The roads never stop here, always leading to a colourful destination, where old tobacco barns stand tall against the bright blue sky and accepting locals play the fiddle at small town general stores. In Kentucky, we’ll ask where you’re from and then give you Bourbon.
But this state has so much more to offer than just Bourbon.
Before the term ‘Bourbon’ was used for the popular whiskey, in 1783, horsemen lined up their best at Market Street in downtown Louisville. Horse racing popularity continued to grow in the state’s largest city, and 26-year-old Colonel M. Lewis Clark created the track that became known as Churchill Downs.
Since Clark’s 1880s gift to the world, the immaculate Churchill Downs has become home to the Kentucky Derby, the ‘Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.’ The track’s Twin Spires reach into heaven, but the horses and their majestic beauty prance your heart away.
With the capacity to seat 160,000 people during Derby and permanent seating of 52,000, the Churchill Downs’s grounds could fit several London city blocks within.
By contrast, Lexington’s Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing is a much more intimate experience than Churchill Downs. Keeneland’s paddock is so close to the horses you can reach out and touch one. Of course, if you did, the jockey would probably knock you upside the head with his leather whip.
Both Churchill Downs and Keeneland give a glimpse into another time. Men wear suits and polished shoes. The ladies don their brightest hats and dresses. In Kentucky, horse racing is not just a sport. It’s a part of our culture.
The burgeoning city of Owensboro is Kentucky’s secret. Bordered by the brilliant cable-strayed Natcher Bridge spanning the Ohio River, Owensboro’s story begins with barbecue.
In the 1800s, the small community earned its living on sheep wool. But those markets dried up and thousands of sheep became worthless. The town started barbecuing the lambs and created the tradition of Owensboro mutton barbecue. Today, this unique flavour of barbecue wins over countless fans, including Memphis- and Kansas City-diehard barbecue fanatics.
The Old Hickory BBQ slowly smokes mutton for 22 hours using hickory logs. Just follow those sweet smells to happiness to taste the fare of the John Foreman, whose family started Old Hickory in 1918. The city’s International Bar-B-Q Festival is May 10 and 11.
The only Owensboro festival more popular than pigging out on smoked lamb meat is the Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival June 27-29. But, if you can’t make it this year to see Merle Haggard or the Leftover Salmon band, take a stroll through the Bluegrass Music Museum, two stories of pure musical bliss.
Not to be mistaken for country music or blues, Bluegrass Music is Kentucky’s native sound, strumming with the cords of the banjo, Mandolin, fiddle and those high-pitch lonesome voices. The Bluegrass Museum offers free fiddle lessons and educates all on Earl Scruggs, who invented three finger banjo pickin’; the cool sounds of the Foggy Mountain Boys and the Hay Loft Gang; and of course, Bluegrass’ champion Bill Monroe, the only person in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame and Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
Filled with artifacts and Kentucky history, the Bluegrass Museum’s authentic feel is captured in Pete Seeger’s banjo head on display: “This machine surrounds hate...and forces it to surrender.”
If you’re thirsty after listening to all that Bluegrass, the Miller House is just a few blocks away. As of press time, the Miller House packed 214 Bourbons in its basement. The owner is trying for the world Bourbon record.
If you want an up-and-close and personal tour of the state’s limestone, Kentucky boasts hundreds caves that may or may not have been used to hide moonshine stills once upon a time.
In Louisville, the Mega Cavern is a 17-mile manmade cave strip beneath the city. During Christmas, the cave owners line the limestone caves with lights. It’s truly the most spectacular Christmas light show in the world.
South Central Kentucky offers the Crystal Onyx Cave, Diamond Caverns, Onyx Cave, Kentucky Caverns and Mammoth Cave, a national park of caves. More than 400 miles of passageways have been explored in Mammoth Cave. One of Mammoth Cave’s first guides, Stephen Bishop, called it a “grand, gloomy and peculiar place.”
Louisville Main Street
Along Louisville’s Main Street rests old, abandoned buildings that were once the epicenter of the American whiskey world. Known as ‘Whiskey Row,’ Main Street was the Wall Street of whiskey. Today, investors are trying to save the old buildings and Main Street remains a piece of history.
At the Louisville Slugger Museum rest the historic bats of Major League Baseball sluggers Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and hundreds of other baseball greats. You can swing the same bat as a former Major League Baseball great, get your own personalised bat or stand underneath the world’s largest bat.
Just across the street, the Frazier History Museum offers more than 5,000 artifacts, including outlaw Jesse James’ revolver, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, President George Washington’s rifle and is home to the largest Royal Armories outside of Great Britain.
Of course, you don’t have to pay admission to see history in Louisville. Just walk through Main Street and look down at the world’s most iconic manhole covers. In my town, no two manhole covers look the same.
If the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, better known as ‘Shakers’, became the main U.S. religion, the country’s people would be extinct. The Shakers swore off sex and spent their spare time worshiping and building things. They lived in villages across the country, but the Harrodsburg, Ky., Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was the largest.
Now a preserved historic area, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill has a 3,000-acre Nature Preserve with hiking, horseback riding, biking, bird watching and riverboat rides. Dressed in Shaker garb, historical reenactors take you through the rooms the Shakers once lived. With 13 restored 19th-century buildings, Shaker Village offers 70 astonishing guest rooms.