How about a vacation in Kentucky this year—but just barely?
Pull out a map and you’ll see that the edges of the state are largely drawn by geographic wonders. The Ohio River. Near-legendary mountains. Man-made lakes.
And the state’s edgy attractions can lead across borders, too. Such as the Hatfield-McCoy Trails System, which starts in Pike County and takes fans of the part factual, part mythical duelin’ families straight into West Virginia (read more about this attraction in “Riding the Hatfield-McCoy Trails” in this issue).
Add some details like whitewater, wineries, and local vibes—the ones that you can smell, sense, and feel—and you just might be looking at a new getaway.
“The biggest new thing in our area is the Underground Railroad movement,” says Duff Giffen, Maysville’s director of tourism and community redevelopment.
Mason County, the real-life setting that planted a seed of inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is seeing a bump-up of such interest, thanks in part to the popularity of the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
This will be the first full year for promoting Mason County’s self-guided driving tour of about 40 Underground Railroad stops throughout the county.
The Maysville Floodwall Mural Project, by artist Robert Dafford, has created eight historic scenes, and work on his ninth mural, open for all to see, starts later this summer.
In Washington, just up the Buffalo Trace, travelers can see a community of 1700s-era log cabins and shops.
Festivals are big here, like the mid-April Chocolate Festival in Old Washington and Maysville’s Rosemary Clooney Music Festival in September.
Take the 1.4 miles of U.S. 421 that slope steeply down to Milton, Kentucky, and across the Ohio River bridge, and you’ll find a Hoosier town that promotes tourism year-round—not just for that big hydroplane race, the Madison Regatta, that kicks in around the Fourth of July.
Attracting “heritage travelers” is a central aim for a town that has more than 133 blocks of historic shops and buildings dating as far back as the early 1800s, including the “crown jewel,” Lanier Mansion.
There are lots of doings—wine tasting, biking, barbecue and blues get-togethers, garden tours, hiking, plus special events at Hanover College and Historic Eleutherian College, which was founded by abolitionists. Clifty Falls State Park is located high on a bluff just outside town.
Steve Thomas, owner of The Thomas Family Winery along with his wife Elizabeth, says tourists who come downtown enjoy their wine and cider pub, along with board games, fresh breads, and other eats. Locals “wander in” on Saturday nights to play folk, bluegrass, even Celtic, befitting Thomas’ ancestry.
Not far away, John Staicer, executive director of Historic Madison Inc., shows off the Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum, which crafted wooden frames for saddle makers from 1878 until its closing in 1972.
Employees’ actual aprons hang on pegs as Staicer stands beside the heavy woodworking machinery that still runs. He describes the setting of the once-vibrant business as “a rare time capsule of an industrial workplace in the United States.”
There are loads of things to do on the side of the Ohio River facing Cincinnati, and several of the newest are in Newport.
The Newport Aquarium, at Newport on the Levee, famous for those clear underwater tunnels that lead through a tank of live sharks, just added a new exhibit last year: Hidden Treasures of the Rainforest Islands.
The Levee also features a dozen international restaurants and shopping. Entertainment abounds, too, with a 20-screen movie complex with stadium-style seating, GameWorks (high-tech video games), a comedy club, a blues club, an art gallery, and a cabaret.
Hofbrauhaus Newport, which opened in 2003, is “the first U.S. operation of the world-famous beer garden/restaurant.” It also has a “bier” hall and brewery.
One novel link to Cincy is the Purple People Bridge, the longest pedestrian bridge (2,670 feet) in the U.S. linking two states, a 133-year-old car and railroad structure that’s now open to pedestrian traffic only.
A few other area attractions:
In Covington, visit MainStrasse Village, Riverside Drive-Licking River Historic Area & Riverwalk Statue Tour, and the Railway Museum of Greater Cincinnati. In Ft. Mitchell, visit Vent Haven Museum, with more than 500 ventriloquist’s dummies.
Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, Stearns
With its coal mines long since closed, tourism is important here in McCreary County, playing largely off the 103-year legacy of the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company.
The displays inside the McCreary County Museum reveal the iconic hard life for miners and their families, set within the wild beauty of southeastern Kentucky and the Daniel Boone National Forest.
But honestly, says Becki Egnew, manager of the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, it is the train ride with its six and one-half twisting miles through woods and gorges that first attracts tourists.
On its way to the former Blue Heron mining community, the train clickety-clacks past the restored Barthell Coal Mining Camp, featuring miners’ houses (now serving as lodging for vacationers) and even the mustard-colored, legendary Company Store.
The ride, Egnew says, whets visitors’ appetites for the museum and Big South Fork’s other enticements, such as hiking, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting.
At the end of an out-of-the-way country road sits one of two agritourism businesses in the county, Peg Taylor’s Farm House Inn.
One poetic entry in the guest book reads, “I opened up the door this morning and let the quiet in…the quiet when you listen to your own pulse.”
Being fairly close to Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Nashville, Evansville is “a big day-trip destination,” says Convention & Visitors Bureau spokesperson Laura Libs.
