding anniversary, arranged by Don and Margaret.  The Tampa location is the Spanish restaurant’s original, although it now boasts six other enterprises across Florida.

A visit to the Columbia is a fine dining experience, with an extensive menu, salads tossed tableside and gracious ambience.

The following morning — very early morning — we boarded the plane headed back to Sioux Falls. We reluctantly left behind the 70- and 80-degree temperatures and went back to the reality of the frozen north. We now understand why snowbirds flock to Florida’s shores.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

(507) 376-7327