Experiencing Kentucky with Theresa Dowell Blackinton

1. What’s the best time of year to visit?

Personally, I’m a hot weather girl. I love swimming at Kentucky Lake, checking out the sights at the State Fair, and seeing how many festivals I can make in a month, so I’d say summer is the best time of year in Kentucky. It’s the season when everything is open, and the sun seems to stay up forever. However, a lot of people find Kentucky’s heat and humidity to be too much to bear. For those with an antipathy to sweating, I’d recommend fall. It’s the most beautiful time of year in Kentucky with the changing leaves and generally mild temperatures, so it’s a fantastic time to enjoy the parks. It’s also a great time of year for horse racing. Spring is also pretty—dogwoods, redwoods, and wildflowers are all in bloom—but it can be unpredictable weather-wise. Derby Day, which is the first Saturday in May, has seen everything from rain to snow to record heat.

2. What are some of the state’s kid-friendly attractions?

Kentucky is incredibly kid-friendly. With its gorillas, penguins, and polar bears, as well as a water play area, the Louisville Zoo is a hands-down favorite of families. Kids also love the Louisville Science Center, the Louisville Slugger Museum, and performances at Stage One. The state parks—particularly ones like Fort Boonesborough, with its living history interpreters—are a huge hit with the whole family. The explorer aspect of Mammoth Cave excites the younger set, and nearby attractions like Kentucky Down Under (kangaroos you can pet!) make it easy to fill an entire weekend with kid-friendly fun. Kentucky’s pick-your-own farms and agritourism destinations, like Boyd’s Orchard and Chaney’s Dairy Barn, are also great family attractions.

3. Name three Kentucky delicacies every visitor should try.

This is an entirely unfair request. It’s impossible to pick only three things. However, an excellent lunch would be a Hot Brown accompanied by an Ale-8-One and finished with a slice of Derby Pie. But there is so much more good food to sample in Kentucky—beer cheese, country ham, fried chicken, mutton-style bar-b-que, and bourbon balls, as well as local farm goodies like Kenny’s cheeses, Chaney’s ice cream, and Boyd’s Orchards strawberries. And of course, there’s bourbon, which requires its own entry.

4. Where can you go to get the best mint julep?

Let me reveal a secret: most Kentuckians don’t drink mint juleps. To a bourbon purist, a mint julep is a desecration of bourbon. True bourbon drinkers don’t drink bourbon any way but straight. Myself, I prefer it in a Kentucky Manhattan, which is what we call a Manhattan made with Kentucky bourbon. However, mint juleps are an important part of Kentucky culture, especially around Kentucky Derby time, and they’re definitely worth trying at least once. If you don’t get a good one (which unfortunately is quite often as mint juleps are a hard drink to get right), you won’t be drinking a mint julep more than once. I’d recommend heading to downtown Louisville to Proof on Main or the Old Seelbach Bar to try a mint julep made with the attention it deserves. Harrodsburg’s Beaumont Inn also has excellent bartenders who can certainly make a fine mint julep. This almost goes without saying, but you must have a mint julep at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. It’s as important to the Derby tradition as the blanket of roses and the fantastic hats. Plus mint juleps at the Derby come in a commemorative glass you can keep as a souvenir.

5. Where do locals go to enjoy bluegrass? Are there any local bands that visitors should check out?

Bluegrass’s hometown is the tiny town of Rosine in Western Kentucky not far from Owensboro, and the Rosine Barn Jamboree carries on the legacy of bluegrass founder Bill Monroe with free concerts on Friday nights. It’s a very cool, authentic experience that does actually take place in a barn. Bluegrass aficionados will also want to visit Monroe’s boyhood home, known as Jerusalem Ridge, and travel to Owensboro to tour the International Bluegrass Music Museum. Festivals provide a great way to enjoy bluegrass. Some of the most popular are Lexington’s Festival of the Bluegrass, Morehead’s Clack Mountain Festival and Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival, Owensboro’s River of Music Party, and Rosine’s Jerusalem Ridge Festival. For a twist on traditional bluegrass, try the International Newgrass Festival in the Bowling Green area, which is home to the genre’s founder, Sam Bush. One of my favorite ways to experience bluegrass is at a pickin’ on the porch event, which is a casual gathering of bluegrass musicians and fans that usually takes place on the porch. This gathering’s are often spontaneous, but you can catch regularly scheduled ones at the Country Music Highway Museum in Paintsville and at the Old Town Welcome Center in Berea.