The downtown area features a variety of attractions, such as Casino Aztar, Pigeon Creek Greenway (a walking-biking path), the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science, and the Reitz Home Museum.
The Reitz Home is Evansville’s prime testament to its prosperous past as an industrial river city.
It is a treasure trove of relics, from an enunciator (servant’s bell) that still rings, to a square grand piano. It’s also a study in the craftsmanship of another era, with its huge stained-glass windows, parquet floors, intricate woodwork, and hand-painted 13-foot ceilings.
Not far away is Mesker Park Zoo & Botanical Garden—a tourist draw second only to Aztar. The hilly indoor/outdoor trek reveals an assortment of inhabitants ranging from cheetahs to pythons, and tigers to swans, including Donna, the oldest hippopotamus in captivity, who will turn 54 in July.
Cumberland Gap, Middlesboro
From Corbin, U.S. 25E climbs east 44 miles toward the looming mountains.
The 20,000-acre Cumberland Gap National Historical Park has a large campground and close to 70 miles of challenging-to-easy hiking trails. There’s a visitors center in Middlesboro, but the park also has one, along with Pinnacle Overlook, a drive-up that gives you a bird’s-eye view of the Gap 800 feet below.
Back down on the highway, drive through Cumberland Gap Tunnel and the next thing you know, you’re in Harrogate, Tennessee.
Harrogate is home to Lincoln Memorial University, and adjoining the school is the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.
The modern museum is seemingly all things Lincoln, from practically every photo ever taken of Lincoln to the silver-knobbed cane he carried to Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night.
The museum also takes a broader look at Lincoln’s era in America, depicted by everything from an antique Civil War field ambulance to authentic presidential campaign banners.
Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area
Plenty of sky, water, and land, all virtually unspoiled.
This is Land Between The Lakes, a slice of earth devoted to wildlife and outdoor pursuits for humans.
It’s made up of a long, narrow tongue of real estate bordered by Kentucky Lake on its western shore and Lake Barkley to the east.
Its main pathway is the 69-mile trace down its middle. The asphalt road runs from Canal Loop near Lake City, Kentucky, and on south into Tennessee, ending near Fort Donelson National Battlefield.
LBL, for short, has 300 or so miles of undeveloped shoreline and 170,000 acres. On water, it offers fishing and boating. On land, it offers everything from hunting to hiking, horseback riding to off-trail mountain biking.
Here are just a couple of special things to make time for:
The Elk & Bison Prairie is close to the Golden Pond Visitors Center and Planetarium in Trigg County. This rare landscape is being restored to the native grassland early hunters and settlers would have seen—complete with wild buffalo and elk.
A few miles below the Tennessee state line stands The Homeplace, made up of original log structures that represent a family farm in the mid-1800s. Folks dressed in period clothing add insight into the rural life of 150 or so years ago.
ON THE EDGE VACATIONS information
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park
Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau
Land Between The Lakes National Recreational Area
Madison Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
Maysville-Mason County Tourism Office
McCreary County Tourist Commission
Northern Kentucky Convention & Visitors Bureau
Pikeville/Pike County Tourism
BEYOND THE EDGE
If you want to set your sights a little farther across the border—but not too far—here are a few suggestions:
The Longaberger Company & Homestead
(2 hours from Covington)
In the city of Newark, you’ll have to ratchet your neck way up to take in a stunningly large picnic basket. It’s actually the seven-story home office of The Longaberger Company. You can even take a tour of the place, which, if you haven’t guessed, made its reputation by crafting handmade baskets. The largest draw for tourists is just down Route 16 in Frazeysburg at The Longaberger Homestead, home of The World’s Largest Apple Basket. This entertainment/dining/ shopping/educational destination also showcases baskets handcrafted by artisans or you can make one of your own.
Bob Evans Farm Homestead Museum
Rio Grande, Ohio
(Less than 1 hour from Ashland, KY)
The Bob Evans Farm Homestead Museum opened two years ago at Evans’ historical family farm in southeast Ohio.
It’s both a corporate museum to the hugely successful Bob Evans Restaurant chain and a historical center devoted to founder Bob Evans and his family and the local area.
New Harmony, Indiana
(1-1/2 hours from
This nearly 200-year-old settlement site was the centerpiece of “two utopias,” says a spokesperson at the Atheneum Visitors Center. The first was a Shaker-like community; the second thought of itself as a “secular utopia” founded on universal equality attained by education. Today you can enjoy the contrast of historic structures and striking contemporary architecture, such as architect Philip Johnson’s “roofless church,” garden labyrinths, various shops, and art galleries.
Beckley, West Virginia
(2 hours from Ashland)
1-88-TAMARACK or (888) 262-7225
“A one-stop shop for West Virginia culture, heritage, handcrafts, fine art, regional cuisine, and music” opened here in 1996. Resident artisans work daily in observation studios. And there are artisan demos and food tasting, a fine arts gallery, live musicals, theater, dance and storytelling, and a new 400-seat conference center. Not to mention a restaurant managed by the four-star Greenbriar Resort.