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.
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 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.

Fall foliage. . .with bourbon in Kentucky

Taking an autumn drive to see the leaves change colors is a time-honored tradition in the north and east of the country. While Kentucky might not be the first place you think of as a leaf-peeping destination, the state is full of scenic byways and rolling countryside to be explored. Plus….there’s bourbon.

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is composed of eight distilleries scattered around Lexington, Bardstown and Frankfort, which are all about one hour from Louisville. Autumn is the perfect time to visit. The leaves are changing, the crowds are gone, and the weather is mild. You can fly into either the Louisville or Lexington airport, though flights to Louisville seem to be cheaper.

Four of the distilleries are closer to Bardstown. These are Jim Bean, Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, and Tom Moore. Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Four Roses and Woodford Reserve are closer to Frankfort. Most are open Tuesday through Saturday (some are open Sundays in summer as well) and offer tours every hour. Tours are generally free, or cost just a few dollars. Tours will often include a walk through the production area, a lesson in the history and production of bourbon, and of course, a tasting session.

Getting Around
You’ll need a car to get between the distilleries, so travel with a designated driver or visit no more than two distilleries per day. You could also book a tour guide and driver with a company like Mint Julep Tours.

Where to Stay
For a more urban experience, look for a hotel in Louisville or Lexington, where you should be able to find a room at a national chain for around $100 per night. You’ll find more bed and breakfast accommodations in the smaller town of Bardstown.

What to Do
Other than visiting the distilleries in the area, you can go also go wine-tasting, visit a Civil War Museum, Kentucky Train Museum, take a two-hour dinner train ride through the vibrantly-colored foliage of the countryside, or visit the Kentucky Horse Park. The Park features a daily parade, equine education, horseback and pony rides, and horse shows.

Michael Jackson died and a flood of travel memories

Wow! Michael Jackson is dead. Jackson is one of those people who is wrapped up with my traveling life. As a child living in Columbia, South Carolina where wisteria vines draped off trees in our front yard, “ABC” played from my radio, the one I bought when we lived in State College, Pennsylvania.

Moving began early for me, and Michael Jackson when he was part of the Jackson Five was one of my companions that offered consistency.

The summer I came back from the Peace Corps he was in the audience for the Broadway performance of Oliver! I had orchestra seats and clearly remember the buzz when he walked up the aisle during the curtain call. He walked right by my seat, and even though I didn’t know he was in the audience during the show, I recognized him immediately when he passed within a couple of inches.

Remember, I had been out of the country and away from the onslaught of popular culture images for two years. Michael Jackson was my introduction back–big time.

That was the summer my youngest cousin who was 13 was practicing The Moonwalk in his driveway while I watched from a window of his home in Lexington, Kentucky, one of my stops on my mostly Greyhound bus trip across the United States.

When I was living in Singapore years later, one of my regrets is that I didn’t try harder for a concert ticket. Jackson came the first year I lived there, but the concert was just after I had arrived. Between settling into my new apartment and getting used to my job, I couldn’t manage to add “buy a Michael Jackson concert ticket” to my “To do” list.

As much as he’s changed over the years, I still have that glorious image of Jackson as a young adult man, and as a person who had a vision of peace despite his personal troubles. After all, Michael Jackson brought us “We are the World”Man in the Mirror” and “Black and White.” Yep, I’m stunned. .

Photo of the Day (2-25-09)

Given that I’m from Kentucky, when “Kentucky” appears in a sign, I’m a sucker. If the sign is on an historic building in one of my favorite small U.S. cities, I’m even more intrigued. jrodmanjr took this shot in Lexington, home of Mary Todd Lincoln and Henry Clay. This is a city steeped in history and horse-racing. If you’re ever there, park downtown so you can stroll through the neighborhoods to take in the granduer of buildings that can remind you of wedding cakes. Although Donna the Buffalo has already come and gone, The Kentucky Theatre, opened in 1922, shows first run movies and various performances year-round.

If you have a photo that has you intrigued, send it our way at Gadling’s Flickr photo pool. It might be chosen as a Photo of the Day.

One way to stand traffic hell

“I am in traffic hell,” I said to my friend over my cell phone Friday right before the I-64 split off I-75 a few miles before Lexington, Kentucky,

I didn’t expect this traffic. It was 3:45. What was everyone doing off work already?

The miles of orange barrels cutting off the left lane, merging traffic from the right, another highway merging in from the left, plus every tractor trailer truck available to humankind had created five-miles-an-hour to no-miles-an-hour speed. Walking would have been faster.

Just three hours prior I had avoided traffic hell in Columbus by taking an alternative route out of the city. Due to construction, I-71 has turned into a mess at Exit 17. I also had braved on during a torrential downpour when I made it as far as the “Florence Y’all” water tower in Florence, Kentucky. I was making good time on my way to Harrogate, Tennessee—until right before Lexington.

That’s when it felt like I had been transported to Los Angeles where traffic is often choked up for hours on the freeways. If I had bubbles, I would have blown them.

A good friend of mine used this strategy to keep from getting steamed whenever he was stuck in L.A. traffic. Once when I was visiting him, he shared the technique.

  • Open the car window.
  • Open a bottle of bubbles, the kind you can buy about anywhere-or make your own out of a mix of dish soap and water.
  • Put the wand inside the bottle to get the right amount of liquid
  • Put your hand holding the wand out the window to let the breeze make the bubbles and carry them away.

The slower you go, the better this works. This, in essence, is reverse psychology. In a sick sort of way, you actually WANT to go slow.

The fun part about this blowing-bubbles-in-traffic activity is the reactions you get from other motorists. As bubbles floated over my friend’s car across the highway, people laughed, clapped, gave us a thumbs up and honked. Traffic had turned fun.

Yesterday, though, on I-75 south, it was hell— until I called my girlfriend who lives in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, a sleepy, quiet town. When I said “traffic hell,” she had one word, “Boston.” Then added, “Traffic. It’s why I moved out of there.”

Come to think of it, my friend who used to live in Los Angeles, now lives in Butte, Montana, a place that also is traffic-jam free. Since I live in Columbus, all I have to do is to keep remembering to avoid Exit 17.

To those of you heading past Lexington–bubbles.

Here’s a post I found about the therapy of bubble blowing. It works in more than traffic.