Travel

Travel sites are swooning over Lexington. Why all the love? And how do we keep it?

Lalo Zuela worked a horse on the training track at Calumet Farm in Lexington in the spring of 2017. Horse farms are one of the many reasons visitors enjoy coming to Central Kentucky, tourism officials say.
Lalo Zuela worked a horse on the training track at Calumet Farm in Lexington in the spring of 2017. Horse farms are one of the many reasons visitors enjoy coming to Central Kentucky, tourism officials say. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Pop icon and painter of soup cans Andy Warhol once famously stated that “everyone would be world famous for 15 minutes.”

If that were to include everything as well as everyone, then the city of Lexington is in the throes of its 15 minutes.

It seems you can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine these days without seeing the city’s virtues extolled. Vogue Magazine has named Lexington one of nine mid-sized American cities that is currently “in vogue.”

Trip Advisor has anointed it as one of “10 Top Destinations on the Rise,” while New York-based Newsday lists it among 12 global — yes, global — destinations to visit this year.

Zagat’s travel website lauds Lexington’s food scene, and Paula Deen Magazine will do the same in an issue scheduled to hit newsstands this summer. A cadre of national and international travel writers – never wanting to be out of the loop — are rushing here, their mantra: Paris, Rio, Tahiti — no thanks, I’m heading to Lexington.

All of this seems a bit dizzying for a city that despite its obvious charms, has, in the past, been more used to playing second fiddle to Louisville in the travel press. So, why all the sudden outpouring of love?

“Today’s travelers crave authenticity, and when it comes to being authentic, Lexington delivers,” says Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLex.

“We are blessed with a wide array of equestrian, bourbon, culinary and cultural offerings, and those types of genuine experiences are dominating the travel landscape right now,” she adds. “Whether you are touring a Thoroughbred farm, enjoying the tastes of local cuisine or watching bourbon go into the barrels, the visitor experience is real.”

Extremely real. Lexington and its surrounding area might be the only place in America which has two signature industries — horses and bourbon — that help define the region and can be found nowhere else at the level they are found here.

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Tour guide Chuck Wolfe, of Frankfort, center, leads a group through the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles in December, 2017. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Yes, Ocala has some pretty fine horses, and I’ve tasted bourbon from Wyoming that is drinkable, but the former aren’t American Pharoah and the latter isn’t Woodford Reserve.

Oh, and don’t forget the Kentucky Horse Park, the only one of its kind in the world dedicated to the noble equine, and Keeneland, arguably the nation’s most beautiful race track.

But beyond the obvious, the “real” Lexington visitor experience encompasses almost 250 years of history (four historic homes, plus Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park and McConnell Springs, a nature preserve on the spot where the city was founded in 1775).

There’s the musical/entertainment heritage that showcases both Lexington’s grassroots and the sophistication that led to it once being known as “the Athens of the West.”

In the former category, Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour is Lexington’s version of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, broadcast every Monday night from the Lyric Theater. Opened in 1948 as the cultural center of the city’s African-American community, the Lyric is the East End’s historic gem.

In the latter category, the Lexington Opera House is one of only 14 live performance theaters in the country built before 1900 (in this case, 1886) that are still operative.

Lexington offers an example of how history and hipness can co-exist. Of newer vintage are a bevy of craft breweries, wineries (including the restored First Vineyard, the first commercial vineyard in the nation); a burgeoning arts scene, and in what is a coup for a city once dubbed “the Chain Restaurant Capital of Kentucky,” an ever-increasing number of restaurants dedicated to showcasing the commonwealth’s produce.

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The 21c Museum Hotel on West Main Street has multiple art galleries like this one. Gathan Borden

Also adding spice to Lexington’s tradition-laden scene: 21C Museum Hotel, the upscale shops and restaurants of the Summit at Fritz Farm, and the re-emergence of the Distillery District where grittiness meets gentility. Where else can a visitor watch moonshine being distilled the old-fashioned way and then adjourn to a dessert bar with an epic selection of gourmet ice creams?

