A few days in the Bluegrass were just this side of heaven
A line of black shadow instantly shut out the sun, which left me momentarily blinded as I entered the man-made cave. When my eyes adjusted, I beheld the Louisville Mega Cavern’s foggy and vast stone interior.
Gazing at the seemingly endless underground realm, I instantly understood how this limestone quarry had already become a favorite Kentucky attraction despite only opening to the public in 2009. The spooky feel of the massive space created an immediate itch to explore further.
I discovered this unusual cavern on a tour of Kentucky’s old and new attractions in Louisville, Paducah, Bardstown and Lexington. The state continues to mix classic Kentucky attractions with intriguing new ways to experience the state.
A Louisville Sampler
As I stood next to one of the mammoth stone pillars holding up the Louisville Mega Cavern, I learned that miners blasted out the 100-acre cavern over 42 years in the mid-20th century. Today it serves as a high-security storage facility and attraction with a tram tour, a zip line and a ropes course called Mega Quest.
“What you can see is the tip of the iceberg,” said Leslie Malin, group sales coordinator for the caverns. “We’ve filled in this part of the cavern because we can’t really change the light bulbs on a 90-foot ceiling.”
While I toured the subterranean attraction, Malin described how, in the 1960s, state officials planned to use the caverns as a bomb shelter for 50,000 people. Life in such a creepy fallout shelter seemed hard to imagine.
Next, I explored a more traditional attraction at the Kentucky Derby Museum. In 2010, the museum celebrated its 25th anniversary with a $5.5 million renovation that dramatically transformed the interior to include many interactive elements.
The museum showcases footage from every recorded Derby, a 360-degree video about race day and a booth that allows guests to attempt to announce a race. Right outside the museum, I took the Derby Museum Backside Tour of Churchill Downs for a closer look at a track I had before seen only on television.
“Imagine, if you will, 110,000 people in this track’s infield walking around with vendors everywhere,” said Martin, my tour guide. “You may spend all day in the infield and not see a single horse.”
Though no one sat in the stands that day, the barns and track buzzed with activity. I watched as jockeys tested out feisty 2-year-old horses, hoping for their shot at the big day.
I witnessed another historic Louisville site that recently underwent an upgrade at Louisville Stoneware. The company may have opened in 1815, but the store’s new showroom was only recently opened in 2014.
I admired the colorful and carefully handcrafted pottery items before taking the factory tour. At numerous stations, workers demonstrated how a lump of dirty clay ends up as a piece of gorgeous stoneware ready to be shown off.
Afterward, I witnessed the similarly complicated process of making Kentucky bourbon at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Opened in 2013, the site introduced me to the history of Evan Williams bourbon using videos and replicated sets, such as the re-created Whiskey Row, the original of which once stood in Louisville’s downtown.
After I watched a film on creating bourbon, a screen lifted to reveal the actual process happening inside reflective copper containers.
Paducah’s Art Scene
After arriving in Paducah, I was ushered into an art studio by Kijsa Housman, a local artist who sells her work and offers classes as part of Paducah’s LowerTown Arts District. The 26-square-block area has recently begun offering interactive group tours of the various art studios of the area.
“My whole mantra is accessible art,” said Housman. “That has evolved into more decorative works, as well as art classes. I want people to come into the studio and leave feeling good about art. Art is all about connecting.”
Using a copy of a historic photo of downtown Paducah, I rubbed the image onto another sheet of paper using Citra Solv, producing what appeared to be a historic, sepia-tone postcard of Paducah. I proudly signed my incredibly easy craft.
I left Kijsa Housman Studios to see the historic brick building that houses the River Discovery Center.
“We are at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers in Paducah’s oldest building,” said E.J. Abell, director of education for the center. “It was built in 1843 as a bank. We have an excavation exhibit showing the building’s root cellar and what pieces found tell about what happened here 150 years ago.”
I felt immersed in the river culture while walking past a collection of model steamboats, wildlife habitat exhibits and a model depicting how quickly floods form. At the center’s simulator, I tried my hand at captaining a ship. When I rocked the wheel back and forth, the giant screen made the motion of the water so convincing, I almost forgot I was standing on solid ground.
