-Caitlin Caroll is a 2012 Superoo, the wife of one freelance writer, the mom of two adventurous kids, and a full-time graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When she’s not locked in the library reading or writing, she loves exploring the world with her brood.
Central Kentucky is the bourbon capital of the world. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has attracted 2 million visitors in the last five years alone, with thousands making the journey to experience all of the hospitality, beautiful rolling hills, and down-home country cooking that Kentucky has to offer.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail encompasses six distilleries, including the iconic Jim Beam. Our schedule permitted us to visit a smaller, family-owned operation on the outskirts of Lebanon, KY called the Limestone Branch Distillery. Though next time we probably won’t bring our active preschooler, older children and adults may find the tour informative and educational. However, Bourbon is far from the only attraction Central Kentucky has to offer, though it is the most popular. State parks, gorgeous countryside, and family-friendly restaurants abound.
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Park
The Bernheim Arboretum and Research Park, located about 12 miles from Bardstown, KY, is a great place to spend the day with kids. The Visitor Center has a great collection of children’s books and nice chairs to sit and read in, as there are many different types of plants and trees to learn about. There is a small fish tank with minnows and “crawdaddies” (what we call crawfish down in the South). The woman who worked at the center even let my son feed the fish, and he loved throwing in a small pinch of food and watching the fish go crazy. My husband and I are wannabe environmentalists ourselves, so reading about sustainable efforts to reduce the impact of human existence on our planet was especially interesting to us.
The highlight of the visit, and my son’s favorite part, was the giant sapling maze right outside of the Visitor Center. It will be up for around 2 years, until 2014, and it was so fun to run through and play in. He stayed there for an hour! In addition to miles and miles of beautiful trails, there is a children’s garden with play equipment and picnic areas.
Old Fort Harrod State Park
Old Fort Harrod State Park is a replica fort set in the location of what once was the first permanent settlement of white colonists in the commonwealth of Kentucky. Besides the historical lesson of the state park itself, which includes replica 18th century bakeries, butcher shops, candle makers, and carpenter shops, on the grounds outside the fort is the largest osage orange tree in the nation (actually it is the “unofficial champion,” due to its split trunk). Though the mosquitoes were buzzing in the evening, we spent at least an hour climbing up and down with our son as the sun was setting. On the opposite side of the land from the most excellent climbing tree is a fort-themed Little Tykes play structure, with large slides and climbing walls for older kids in addition to the pint-sized ones for preschoolers. We happened to visit on a day when the community was hosting a carnival as well, so we were able to meet many Harrodsburgers, eat free Otter Pops, and really get the small-town feel.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Located about 10 miles outside of Harrodsburg is Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a beautifully restored historic landmark of religious history. The accommodations are quaint but cozy, historic yet modernized. Though we aren’t sure our two-year-old appreciated the replica furniture of the restored original Shaker lodging house, my husband and I adored the tiny slice of history we slept in. The tour of the village itself was educational as well as relaxing, the woodsy setting is a perfect escape from city life, and the food is fresh, local, and delicious. There were several kid-centered activities as well, including a room full of “touchable” items: tiny replica tables and desks, wool and brushes for carding, and miniature chalkboards to color on. There were dresses and smocks for dressing up while you tried your luck at spinning a top. Though the days we were there in July were hot and dry, not ideal for spending long hours walking around the grounds or digging in the garden, I know my son would have spent much of time wandering between the buildings or meeting the animals in the barnyard. To complete our day at the Shaker Village, we spent the afternoon lazing around on the Dixiebelle Riverboat, watching the wheel spin and the fish swim, while listening to a narrative on the history and geography of the region. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is also Ashley Judd’s favorite Kentucky place. In this video, she takes you on a short tour of the grounds.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park
My Old Kentucky Home State Park is located in the heart of Bardstown, KY, recently voted the most beautiful small town in America by Best of the Road. After enjoying a delicious lunch of fried green tomatoes and bourbon burgers that melted in our mouths at the locally-owned Mammy’s Kitchen, our eyes and ears were treated to the very talented performers of the Stephen Foster Story. The music, dancing, and acting was top-quality, and we were impressed with the caliber of the production for a small town. At the same state park outdoor theater, there was also a production of Seussical! the Musical, but unfortunately, and much to my toddler’s dismay, it decided to storm the evening we were supposed to watch “The Cat in the Hat” show. We only caught 15 minutes of the show, which seemed very promising due to the quality of the production and its ability to keep our little one’s attention.
Family-Friendly Central Kentucky Hotels
In addition to the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, there are a number of affordable options. We stayed at the Hampton Inn Bardstown and Hampton Inn Lebanon. Both were impeccably clean, served delicious hot breakfasts, and were staffed with knowledgeable and friendly locals. If you need downtime from your many adventures in the area, both were equipped with indoor pools and flat screen televisions with plenty of kids’ stations!
From Fudge to Fried Green Tomatoes: Where To Eat
There were so many options for down-home country cookin’ at local mom and pop restaurants, as well as surprisingly good options for ethnic food, given the small size of the towns. Our favorites were Mammy’s Kitchen in Bardstown, Ragetti’s in Lebanon, and Kentucky Fudge Company in Harrodsburg. Mammy’s menu was deli-style with sandwiches, burgers, and salads — we opted for burgers and were not disappointed! Their fried green tomatoes were deliciously authentic, fried to a crisp, and included a tasty sauce. Ragetti’s was a family-owned Italian restaurant, incredibly reasonably priced, and the sauce was some of the best I’ve tasted. The waitress that helped us was the daughter of the owner, delightful, and helpful with our small children in tow (she had a few of her own at home). Kentucky Fudge Company is modeled after old-time fountain drink shops, with a bar and scattered tables, as well as quieter sitting areas apart from the main room. The menu options were cheap, tasty, and included a gamut of ice creams, soda fountain drinks, and desserts. All three restaurants had kids’ menus with a variety of choices!
Everywhere we went in Central Kentucky, we were continually comforted by the southern hospitality of the residents there. I can safely say small-town Kentuckians were some of the friendliest people we’ve ever encountered while traveling. They were gracious, accommodating, and we never felt imposing or awkward bringing our small children along for the ride.
Disclosure: Caitlin received complimentary lodging and activities as a part of her Central Kentucky press tour sponsored by Harrodsburg/Mercer and Bardstown Tourist Commissions. All opinions are her own.