Kentucky is largely overlooked by Canadians who motor through the Bluegrass State en route to the beaches of Florida.
I've done it myself -- cruised the shady hills along I-75 with only sunshine on my mind. I gassed up the car and stayed overnight at a roadside motel near Lexington, then hit the highway early the next morning, anxious to be on my way further south.
It was only years later, during a visit to Louisville, that I discovered how much had been missed by not stopping off for a few days.
Kentucky's easy-going southern charm and scenic beauty lull travellers into dismissing it as a "down home, ahh shucks" kind of place.
But behind the mountain-music-moonshine persona is a sophisticated society that doesn't blow its own horn too loudly.
In fact, there are many things not to be missed in Kentucky. Here is just a small selection:
Spring comes early in Kentucky. And the pleasant days of April are prime time to see horses frolicking in verdant fields as the state gears up for its thoroughbred racing season.
The season starts in Lexington with live racing at Keeneland Race Course, April 4-25. Visitors who want to immerse themselves in the horsey atmosphere can also attend daybreak track-side workouts, eat breakfast at the track kitchen with jockeys, trainers and owners, and watch the April 7 auction of two-year-olds in training (all free).
Then, the Kentucky Horse Park hosts the 2014 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, April 24-27. More than 70 horses and riders will compete in dressage, cross-country and show-jumping. In addition to competing for $250,000 in prize money, this year riders will be vying for spots on the U.S. team for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Normandy, France, Aug.23 to Sept. 7. Held every four years, WEG is a 60-country competition often referred to as the Olympics of equestrian sports.
On April 12, the focus shifts to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby Festival, a blowout community celebration with many free events leading up to the 140th "Run for the Roses." The enormous Thunder Over Louisville fireworks show kicks off the unique three-week party that also includes the Great Steamboat Race on the Ohio River, April 30, and the colourful Pegasus Parade down Broadway on May 1.
May 3 is reserved for the hoopla of the world famous Derby at storied Churchill Downs, also home to the Kentucky Derby Museum.
A NATURAL BEAUTY
Kentucky may be small but its diverse geography is packed border-to-border with natural beauty, much of it protected by an impressive park system. With some 365,000 hectares of national forests, 52 state parks, extensive waterways and the world's largest cave system, there are too many scenic spots to mention but some of the top sites are Mammoth Cave National Park, Cumberland Gap State Park, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, Red River Gorge, Natural Bridge State Resort Park, and the Daniel Boone National Forest. These provide a fantastic outdoor playground for paddling, rafting, boating, fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, caving, zip-lining, rock climbing, wildlife viewing and more.
The last time I was in Louisville, the buzz was all about the "Urban Bourbon Trail," a self-directed sipping tour of city bars and restaurants where patrons can sample from 50 to 150 different kinds of Kentucky bourbon.
Who knew so many types even existed? Certainly not this Canadian.
Since then I have learned a bit about the roots of bourbon-making and the well established Kentucky Bourbon Trail, made up of eight historic distilleries -- Four Roses, Heaven Hill and the Bourbon Heritage Centre, Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Town Branch, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Evan Williams Bourbon Experience -- that open for public tours with a tasting at the end. (Most charge a small admission fee.)
Participants can pick up a free Bourbon Trail Passport at their first distillery and collect stamps along the way to earn a free T-shirt. You can download a map and tour on your own or -- better still -- leave the driving to someone else and take an organized distillery tour with outfits such as Mint Julep Tours.
Louisville's Urban Bourbon Trail and a Kentucky Craft Bourbon Trail are offshoots of the main trail (all organized by the Kentucky Distillers' Association). The Craft Trail takes in eight micro-distilleries where the spirit is handcrafted much in the way it was in the 1700s, when settlers first started making the spirit. See kentuckybourbontrail.com.
ONE OF A KIND
With many outstanding craft fairs and festivals, artisan centres, museums, galleries, and working studios, Kentucky has gained recognition as a top state for handmade arts.
Now UNESCO has designated Paducah as a City of Crafts and Folk Art, and part of its Creative Cities Network. The network recognizes places that are hubs of creative industry and promotes collaboration among arts communities.
Paducah is home to the National Quilt Museum, the world's largest facility devoted to quilting and fibre art, the Yeiser Art Center, which showcases the work of national and regional artists, and the Paducah School of Art.
"Paducah's rich infrastructure, along with its long-lasting tradition in fine craft, has placed the city as a mecca for artists specializing in quilting and fibres," said Mike Mangeot, commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism.
NEED TO KNOW
For more information on planning a trip to Kentucky, contact kentuckytourism.com.