Thanks to a certain restaurant, the US state of Kentucky enjoys worldwide name recognition. But how many people actually visit? While the state’s tourism numbers have been surging – with a record 2 million last year – the vast majority of them already live in America. International visitors are much thinner on the ground.
Perhaps it’s time more of us followed the lead of our Transatlantic cousins. After one week driving around the Bluegrass State – made much easier by British Airways opening a direct route to Cincinnati (an Ohio metropolis whose airport actually sits in northern Kentucky) – I found myself wondering why this underrated state isn’t considered one of the quintessential American road trips.
In a 250-mile drive from north to south, you can encounter everything from Niagara-esque waterfalls (without the crowds you’d find further north), the charm of the Cumberland mountains, and, best of all, an audacious network of Unesco-recognised caves believed to cover more than 400 miles. You’ll soon wonder how some Americans could dismiss this as “flyover country”.
The Museum of Creation
But for all the scenic splendour, what really stood out for me was the social geography. Like an early Louis Theroux box-set, my drive across Kentucky brought me up close and personal with various American quirks and subcultures – many of them conveniently signposted as you navigate the interstate. Take the next exit for Amish bakeries? Yes please. Right hand lane for the infamous Museum of Creation? How could I say no?
Like its sister attraction – a 500-ft replica of Noah’s Ark situated between Cincinnati and Louisville – the Museum of Creation attracted its share of snooty write-ups when it opened in 2016. The brainchild of an Australian evangelist called Ken Ham, it preaches a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Which means dozens of exhibits picking a fight with everything from fossils to climate change, while making the case for the existence of dragons and the Biblical flood.
It’s absurd, but also absurdly fun. The full-scale animatronic dinosaurs certainly look incongruous grazing next to loincloth-wearing homo sapiens, but they’re more exciting to look at than anything in the National History Museum. I suspect you’ll struggle to find a child who would say otherwise.
When it comes to weird museums, there are two separate ones dedicated to Kentucky’s most famous son, Colonel Harland Sanders. The first is found inside KFC’s first-ever outlet: a rustic roadside cafe not far from the Tennessee border. The second is part of KFC’s modern-day headquarters and functions as a sort of Kentucky-fried embassy. There’s even a framed photo of the Colonel meeting then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Further west, I found out about another fascinating chapter in Kentucky’s tourism story: the cave wars. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a spate of discoveries of maze-like limestone caverns running deep into the hills. Many of these were snapped up by entrepreneurs looking to turn their cave into Kentucky’s top roadside attraction – even if it meant cutting a few corners on health and safety.
“See those marks up there,” said my guide as he pointed a flashlight at one glittering limestone wall. “That’s from one of the previous owners looking to get rid of a boulder blocking the walkway.” After exhausting all other options, the former owner decided to rig the boulder with a stick of dynamite – hence the unsightly scuffs. (These days, my guide assured me, the cave tourism business is much less cavalier.)
The bourbon lifestyle
Then there’s the bourbon. More than 90 per cent of all of America’s bourbon whisky is made in this state, including Jim Beam, Four Roses and Maker’s Mark. On the drive between Louisville and Daniel Boone National Forest, you won’t struggle to find distilleries. But if you want to imbibe, you might want to stop over in Bardstown: a picture perfect southern town with 11 separate distilleries (and a decent smattering of bars and restaurants) within a 16-mile radius.
At the town’s Oscar Getz Museum of Bourbon History, I met its director Jack Rein. A Californian exile, he moved here after the pandemic and hasn’t looked back. “There’s actually a whole Californian contingent in Bardstown,” he said. “The bourbon industry has done a great job of promoting not just the drink, but the lifestyle that goes with it. You can’t beat sitting on the porch and drinking a great bourbon.”
In bed with Ali
While Kentucky is undoubtedly an outdoors kind of state, don’t make the mistake of overlooking its cities. The rugged industrial centre of Louisville has blossomed in recent years into one of the Midwest’s cultural hotspots, with several large theatres and a Nashville-style outdoor concert venue (Fourth Street Live). At the magnificent Brown Hotel, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, I stayed in the suite once frequented by Louisville’s local hero: a certain Muhammad Ali.
Much of Louisville’s social calendar still revolves around the Kentucky Derby, the legendary horse race which brings in everyone from multi-generation socialites and country music stars to the occasional Gulf Sheikh. Taking place the first weekend in May, the Derby itself is a bit of a whirlwind, but it has boosted the city’s ranks of fine-dining spots and swish hotels (many of which are competitively priced outside of the racing season).
Meanwhile, just one hour away is Lexington: Kentucky’s second city and a long-term citadel of equine wealth. Amongst the grand Southern mansions and horse farms, you’ll feel like you’ve escaped not just the hustle and bustle of city life, but much of the 21st century itself. You’ll realise why the charms of this state have even inspired their own music genre, in the fiddle-rich sounds of Bluegrass. Less easy to explain is why more people – non-Americans at least – haven’t tuned in to them.
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport from £449 return.
Where to stay
The Brown Hotel in Louisville has doubles from £144.
21c Museum Hotels has properties in Lexington and Louisville, with doubles from £139.