College football's last two champions (LSU and Florida) aim to settle who's best in 2009 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday. But which has the better hometown? Both Baton Rouge and Gainesville are situated in flat, swampy gator-filled locations, sometimes overlooked for nearby neighbors (New Orleans and Orlando). Baton Rouge (home to "College GameDay" this weekend) has more history -- with its Mississippi River port and state capitols (plural intended) -- while Gainesville does a better job of cooling off locals with its cool natural springs tube trips. Both have more going on than some would expect.
So, who wins head-to-head?
Here's my scorecard of seven key attributes (up to eight points each) judging each as a travel destination for fun, food, drinks and a bit of football.
More for the road
Connect the dots between SEC towns with Lonely Planet's new guidebook to the South, including 65 themed adventures that highlight the best side trips, scenic byways, NASCAR pit stops and musical roots (from the Grand Old Opry to Hank's resting place). Or download the PDF for the chapter on Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.
Baton Rouge locals like to say, "We may have not invented tailgating, but we perfected it." It's hard to argue. Surrounded by wide-open spaces that fit all the RVs, cars and generator-pumped TVs, the LSU campus sees as many as 150,000 fans on game days. Tailgate groups like Party Box, known for its open-air ceiling fan, settle in, cook up jambalaya amid live zydeco bands and slushy-style daiquiri stands. Party Box tailgater Otey White says all are welcome. "We have healthy respect for our brothers in [the] SEC, not only on the field but for tailgating," White said.
Open-container laws are far looser -- do they exist? -- than in Gainesville's lively scene. Gator blogger Mike Herchel organizes tailgating tips for all Southeastern Conference action on his excellent SEC tailgating guide but adds, "Nobody, I mean nobody, cooks more or better food than LSU tailgaters." Hmmm. (And mmmm.)
Baton Rouge 8, Gainesville 5
Gainesville's University Avenue, between Ninth and 16th streets in Midtown, is lined with student-oriented sports bars patronized by Gator fans in blue cocktail dresses or Superman T-shirts. The Swamp Restaurant -- surrounded by a white picket fence -- is the nicest go-to. (Tim Tebow is a customer.) On the other scale of ballyhoo is a boxy, graffiti-filled, scary-bathroom bar with the best name of all time: Balls (1716 W. University Ave.). (One bartender told me, "Yeah, Balls is a keeper.") Less sticky-floored eats and drinks can be found downtown in Gainesville.
In Baton Rouge's mix of districts, many more options abound (and you can beat the casino riverboats). Students frequently stick with the bars in Tigerland around Nicholson Street just south of campus. Walk On's -- opened by former basketball walk-ons -- is a newer restaurant and bar that hosts LSU coach shows and serves great grub and drinks until 2 a.m. The more divey Fred's, around for 27 years, has $1.50 shots after midnight and $2.50 Coors Lights on game days, when it opens at 10 a.m. Downtown's Third Street Entertainment District has many theaters, restaurants and bars, but for the real local mix get to the so-called "Under the Overpass" area (where I-10 meets the Perkins Street overpass); Chelsea's is a favorite live-music venue there.
Baton Rouge: 6, Gainesville 4
Few stadiums in the world have better nicknames than the Swamp and Death Valley. In 1991, Steve Spurrier coined Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium the "Swamp," and the field is actually sunk below ground level (like a grave). And know that the synchronized "Gator chomp" of many of the 88,000 fans is far louder than what you hear on the telly.
LSU's Tiger Stadium, known as "Deaf Valley" before its current moniker, "Death Valley," is so loud that Bear Bryant once likened it to playing "in a drum." The last time the Gators came, the Tigers' victory launched a 130-decibel celebration. The cumulative noise is certainly fueled by all the night games -- the earliest kickoff this season is 6 p.m. -- giving plenty of "prep" time for fans to juice up. Be sure to arrive before kickoff to see Mike the Tiger whisked about in his cage.
Baton Rouge 8, Gainesville 6
No humans -- even LSU haters -- can help but like Mike the Tiger. Now in his sixth incarnation, "Mike" (named after an LSU athletic trainer from 1935) lives in real Southern luxury: His huge, 15,000-square-foot lair ("It's not a home, it's a habitat," one local said) is just north of the stadium; good viewing times of the Siberian/Bengal mix are early in the morning or at dusk.
The mascot names are just as dainty in Gainesville: Albert and Alberta. The ones watching the games at the Swamp aren't real, just dressed-up students, but there is a real gator couple with the same names living in the campus' Lake Alice. Considering Mike is locked up and real gators run free outside both towns, the edge goes to Florida.
Gainesville 6, Baton Rouge 5
When a game's not on, the areas around both towns offer real outdoor adventures. Just south of Gainesville, the 21,000-acre Paynes Prairie Reserve State Park features the 3-mile trail to a 50-foot observation tower, where visitors spy on real gators rolling on top of one another. The best way to beat the heat, meanwhile, is a floating in a tube down one of the nearby natural springs (no gators), such as Ichetucknee Springs State Park, 38 miles to the north.
Baton Rouge proximity to the Mississippi and bayou (not to overlook New Orleans) means there's plenty to do. Now a museum, the Old State Capitol -- mocked as an "atrocity" by Mark Twain in "Life in the Mississippi" -- is studded with castlelike turrets and boastful Gothic Revival interiors. During the Great Depression, the infamous governor Huey Long spent $5 million to replace it with a new limestone state capitol. At 450 feet, it's the nation's tallest, with a great observatory for bayou views. Plus, Baton Rouge has haunted tours and the gator-filled wilds at the nearby Alligator Bayou.
Baton Rouge 6, Gainesville 4
A college town is only as good as its reviving, morning-after breakfast spots. And Baton Rouge does it as well as any place in the country at Louie's Cafe, a 24-hour greasy spoon that's been around since 1941. Throughout the day it serves catfish dinners and po' boys, but it's definitely best for breakfast -- which is served at the tables or red stools set on its old-school, black-and-white checkered floor.
Gainesville's best bet is more modern. Peach Valley Cafe is an inviting family-style place, big for its fresh apple fritters dunked in strawberry yogurt. It's good, but it's not Louie's.
Baton Rouge 7, Gainesville 2
Bizarre pizza spots
Something truly "beautiful and weird" to its owner, remote Satchel's Pizza in Gainesville offers a grab bag of hand-drawn missives on menus, live ukulele shows and garden seats in a 1965 Ford Falcon. In Baton Rouge's remote Mid City neighborhood, Fleur-de-Lis Cocktail Lounge, as pink as Pepto-Bismol, is an unreal, 1940s-era, art-deco lounge with good drinks and $9 pizzas. Still, there's something about ukuleles.
Gainesville 8, Baton Rouge 6
In this series of seven categories, Baton Rouge wins 5-2.
Oh, and town name? Few U.S. cities -- capitals or otherwise -- beat Baton Rouge, or "red stick," named for the posted boundary between two Native American tribes' hunting areas. Gainesville? Named for a U.S. military commander who chased Seminoles in Florida and had funny hair.