6. Name three outdoor options for adventurers.

The rock climbing at Red River Gorge is considered to be the best in the eastern United States. There’s a terrific climbing community in that area, and there are routes that span the entire spectrum of difficulty. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a very scenic place to climb, and if you need a break from climbing, there are opportunities to hike, camp, and canoe.

For those without even a hint of claustrophobia, the wild cave tour at Mammoth Cave is a unique adventure. You free climb cave walls, squeeze through tiny openings, crawl, twist, turn, and generally get intimately familiar with parts of the cave that the majority of visitors never see. It’s definitely not your everyday cave tour.

Kentucky has a lot of great options for water lovers, but those looking for a thrill will prefer the Russell Fork River in October, when the dam is opened and the released water creates rapids rated up to Class V+. While serious paddlers from around the nation gather at the Russell Fork to test their skills, a number of outfitters lead trips through the rapids for more casual river rats.

7. Where can travelers gain an appreciation for Kentucky’s horse culture?

Lexington is the epicenter of the horse world. You’ll want to start at the Kentucky Horse Park, which provides a really broad introduction to almost everything having to do with horses. Between the museums and the shows, it’s easy to spend an entire day there. Horse farm tours, which take place in Lexington and surrounding cities and towns, can fill another day. Organized tours are the simplest option, ideal for those looking to get an idea of thoroughbred breeding but without a vested interest in any one farm. With a little advance planning, it’s also possible to visit farms on your own. Claiborne Farm in Paris, which is where Secretariat is buried, is one of the most iconic farms, and they do a great tour. Old Friends Equine Center in Georgetown, a retirement home for race horses, should also be on any itinerary. And of course, you’ve got to go to the races. If you can manage, it’s worth going to both Keeneland in Lexington and Churchill Downs in Louisville. You’ll have very different experiences at both tracks. If you make it to Churchill Downs, you’ll also want to check out the excellent Kentucky Derby Museum, which really provides an insider’s perspective on horse racing in general and the Derby in particular.

8. What can visitors expect when traveling to Appalachia?

They can expect to be surprised. Appalachia is so much more than any Dateline special makes it out to be. It’s a beautiful place (especially in the spring and fall) that is home to some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. It’s also much more developed than I think most people believe it to be. I think people tend to picture a very backward place with people living in secluded hollows and remaining distrustful of outsiders, which is not at all what you’ll find. The cities and towns of Appalachia are fairly typical, bearing all the trappings of contemporary life—four-lane highways, fast food restaurants, chain hotels, etc. While some of the more rural areas are losing population, the more urban areas are growing, and you’ll find plenty of people who left Appalachia for college and jobs deciding to come back. It’s a vital place. Yet is also has very strong roots and an appreciation of its history, culture, and traditions. Music is celebrated throughout Appalachia as a part of everyday life. Coal mining remains critical to the economy. Family and community are at the forefront of life. Arts and crafts are highly valued. Visitors to the area can experience all this—on tours of coal mines, at performances of traditional music in modern concert halls, in conversations with artists at work in their studios, on strolls through company towns, on a tour of Loretta Lynn’s birthplace, on early morning elk watching tours…Appalachia has a ton to offer. It might just be the most fascinating part of the state.

9. Louisville & Lexington are the state’s largest cities. How do they differ from one another?

Louisville and Lexington have completely different personalities. Louisville embraces a Midwestern sensibility with just a hint of southern sassiness while Lexington is southern through and through. Louisville has much more of an urban feel to it than Lexington, though both cities manage to maintain small-town charm despite their respective sizes. Though the Kentucky Derby belongs to Louisville, the horse industry belongs to Lexington. In some ways, I think the differences in the cities are encompassed by the differences in their racetracks. Louisville’s Churchill Downs is set in an urban mixed-income neighborhood, and on any given day at the track, you’ll find folks wearing anything from jeans and t-shirts to designer suits and dresses. Lexington’s Keeneland, on the other hand, is situated on idyllic farmland, and on race days, the outfit of choice weighs heavily toward pearls and seersucker. Louisville is, perhaps, a bit more democratic in its tastes; Lexington a little more genteel and traditional. The rivalry between the two cities is huge—for many reasons, not the least of which is the competition between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky—but outside of basketball season it’s a pretty friendly rivalry. Both cities deserve a few days of your time.

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