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It is not often that a new airline route opens up somewhere different to explore, so when the British Airways direct flight from London to Cincinnati, in the USA, commenced, we were keen to jump on board and visit the ‘Bluegrass State’ of Kentucky.
Let’s address the elephant in the room before we go any further. Cincinnati is in Ohio, not Kentucky. However, the international airport is actually situated just south of the Ohio River, in the adjoining city of Covington, Northern Kentucky, with the airport code CVG.
From our hotel in Covington, it was possible to walk across the historic ‘John A. Roebling’ Bridge, that stretches across the Ohio River, to explore downtown Cincinnati. It was here that we discovered the hard-hitting ‘National Underground Railroad Centre’, that depicts the plight of slaves crossing the river to escape oppression, during the 1800s. It was certainly thought-provoking and a reminder of how lucky we are to be free to travel as we want.
For a lighter introduction we could have sought out the German-influenced breweries and bars of the ‘Over-the-Rhine’ neighbourhood, but we knew that with Kentucky being home to some of America’s top distilleries there would be plenty of opportunities for a tipple in the coming days, so we kept our heads clear for the road trip ahead of us.
Heading south on Interstate 75, we decided to stop at Williamstown. The reason to pause our journey here was to view one of Kentucky’s newest and more unique visitor attractions, a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, it is impressive to view this enormous, hand-made, wooden ship, built in the Kentucky countryside. The structure is more than 150 metres long and 15 metres high, so it dominates the surrounding area.
There is an accompanying museum explaining the biblical story and the modern construction, as well as a neighbouring zoo featuring the animals that entered the ark, two by two. This really is a family orientated park, but certainly worth a visit if you are nearby Williamstown.
Our journey of exploration continued west, towards the Indiana border, where we had a couple of nights in Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city.
As well as bourbon, if there are two things Kentucky is particularly known for its horses and museums, so it was no surprise that we found ourselves in a museum about horses, or more specifically the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville. Each May the Churchill Downs course hosts the famous Kentucky Derby race, featuring some of the best racehorses from around the world. The race draws an exclusive crowd too, including movie stars, American presidents, and the British Royal Family, including Queen Elizabeth II in 2007.
The sporting theme continued as we visited two further museums in Louisville. The Louisville Slugger Museum charts the history of American baseball and specifically the headquarters of baseball bat production in the town for the last 130 years. It is impossible to miss the museum as a giant baseball bat leans nonchalantly against the building. We wandered through the exhibition and enjoyed having a swing at a few pitches before we left with some memorabilia from the gift shop.
Louisville’s most famous resident was the boxer Muhammad Ali. Not only is the local airport named after him, but the Muhammad Ali Centre contains a detailed exhibition on his life, career and legacy. We happily wandered around the museum, but for those wanting to immerse themselves further there is a walking trail around the town that passes by his childhood home, school and gym.
We always knew that our Kentucky tour would return to its best known export, and in Louisville we found ourselves at the Welcome Centre, and official starting point, for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, that connects the whiskey distilleries around the state.
As you would expect the centre has an informative exhibition charting the history of the distillers, as well as gift shop that sells everything related (and some things unrelated!) to Bourbon. The Welcome Centre is also an excellent resource for planning your own Kentucky Bourbon Tour, with the four whiskey distilleries along Louisville’s Main Street alone an obvious place to start. Leaving Louisville was a difficult decision!
The theme of Kentucky’s horses, museums and bourbon followed us along the road to Lexington. The lush grasslands behind the white picket fences on either side of the road belong to thoroughbred horse stables that breed the fastest, and consequently the most expensive, horses in the world. Horses are brought from around the globe, much like an international equine dating agency, in the hope of breeding the next champion. Some of the horses munching on the grass, presumably during a break from work, were visible from the car as we pass by.
These are the same grasslands that give Kentucky its nickname as the ‘Bluegrass State’. Allegedly when the first settlers arrived in the area, the wildflowers were in bloom and created a patchwork of blue. For our visit the grass remained green, but the scenery, particularly in Woodford County, was memorably picturesque.
Lexington was marked as a prime location on our Kentucky Bourbon Trail map, so it was no surprise to discover a whole Distillery District in the city. This once industrial zone has been revitalised into a modern entertainment area, that not only includes historic distilleries, but plenty of new bars and restaurants as well. We opted for cocktails at Ona, a bar that specialises in locally made spirits, leaving the historic Woodford Reserve and Four Roses distilleries for another day.
