BARDSTOWN — When my sisters and I were children, our grandparents gave us a cardboard pop-up village for Christmas one year. It opened to reveal a quaint little town with holly wreaths on all the shop windows, lanterns lighting up the church, and townspeople caroling on the square.
We loved that pop-up village, referring to it as the "Christmas Town." Now that we are adults, we still harbor a desire to locate the perfect "Christmas Town." I'm happy to report I've found one just an hour from Lexington down the Blue Grass Parkway.
Bardstown has always been one of my favorite Kentucky communities, and it looks like I'm not alone in my fandom. After a five-month Best of the Road competition, sponsored by Rand McNally and USA Today, Bardstown was named the Most Beautiful Small Town in America (we can claim an extra measure of state pride as Danville was also one of the five finalists).
Long known as songwriter Stephen Collins Foster's muse and the real bourbon capital of the world, Bardstown is also one of the places where the commonwealth's Christmas spirit shines the brightest.
The "Light Up Bardstown" ceremony earlier this month turned the entire downtown into a winter wonderland of lights, with topiary reindeer seeming to prance on the lawn at historic Courthouse Square. The decorations are only part of the appeal; the town's active Main Street program has recently undergone a $3 million improvement to the streetscape.
Downtown shops are decorated in holiday finery, and shoppers can find something for everyone on their list, whether it be vintage fashions at Pink Boutique, Native American and New Age merchandise at The Mercantile Store, arts and crafts in the store called At Mary's, or decorative interiors and furnishings at Barbara's, a shop that wouldn't be out of place on New York's Upper East Side.
Still, there's as much Mayberry as Manhattan here. When you tire of shopping, seek out a stool at the soda fountain at Hurst Drug Store or a booth at Mammy's Kitchen, or drop in for a visit at the Fine Arts Bardstown Society, where you can sign up for a Christmas craft workshop and make your own wreath or ornament.
Everyone who comes to Bardstown for the holidays should tour one of its premier attractions: Federal Hill, better known to residents of the commonwealth and a music-loving nation as My Old Kentucky Home.
The house is decorated with garlands, holly berries, candles and a tree in the parlor — just as it would have been before the Civil War when Judge John Rowan welcomed family and friends for Christmas at his mansion. Channeling the hospitality of the Rowan family, costumed guides take visitors on a tour of the house, followed by steaming cider in the outdoor kitchen.
Another legacy of the past — albeit a more recent one — is My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, which makes the journey from the Bardstown depot to Limestone Springs. Along the way, it takes in such points of interest as Deatsville Depot, where in 1865, outlaw Frank James and 15 fellow members of Quantrill's Raiders surrendered to Union forces; Jackson Hollow Trestle, the only all-wood railroad trestle to survive the Civil War; Bernheim Forest; and the Jim Beam Distillery.
The glamor of the restored 1940s dining cars can be experienced during any season, but the lunch and dinner trips are especially festive during the holidays, when the depot and dining cars are decorated in elaborate style.
Speaking of elaborate, the distilleries on the Bardstown end of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail offer a ho-ho-ho experience for bourbon aficionados this yule season. Whether you're a fan of the major distilleries — Jim Beam, Maker's Mark and Heaven Hill — or more into craft bourbons — Willett — you'll be spoiled for choice.
A new addition to Bardstown's bourbon scene is the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace. Opened in late September by University of Kentucky graduates and bourbon lovers Howard and Dee Dee Keene, it is a stylish combination of gift shop (featuring a wide array of high-end bourbon-related gifts) and tasting room. The Marketplace makes for a perfect end to a long day of shopping and sightseeing.
So, why settle for a cardboard pop-up village to get you in the holiday mood when you can visit a real live one dressed in its Christmas best.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The Jailer's Inn Bed & Breakfast, 111 W. Stephen Foster Ave. The stone building just west of Courthouse Square served as a jail for two centuries (1797-1987). Today, only one of the 11 rooms and suites still resembles a cell. Other accommodations, such as the Victorian, Colonial and Garden suites, are more luxurious. Innkeeper Paul McCoy's mouthwatering French toast most assuredly wasn't on the prisoners' menu. (502) 348-5551, Jailersinn.com.
Where to eat:
■ Circa, 103 E. Stephen Foster Ave. The circa 1780 stone house just across from Courthouse Square is the oldest in Bardstown, and now it's a stylish restaurant featuring the best of Kentucky and Southern cuisine. Try the chicken and waffles (Southern fried chicken, crawfish waffle, Andouille sausage gravy and green pepper jelly) and the bourbon-lacquered short ribs. (502) 348-5409, Restaurant-circa.com.
■ Kurtz Restaurant, 418 E. Stephen Foster Ave. Just across from My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kurtz's offers down-home cooking the way your grandmother did it. (502) 348-5983, Bardstownparkview.com/dining.htm.
Learn more: Visitbardstown.com
Bardstown has several holiday events scheduled this month. Here are highlights. For a complete list, visit Visitbardstown.com/tourism/xmas.html.
Old Bardstown Village Colonial Christmas. Old-fashioned gathering. 10 a.m. -5 p.m. Dec. 15. Bean Tavern, Old Bardstown Village, 301 E. Broadway. $3 adults, $1 children 14 and younger. (502) 349-0291.
Santa on the Square. Santa arrives in Bardstown. 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Dec. 21. Old Nelson County Courthouse. (502) 348-4877 or 1-800-638-4877.
My Old Kentucky Dinner Train's North Pole Express. A 11/2-hour train ride includes a special holiday meal and visit by Santa. 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 15, 22. $60 adults, $45 children 12 and younger. (502) 348-7300. Kydinnertrain.com.
Live Nativity. A tableau featuring live actors and animals depicting the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem manger. Dec. 20-22. Bardstown Baptist Church, 101 W Brashear Ave. at N. Third St. Free . (502) 348-3866.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 24-26, 31 and Jan. 1). House will be decorated for the holidays through early January. 501 E. Stephen Foster Ave. $7 adults, $5 seniors, $3.50 children 6-12, free for children younger than 6. (502) 348-3502 or 1-800-323-7803. Parks.ky.gov