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(2016 - Winter/Spring Issue)


Like countless other Canadians, I have driven through Kentucky a dozen times on my way to and from Florida. But it wasn’t until I spent a week touring the Bluegrass State that I realized it should be more than a passing fancy.

I had always associated Kentucky with thoroughbreds and bourbon, bluegrass and billionaires. Looking past those icons, however, I uncovered a string of surprises: Lexington is George Clooney’s hometown and Hodgenville is Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Newport was the gambling capital of America before Las Vegas was even conceived. And under the bluegrass are many celebrities enjoying their eternal rest, among them mystics Thomas Merton and Edgar Cayce.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Kentuckians supported the Underground Railroad, smuggling slaves to freedom across the Ohio River at night when signals from the Cincinnati side indicated the coast was clear. Today, helping to tell the story is the National Underground Railroad Museum in a Maysville safe house where fugitives once hid under the floorboards.

Happy Hour

While the state’s distinction as the bourbon capital of the world is undisputed, big news to me was the burgeoning craft breweries along the “Brewgrass Trail” and the resurgence of wineries. Kentucky had the country’s first commercial vineyard in the 18th century and was once dubbed the “Napa Valley of the East” since it shares Napa’s latitude and produces wine of equal quality. Initially decimated by tobacco, the wine industry is experiencing a rebirth now that tobacco-growing is in decline.

As a longstanding fan of good wines, I relished my dinner at Lexington’s Jean Farris Winery & Bistro, which offered a tantalizing glimpse into Kentucky’s wine country. My perfectly seared breast of duck was framed by herbs and produce from the on-site garden, and beautifully complemented by my “flight” of four wine tasters. This evening just whetted my curiosity, so a leisurely tour of the dozens of wineries scattered around the state is high on my to-do list for next time.

Not a beer drinker, I was converted at West Sixth Brewing in Lexington, where the unique tastes of lemongrass wheat and cacao nibs seduced my palate. While the quality and flavours are clear reasons for their success, co-founder Ben Self points out that being a good neighbour is an important contributor. Among the initiatives they have undertaken is converting a 130-year-old bread factory into a multi-purpose brewery, tap room, restaurant, community centre and art studio. The brewery also donates six per cent of net profits to charities.

Guns and Ghosts

Kentucky’s rich and often violent history is fertile fodder for ghost stories. In Newport, for example, the gang at American Legacy Tours brings to life an era in which the mob ruled and made millions on gambling, girls and bootlegging. Tales of murder abound, and lantern-light ghost tours raise the spectres of those who died brutal deaths on both sides of the Ohio River.

Old Louisville with its chock-a-block mansions claims to be the most haunted neighbourhood in the U.S. David Domine, our guide and author of Ghosts of Old Louisville, gave us the full treatment—from eyewitness testimony to delectable homemade bourbon balls that soothed our souls after our walking tour. I also stayed at the famous Seelbach Hilton Hotel, where F. Scott Fitzgerald met local mob boss George Remus and admiringly modelled the Jay Gatsby character after him. Haunted by several ghosts, including the “Lady in Blue” who in the early 20th century fell to her death in an elevator shaft, the Seelbach inspired Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding scene in The Great Gatsby.

Farther south in Bardstown, the spirit of outlaw Jesse James is said to live on in the Old Talbott Tavern, where he once shot up a second-floor lounge that is now part of the Jesse James suite and a popular tourist attraction. While I had initially been assigned the outlaw’s former bedroom, the life-sized photo of him staring down at the bed made me uneasy, as did the staff stories of strange goings-on in that room such as rattling doorknobs and disembodied footsteps. This prompted me to move to the Daniel Boone room on the far side of the hotel—and enjoy an undisturbed sleep.

Art and Artistry

Just across the river from Newport, Kentucky, is its Siamese twin—Cincinnati, Ohio—conjoined by the important John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge that is both pedestrian- and vehicle-friendly. Boasting a vibrant arts scene, Cincinnati has created an “Arts and Culture on a Budget” program. Offerings include self-directed and group walking tours of more than 100 murals in 36 neighbourhoods. Art exhibits at the 21c Museum Hotel are open to the public 24/7 free of charge, while no admission is required to the 60,000-item Cincinnati Art Museum during opening hours from Tuesday to Sunday. The historical Cincinnati Observatory, home to the world’s oldest telescope still in use, appreciates a US$5 donation for tours.

Kentucky’s plethora of art galleries, museums, shops and studios opens more doors to not only some fascinating history, but also opportunities for learning crafts and skills.

A case in point is the 1,215-hectare Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, which provides a 3D “Shaker chic” backdrop for artisans and art admirers. Experts in skills such as leathercraft, quilting, weaving and dry stone masonry deliver workshops for visitors of all ages. The historical site houses massive buildings reflecting the traditional values of simplicity, utility and fine craftsmanship. Elegant yet simple visitor accommodation emulates the furnishings, woodwork and lifestyle of the nearly extinct Shakers worldwide. Surrounding the property is the longest “dry stone” fence in America, carefully crafted in the 19th century by imported Irish or Scottish stonemasons.

Art can crop up in the most unusual places. Tucked into a side street of downtown Covington, a stone’s throw from a cathedral modelled after Notre Dame in Paris, is the small manufacturing plant and showroom for Donna Salyers’s Fabulous-Furs. An enterprising faux furrier, Salyers has created art that imitates life to the point at which the two are virtually indistinguishable. The world has gone wild for her concept of “responsible luxury,” with stars and stores from Oprah Winfrey and Lord & Taylor to Saks Fifth Avenue and Simons in Canada snapping up the garments.

One of my biggest surprises, since I was aware only of Churchill Downs in Louisville, was Lexington-based Keeneland. Both a racetrack and reputedly the world’s premier thoroughbred auction centre, Keeneland is a work of art, boasting vast gardens and grounds where the public can picnic, hang out and learn how to bet and barter. The nearby themed Kentucky Horse Park offers family activities and houses the remains of equine celebrities including Triple Crown winner War Admiral, defeated by Seabiscuit in 1938.

The historic Keeneland track was featured in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit, and in 2015, for the first time, Keeneland hosted the Breeders’ Cup to great fanfare. Across the road is Lexington’s boutique airport where the private planes of billionaire buyers come and go.

A Feast of Fests

While I was unable to attend any festivals on this trip, I found a number of annual events throughout the state that celebrate its natural resources, history and culture. Among these are Newport’s Great Inland Seafood Fest and Covington’s German Oktoberfest and Maifest. Louisville is famous for the Kentucky Derby Festival and the end-of-summer Kentucky Bluegrass and Bourbon Experience.

This exhilarating tour of “my new Kentucky home” just scratched the surface for me. From now on, I’ll be timing my drives to dig further into this exciting, evolving state. So I’ll see y’all next time.

Travel Planner

Driving time from Toronto to Lexington is about 10 hours. Air Canada flies directly from Toronto (YYZ) into Cincinnati (CVG); other airlines fly the YYZ–Lexington (LEX) route with transfers. For additional information and trip-planning ideas, visit kentuckytourism.com.

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