My next stop was the site that garners Paducah so much international quilting attention: the National Quilt Museum. With my scarce knowledge of quilting, I was not sure what to expect. I was immediately impressed by the remarkably detailed designs the quilters could produce from a canvas of fabric.
“We are a national art museum where everything we have is made out of fiber,” said Frank Bennett, CEO of the museum. “It is like any other art form, except that quilters have much more patience than any of us ever have.”
I closely examined the quilts, shocked by their multiple layers and the depth of their creativity. It was difficult to understand how these quilts that so resembled paintings could exist.
History and Bourbon in Bardstown
If Daniel Boone, Jesse James and Stephen Foster strode back into Bardstown, they would hardly seem out of place. The 1780 town retains many of its centuries-old buildings, including 300 homes listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Despite this close tie with the past, Bardstown continues to surprise, especially in its ever-growing bourbon scene. The 3-year-old Willett Distillery is one of the newest bourbon distilleries in town.
As I admired the charming buildings of the small distillery site, I listened to the story of how the second and third generations of the Willett family banded together to reopen and restore the 1936 distillery to its original greatness.
I left one of the smallest family-owned distilleries in the country to visit one of the largest family-owned distilleries in the country. Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center highlights both the history and the process of making bourbon with a tasting area in the middle.
“Heaven Hill is great for groups because it gives them the history and heritage of bourbon,” said Dawn Przystal, vice president of tourism expansion and marketing for Visit Bardstown. “It’s not brandcentric. It tells you why we’re known as the bourbon capital of the world by giving a historic perspective of bourbon.”
A trip to Bardstown wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the famous My Old Kentucky Home. The 1795 home served as the inspiration for Stephen Foster’s popular song of the same name.
I toured the gardens and shady grounds of the former plantation before learning about life in the historic home. The Rowan family’s original furniture and belongings still furnish the house, including books from the 1600s, a piano with mother-of-pearl keys and a fluffed feather bed.
“Many children shared beds at the time,” said my guide at My Old Kentucky Home. “You have to remember, there was no heat, running water or electricity, so you were happy to share a bed. You didn’t want to be the odd man out; you wanted to be cuddled together.”
Groups visiting can purchase a package deal that includes the home tour, a meal under the site’s scenic rotunda and a performance of “The Stephen Foster Story,” which plays in an outdoor amphitheater each summer.
Bardstown also recently developed its Holy Land Tour for an immersive experience of the area’s religious tradition, including the monastery Gethsemane. I loved the tranquil feeling that enveloped me as I walked around the remote monastery where well-known scholar Thomas Merton lived, wrote and is buried.
Champions in Lexington
I looked straight into the eyes of a Kentucky Derby winner at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions show. At the park’s presentation, elite horses that have earned their retirements parade in front of visitors daily.
In 2003, I watched Funny Cide win the Kentucky Derby. Now, the towering thoroughbred stood a few feet from my face. As if to prove his feisty reputation, the horse bucked on his way out of the arena.
The 1,220-acre Kentucky Horse Park illustrates some of the state’s best qualities with its green rolling hills, on-site horse farm and rich equestrian history. In 2010, the park renovated many of its traditional exhibits; renovations included expansions of the International Museum of the Horse and of the Big Barn, which houses mammoth draft horses and a historic carriage exhibit.
I could have spent all day in the expansive park listening to horses neighing and watching horse-drawn carriages go by.
Brand new to Lexington but with roots that stretch back to 1794 is the Town Branch Distillery. On my tour of the “brewstillery,” I learned how the operation started when Alltech purchased the historic Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company. After experimenting with combining bourbon and beer, the company soon realized they had a winning concoction.
“This is where the nitty-gritty happens,” said Toni Cannon, operations supervisor as we walked into the brewery. “When you start making beer and bourbon, the first few steps are the same. Beer and bourbon go well together.”
I ended my tour of Kentucky relaxing aboard the R. J. Corman Lexington Dinner Train. Opened in 2013, the train takes a route not used in many years through the area’s panoramic horse country.
Appetizers, prime rib and Derby pie proved a wonderful complement to the peaceful scenery of Calumet Farms, Keeneland racetrack and gorgeous Kentucky vistas.
Fore more information go to www.kentuckytourism.com