The following morning, we were tempted by a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park to learn more about the local stud industry, but instead made our way to Pleasant Hill to visit the preserved Shaker Village. Here there are exceptionally well-preserved buildings, set amongst five square miles of countryside, that tell the story of the Shaker community that was at its largest in the 1800s. Whether inside the buildings or wandering the well-maintained gardens and trails, it was refreshing to be reminded of this pastoral way of life and to be out in the open air.
Heading east from Lexington we decided it was time for a little more outdoor activity, and where better than amongst the sprawling Daniel Boone National Forest. The forest spans across 21 different Kentucky counties, and now covers more than 3,000 square miles. Named after a local explorer and folk hero, the forest is not continuous, but instead is made up of pockets of state parks, private land and the waterways to the south east of Kentucky.
We began our exploration of Kentucky’s largest wilderness at Slade, the nearest town to the Red River Gorge, towards the northern end of the forest. Red River Gorge is home to spectacular rock formations, which include natural sandstone arches and bluffs, as well as the towering cliffs around the river itself. Popular with rock climbers, we kept our feet firmly on the ground, following a couple of hiking trails. Although not well-known outside Kentucky, the Daniel Boone National Forest, reminded me of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not a million miles away in Virginia and the Carolinas.
We came across Laurel River Lake by accident, as we headed south through the National Forest along a scenic byway. Although stopping at the lake wasn’t on our planned itinerary, it probably should have been.
Artificially created by the damming of the river, the subsequent flooding upstream created a deep lake of pristine beauty. There are numerous quiet coves around the lake’s nine square miles, making it popular with boaters and wildlife enthusiasts alike. We didn’t have time for fishing or birdwatching during our brief stay, but wouldn’t mind returning to try.
Holidays to Kentucky by Freedom Destinations.
Just thirty minutes’ drive from the town of Corbin and Laurel River Lake, is one of Kentucky’s premier natural wonders, Cumberland Falls. We took the short, mostly paved, trail from the nearest parking area to one of the platforms and weren’t disappointed with the views. Stretching 38 metres across, the falls drop 21 metres from the cliff edge to the plunge pool below. Nicknamed the “Niagara of the South”, a resemblance can definitely be seen, even if the scale is quite different.
Although we visited at the wrong time of the month, we were told that if you visit Cumberland Falls during a full moon (and a clear sky!) you can witness a rare “Moonbow”. This is an all-white rainbow caused by the waterfall’s spray and the light from the full moon. Another reason to return to this wonderful part of Kentucky!
Following the highway further west, on our zig-zagging Kentucky self drive, we reached the state’s only National Park. From Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, there are some world famous National Parks in the USA, but we’re pretty sure that not many people, outside of Kentucky, have heard of Mammoth Cave. However, it is certainly an area worth exploring.
Covering an area of more than 80 square miles, the National Park offers visitors miles of hiking trails, protected woodland and rocky valleys containing fast flowing streams. However, visitors to the park mainly come for the caves. Mammoth Cave is correctly named, as the whole cave system is the longest recorded in the world, stretching for an incredible 400 miles, well beyond the National Park boundary.
The National Park Service offers a variety of different guided tours down into the caves, ranging from 30 minutes to more than four hours. We decided to join a two hour underground adventure led by a very knowledgeable ranger. It should be noted that there are plenty of staircases to negotiate so a relative level of fitness and correct footwear are required (with the exception of the wheelchair accessible tour).
Our tour descended through the historic entrance and moved through various caverns and tunnels, all illuminated to show off the stalagmites and stalactites that extend towards each other. We also learnt a great deal about the different activities that people have used the caves for, over thousands of years.
As if to prove that the caves do stretch further than the National Park boundary, we stopped in the pretty town of Bowling Green, about 40 miles from the park entrance. We paused our journey mainly to view the magnificent cars on display within the National Corvette Museum, however, back in 2014, part of the museum and some of the cars collapsed into a giant sinkhole that appeared beneath the building. Fortunately, the caves broke through to the surface at night, so nobody was hurt, but significant damage to the building and some of the cars had to be repaired. The story and accompanying video of the collapse is now part of the impressive exhibition.
Having travelled the length and breadth of the state, we headed north and in just over three hours were back at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, for our return journey. Although we were very tempted to continue and cross the border to visit Nashville and Memphis in neighbouring Tennessee, sadly time prevented us.
The state of Kentucky looked after us well and showed us an area of America not often explored by travellers from abroad. Whether you are a nature lover, a sports fan, or enjoy your food and drink, there are plenty of things to do in Kentucky. If you’re a fan of discovering somewhere new, Kentucky is ready and waiting for you!
Richard has more than 25 years of experience working within the travel industry. He has travelled widely in the USA, Australia and Africa and enjoys exploring National Parks and other wilderness areas.