Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc champion raves about Breaks Interstate Park
With the summer travel season approaching, now is the time to see all the commonwealth offers.
Whether you are a solo traveler, a couple in search of a little romance, or a family looking for kid-friendly destinations, Kentucky has something for everyone.
Here are four favorites for a long weekend.
A few years ago, Bardstown caught the fancy of the travel-loving public when USA Today named it “America’s most beautiful small town.”
This was no news to Kentuckians who have long appreciated its charm.
With 300 buildings on the National Register — 200 of them in the historic downtown alone and a myriad of activities — Bardstown makes for the perfect weekend getaway.
This year marks the 60th season for the outdoor musical “The Stephen Foster Story” (select dates from June 8-August 10), co-billed with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (Thursday and Saturday nights July 6- August 8).
My Old Kentucky Home, one of Foster’s most iconic songs, was inspired by the Georgian-style plantation, Federal Hill, which is open daily for tours.
You can see the mansion where Judge John Rowan welcomed esteemed guests such as Henry Clay and Aaron Burr, as well as the carriage house, gardens and law office where the judge liked to interrupt his consultations for frequent mint julep breaks.
You can’t have a mint julep without bourbon, and Bardstown is often referred to as the “Bourbon Capital of the World.”
In addition to legendary nearby distilleries Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill and Jim Beam, several new bourbon experiences have recently opened:
Bottled & Bond Kitchen & Bar at the Bardstown Bourbon Company; Lux Row Distillers and Preservation Distillery.
After seeing how it’s made, sample some of Kentucky’s finest at what may be the commonwealth’s first bourbon bar, the Old Talbott Tavern, the oldest coaching inn west of the Alleghenies (late 1700s).
It’s safe to say that past guests such as Abraham Lincoln, explorer George Rogers Clark and outlaw Jesse James probably raised a glass or two.
James may even have been overserved as the bullet holes in some of the paintings come courtesy of him.
Finally, make sure you have a lunch or dinner reservation aboard My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, beginning and ending in Bardstown, and making a 40-mile loop through scenic Limestone Springs and Bernheim Forest.
Covington and Newport
Located on the south bank of the Ohio River, these two towns mirror the sophistication of their counterpart across the river, Cincinnati, with a dollop of southern charm as an extra incentive.
While it’s a bit off the official Bourbon Trail, the B-Line, starting in Covington, is northern Kentucky’s alternative — a craft bourbon trail featuring three distilleries, four restaurants and five bars.
Newport’s New Riff distillery has won five Double Gold medals — quite a feat considering they haven’t even been in business a year.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Neeley Family Distillery in Sparta, backed by 11 generations of moonshine history.
That translates into the Neeley family having as much experience in illegal spirit making as the Beam family has legal history.
Visitors stopping at any two in each category will receive free bourbon swag, including shot glasses, t-shirts and hats.
Another Covington attraction is Mainstrasse Village, a bit of Bavaria in the Bluegrass. The village is a place to live, work and have fun, with an emphasis on the latter. Two parks and a wide range of restaurants and bars invite visitors to linger.
For a romantic dinner, try Lisse Steakhuis or Dee Felice Café, while for something more raucous, check out the Cock & Bull Public House or the Wise Guy Lounge.
Mainstrasse is also home to two of Covington’s most beloved monuments — the Goose Girl Fountain and the Carroll Chimes Bell Tower, referred to as the Clock Tower by locals.
If you have the kids in tow, the Newport Aquarium is an absolute must.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the aquarium has all the usual favorites, from diaphanous, fragile jellyfish which stage a watery ballet to comical penguins and fearsome sharks.
As part of its Shark Summer event, kids can get in free at the aquarium this summer after 4 p.m. with the purchase of a full-price adult ticket. The offer is good through July 21.
New to the aquarium are Jim Henson’s Splash and Bubbles Reeftown Adventure and Freshwater Falls.
At the former, kids have an opportunity to become Reeftown Rangers.
At the latter, they can take a peek at what lies below the surface of cascading streams and waterfalls for an up close look at habitats that often go unseen.
As they like to say here, adventures galore await you at the “Top of the South.”
Breaks Interstate Park, Eastern Kentucky
A gray curtain of early morning mist descends on the rugged gorge known as “the Grand Canyon of the South.”
You might not be able to see it, but you can hear it — the thundering rush of water struggling to escape the confines of the canyon.
This wild landscape is at Breaks Interstate Park straddling the Kentucky and Virginia state line between Elkhorn City, Kentucky and Haysi, Virginia, and one of only two interstate parks in the nation.
Its 4,600 heavily forested acres attract nature lovers who come to fish in the serene pools, hike 12 miles of meandering trails, raft the Class V rapids of the Russell Fork River, and in the summer, marvel at the lavender blooms of the Catawba rhododendron.
However, the main draw is the five-mile long, 1,600-foot deep canyon formed more than 250 million years ago by the raging waters of the Russell Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River, on their headlong dash to meet up with the Ohio River.
The “breaks” in Pine Mountain made by the water resulted in the sandstone gorge, the largest and deepest east of the Mississippi.
Four scenic overlooks throughout the park offer majestic views, and if you’re lucky you might spot a golden eagle.
The gorge’s history is also a draw.
Daniel Boone discovered it while trying (unsuccessfully) to forge a trail into Kentucky.
The Hatfields and McCoys warred here, and visitors can follow the literary “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” as it wends its way around the park.
Accommodations include a rustic lodge on the rim of the canyon, cottages nestled in the woods, and more than 138 campsites.
Cave Region, Western Kentucky
The premier attraction here is, of course, Mammoth Cave National Park in Cave City. Its voluminous caverns contain slender crystal columns suspended from the cave ceiling and formations of stalactites and stalagmites — carved from stone and eroded by water — which take on fantastical shapes.
Mammoth Cave may be the main draw, but other, smaller caves are also worth exploring.
There’s Diamond Caverns in Park City, which bills itself as “Kentucky’s most beautiful cave”; Onyx Cave in Cave City, whose breathtaking formations are known as “Cave bacon” and Lost River Cave in Bowling Green, home to Kentucky’s only underground boat tour on a river thought to be the shortest and deepest in the world.
If you have younger family members along and they are “caved out,” it may be time to seek out kid-friendly attractions such as newly re-opened Guntown Mountain in Cave City, a kitschy representation of an Old Western town, complete with saloon shows and gunfights.
Kids will also love Kentucky Down Under in Horse Cave, where a little piece of the Outback in the Bluegrass offers a chance to pan for gold and take a walkabout to spot wallabies, emus and kangaroos.
Perhaps most popular is Dinosaur World in Cave City where some 100 life-size dinosaurs are posed in an outdoor setting reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
The cluster of red and white teepees off the highway is not a mirage, but rather a National Historic Landmark. Wigwam Village Motor Court dates to the 1930s, and is one of only three such properties left in the U.S. (you would have to travel to Arizona and California to stay at the others.)
Since there are only 15 teepee accommodations, it is essential to book in advance during the summer.