Bourbon, beer, wine, and equines in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region

My desire to take advantage of flight deals and see new places often takes me to destinations I might not have otherwise considered. An $89 round trip flight from Chicago to Louisville, for example, is how I ended up discovering that there’s a lot more to Kentucky‘s Bluegrass region than horses.
Louisville
The Louisville airport is larger than Lexington and receives more daily flights, which means for most people, it will be cheaper to fly into Louisville than Lexington. The two cities are an hour’s drive away from each other, so you can easily see both over a long weekend, no matter which airport you fly into. Louisville is the larger of the two cities- actually it is the largest in Kentucky. It’s not a major city though, and if you come expecting a Bluegrass Chicago, you may be disappointed.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of things to do in Louisville though. Boxing fans will want to visit the Muhammad Ali Center and baseball lovers can’t miss the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. The West Main area, also known as museum row, is home to several impressive art, history and science museums. Fort Knox and the Belle of Louisville (the oldest Mississippi-style steamboat still in use in the US) are also popular attractions.

In Louisville, I stayed at the 1888 Rocking Horse Manor. A totally restored historic house just south of the downtown area (an easy 15 minute walk), it features its original stained glass, antique furniture, free wi-fi, and a cooked-to-order breakfast included in the rate. The furnishings look a little like they came from your grandma’s house, but the hosts are helpful and friendly, the breakfast (and soft, chewy cookies available all day) is delicious, and the house is full of hidden nooks and crannies where you can escape and relax. Rates start at around $85 per night.

To find Louisville’s trendy scenesters (yes, they do exist), head to Proof on Main, a lounge/restaurant in the 21C Hotel. The menu features artisanal small plates (like bison bone marrow or grilled fennel relish) and eclectic main plates like roasted beet risotto and Amish chicken that start at $15. The drink list emphases the local Bourbon. The $10 Woodland Cider (bourbon, clove and apple cider) was excellent and you can take your drink into the adjoining museum and browse the modern art installations while you sip.

For a more casual meal, check out the pub grub at Bluegrass Brewing. They serve all the standards like burgers, pizzas and salads, plus local specialties like the Hot Brown – a giant sandwich of turkey, tomato, bacon, cheese and Alfredo sauce. After a few Bourbon Barrel Oatmeal Stouts, it’s just the kind of food you may need to avoid a morning hangover.

Lexington
Lexington is pure horse-country. The airport is just outside of Keenland, where you can place your bets and watch athletic Thoroughbred horses speed around the track. True horse enthusiasts (and anyone with kids) should head to the Kentucky Horse Park, a working horse farm, event grounds, and museum dedicated to all things horse. The park is home to over 100 horses (less in winter) and often hosts horse shows and competitions like the Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event. Admission is $15 for adults and well worth it. Plan on spending at least 3-4 hours onsite. The farm offers horseback and pony rides (as do several other farms in the area). Many racing and breeding farms also offer tours (by appointment) to visitors.

The Bourbon Trail runs between Lexington and Louisville and features eight distilleries producing Bourbon, which is the United States’ only native spirit and is produced only in Kentucky. You can visit one or two (I highly recommend Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark) or head to the Whiskey Heritage Center to try multiple brands in one spot.

If Bourbon isn’t your drink of choice, you can also visit several wineries in the area – there are over a dozen within an hour’s drive of Lexington. At Wildside Vines, about 20 minutes west of the city, you can sample eight of their award-winning wines at no cost. Be sure to try the creative dessert wines like Blueberry and Blackberry.

For a fun night on the town, try the Cheapside Bar and Grill, a local favorite tucked away on a side street in the downtown core. It’s always packed, the daily drink specials are a great deal, they often have live music on weekends, and the Kentucky Bourbon Ale is strong and cheap.

There are many familiar chain hotels in the downtown area and further out of the city, you can stay the night at several working horse farms that offer accommodation. For $55 a night, you can also try the Motel 6. It’s a five minute drive (or $10 taxi) out of the downtown core. It’s basic but clean, and with the money saved, you can afford a few more bottles of Bourbon or Kentucky wine for souvenirs.

The Abbey Resort and Spa: Luxury on Lake Geneva

Billing itself as “the only full-service resort” on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, The Abbey Resort and Spa is one of those places where you can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering around you. The resort was completely renovated in 2005, but its timber A-frame and low-slung bungalow style buildings look much as they did when it was built nearly 50 years ago, when the Midwestern elite made it their summer playground.

There’s plenty of nostalgia for the “good old days” here – the nearby Geneva Grand Resort proudly boasts that it was a Playboy Club in the 1960′s and 70′s. And money. Lots and lots of money. The houses that front Lake Geneva, the 9-mile long lake that is the centerpiece of the area, are multi-million dollar affairs that bear the names of families like Borden, Vicks, and Wrigley. Yet despite the vast wealth of the “haves”, those who aren’t descendants of the Midwest’s titans of industry can still share in the benefits of area. There are several public beaches and marinas, and every lakefront property is required to have a public walkway so that all area residents can enjoy a stroll around the lake. And in the towns of Lake Geneva and Fontana, more modest homes and affordable restaurants lines the streets where wealthy summer residents mingle with the local families who live here all year round.