This would be an embarrassment of riches for any city, but when you factor in Lexington’s position as a mid-sized metropolis, it is even more remarkable.

Still, all this recognition is not entirely by chance, according to VisitLex’s Ramer, who says that smaller cities across the country are currently enjoying immense popularity for travelers due to their accessibility and affordability.

“Knowing this, we have made an intentional effort to curate our brand, our story, and share it with key markets — both nationally and internationally,” she says.

One of those international travel writers is Richard McComb, who writes for a syndicate of British newspapers. After spending a few days recently in the Bluegrass, he left not only with fond memories of bourbon tastings and an introduction to American Pharoah, but with a real appreciation of another Lexington institution — Kentucky basketball.

I spent an evening with McComb at Willie’s Locally Known eating barbecue and watching the Cats play Auburn. That very night he became an enthusiastic member of the Big Blue Nation, taking a particular liking to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Now that he’s back in England, he watches replays of Kentucky games and emails me to get updates.

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Tom Perry, left, chats with John Collins and his son Omid during Founders' Day, commemorating the founding of Lexington in 1775, at McConnell Springs in Lexington, in 2016. Matt Goins

What’s next?

Lexington may be enjoying its moment in the spotlight now, but Ramer says the city needs to keep that momentum going, and cites several projects designed to do just that: the completion of the Old Courthouse and Centrepoint; the expansion of the convention center and inauguration of Town Branch Commons and Park.

Additionally, she says, “we want to encourage visitors to explore the entire city — our interesting neighborhoods and natural entertainment zones such as NoLi, the Warehouse and Distillery Districts, Southland Drive — and we certainly want to continue sharing our outstanding natural beauty through farm tours and outdoor adventures.”

I have some ideas of my own for taking Lexington to the next level, ideas gleaned from 30 years as a travel writer, visiting 48 states and 109 countries. Obviously, some of the things that work in London or Los Angeles would not work in Lexington, but here are a few I think would make our already-great city even greater.

First, more green space in the city center — either in the form of pocket parks or the much-anticipated Town Branch Commons and Park. I’d also love to see more additions to the Arboretum on the UK campus. One suggestion: a garden honoring each of our sister cities — Newmarket, England; County Kildare, Ireland; Deauville, France and Shinhidaka, Japan, each of which is in a country with a unique gardening tradition. Imagine what a lovely addition this would be to an already beautiful area.

Next, the UK Art Museum. It’s not the quality of the art I am criticizing, but the location of the museum, which seems a sort of afterthought tucked away in a corner at the back of the Singletary Center. With no visible presence of its own and worse, no adequate parking, I have to wonder how many Lexingtonians have even seen the collection.

I admit I don’t know the political or logistical requirements, but I can’t help wishing the museum could get a new home in more hospitable surroundings — say the woefully underutilized Jacobsen Park, whose wide-open spaces and lagoons could serve as an impressive backdrop. Best of all: plenty of parking.

Finally, Blue Grass Airport. While I love the convenience and ease of navigating the airport, I do have one major suggestion. This is the first view of Lexington our visitors get, and that view is of large advertisements for everything from cranes and forklifts to mattresses to area universities. Does anyone really choose a university — or a forklift or mattress — from an airport advertisement?

Why not greet them instead with exhibits or shops offering our best products like the recently opened Cork & Barrel bourbon retail shop? Might something similar be done with Kentucky arts and crafts, perhaps a branch of the Kentucky Artisan Center offering hand-crafted Kentucky folk art?

Or perhaps a signature display such as the one at the Knoxville Airport — a tableau of the Great Smoky Mountains with water features, trees, sculpted mountains and bronze animals found in the park. Now that says “Welcome to Rocky Top.”

Remember, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Still, let’s enjoy our moment in the tourism spotlight. I think we deserve it. After much thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the greater question may be not why is Lexington suddenly catching the attention of the world, but rather why did it take them so long?

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at pnickell13@hotmail.com.

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