For Chicago residents, getting to The Abbey couldn’t be easier. It’s about 80 miles from the city (50 miles from Milwaukee), but the Metra Rail will get you there in less than two hours from downtown. You’ll get off at the end of the line, at the Harvard Station, where a shuttle will pick you up and drive you the remaining 15 minutes to The Abbey. You can also request service from the resort to anywhere in Lake Geneva, making a car completely unnecessary.

The Abbey is family-friendly – there are childcare services, organized kids’ activities, free games like bags and croquet, two outdoor and one indoor pool, and a 2,000-square foot arcade complete with Wii system – but it’s also perfect for a romantic or relaxing retreat. The rooms have all been updated and feature pillow-top mattresses, LCD wall-mounted TVs, mini-fridges, and patios or balconies.

I saw a few families, but mostly couples in their 30′s to 50′s, during my stay. My room was comfortable and spacious and the bed soft and inviting. My only complaint was with the wi-fi service. It was free, but I had a very hard time getting a signal. When I did, I was bumped offline every 15 minutes or so, and web pages loaded very slowly. I can’t say if that would be the case all over the resort, or just in my location, but it was inconvenient when I needed to get some work done.

If you don’t plan on working while at The Abbey, you’ll find plenty of things to do to keep you busy. The resort rents bikes and fishing poles and there is a golf course nearby. The 35,000-square foot AVANI Spa offers treatments like facials, massages, body wraps, waxing and manicures. It features a pool, whirlpools, inhalation spa, steam room, sauna, sundeck, and spa menu for dining. Guests can also take advantage of the Spa’s fitness center or full line-up of exercises classes liking spinning, yoga, zumba, and pilates, which are geared towards any fitness level. I found there was always equipment available for use, the yoga class was just difficult enough to challenge me (but not hard enough to make me feel like an uncoordinated idiot), and the spa staff was always friendly but unobtrusive.

The resort borders a marina, but the small beach isn’t suitable for swimming. There is a nicer, sandy beach less than a five-minute walk off the property, or you can take the shuttle into Lake Geneva proper to visit the beach there. In town you can rent a boat or wave runner, water-ski, or take a cruise past the historic mansions around the lake. Nearby parks offer hiking trails and horseback riding, two wineries offer wine tasting (a wine festival is held in September), and there are farms where you can pick your own fruit just a few miles away. You can also soar above the lake in a hot air balloon or small airplane. In winter, locals hit the frozen lake for ice fishing and skating.

The Abbey offers an impressive variety of delicious food, all made from scratch in the resort’s kitchen. Meals are served at one of two restaurants, and there is a coffee shop, gazebo grill, cocktail lounge, and cigar bar. The resort also offers catering and meeting spaces, and hosts many weddings throughout the year. The weekend that I visited, a wedding was being set up on the lawn in front of the marina. For a resort-style destination wedding close to Chicago, I can’t think of a more beautiful place in the Midwest at which to get married.

To be honest, when I hear the word “relaxing”, I think “boring”. I prefer my vacations to be packed with sightseeing, learning, experiencing, and of course, eating and drinking. This makes me generally shun resorts where I think I’ll feel as though I’m held captive and at a loss for things to keep me entertained. I’m also very budget-conscious. Since I spend so little time in my hotel room, I don’t like to spend too much on it. And I can’t stand when resorts jack up their prices for food, drinks and activities just because they know guests will pay rather than head off-site. So I was a bit worried that The Abbey wouldn’t be my style. But I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the things that I liked about The Abbey was that leaving isn’t a hassle for guests without their own wheels. The shuttle will take you anywhere you want to go, and there a few restaurants and shops within walking distance of the hotel. And The Abbey doesn’t gouge its guests on food and drink just because it can. Management knows that it isn’t just the hotel guests who keep the resort in business, especially in the off-season. They aim to attract local customers too, and keep the prices reasonable so that everyone can enjoy The Abbey.

Despite any initial reservations, I found myself enjoying The Abbey immensely, and trying to convince my husband that returning for a “relaxing weekend” (in my case, meaning one chock-full of wine-tasting, boat tours, horseback riding, and cooking classes) at The Abbey would be the perfect fall trip. And as it turns out, fall is one of the best times to visit. Weekend rates start at $216 per night, and include free breakfast buffet and a 25% discount on spa services.

Disclosure: The Abbey Resort did cover the cost of my stay, but don’t think they had an easy time wooing me with spa treatments and Pelligrino. Freebies are nice, but they won’t make me forgive a hotel’s shortcomings. My review of the resort represents my own views and experiences as a guest and were not influenced in any way by fancy cheeses or free champagne.