It isn't the high stakes or even the thrill of a race that draws me to Kentucky's horse country. Rather, it's the tradition, the beauty, and the romance of the whole lifestyle. Now, if you want to breed or buy horses, or bet seriously on the big races, you're talking big bucks. But if you just want to slip into the scene for a few days, you'll love this affordable getaway to the Bluegrass. Get ready for scenic drives, classy bed-and-breakfasts, fine fare, and--of course, Kentucky horses and bourbon.
After a morning of interstate driving, exit into peaceful countryside near Versailles for lunch. (Don't be French about it; that's "ver-SALES" around here.) There are several bourbon distilleries in the area, but only one feeds you beautifully with "Picnic on the Porch." From April to October, Labrot & Graham ( 879-1812) serves outdoors, where you can dine on gourmet sandwiches or salads and desserts with Southern iced tea ($6-$12).
Then browse the visitors center and savor a free distillery tour along with samples of bourbon chocolates. They can't pour their product for you here, but you can buy a gorgeous bottle of their esteemed Woodford Reserve for later.
As the sun sets, go less than a mile down the road to an exquisite--but not too expensive--dining experience. Young New York-trained chefs Ouita and Chris Michel pamper your palate in style at their new yet historic Holly Hill Inn ( 846-4732). Both the menu and decor reflect the past with bright liveliness. Dinner is fixed price only, but three courses run an unbelievably low $30 a person (Sunday brunch is $15 per person). The reasonable wine list is as friendly as this likable couple. Sup on creations such as cornmeal-dusted oysters with fabulous cheese grits, corn succotash, and tangy cider sauces; or trout stuffed with leeks and herbs, alongside dainty fingerling potatoes and caviar. Desserts are old-fashioned, but never outdated. Trust Ouita on the addictive double-crust green tomato pie.
Head 15 minutes through rolling hills lined with fences (some white board, some stacked limestone) and horse-studded pastures. You'll spend the day at Kentucky Horse Park (1-800-678-8813 or www.kyhorsepark.com).
Wear comfy shoes to traipse all over this acreage, where you can see and pet many breeds of horses, watch them in several shows, and peruse lots of fascinating exhibits. Admission covers all of this, while carriage rides, horse rides, and some special events are extra. You can have an on-site cafeteria lunch. It's nothing special, but at least it's cheap, and you don't have to leave the park for a lunch break.
When you've horsed around all you can, drive a short way to Paris (Kentucky, of course), and settle into Amelia's Field Country Inn ( 987-5778; rates range $75-$145), just out of town. If owner Joseph Clay is cooking dinner there (as he often does on April and October weekends), then by all means eat in. If not, you might enjoy friendly Campbell's In Paris ( 987-5164) on Main Street. Then scurry back to Amelia's for a glass of wine in their cozy bar before slipping upstairs to a bubble bath in your claw-foot tub. As you melt into the incredibly soothing Swedish mattress and turn out the light, you'll fall asleep to the sounds of crickets and horses whinnying in the pastures below.
Peel yourself out of that magical bed, because Joseph is cooking breakfast downstairs, and it's a fancy one. Visit with him a bit, and you'll figure out that his family has long held horse acreage here. Joseph can set you up to see his horse farm, Runnymede; or the famous Claiborne Farm (987-2330), burial grounds to Secretariat and home to many other winners. Both tours are free.
If you visit the area April 4 through 25, you can end your trip with a race at Keeneland Racecourse (254-3412; races every afternoon during this time, except Mondays and Tuesdays), across from Lexington's airport. Other times, you can spend the sunshine hours taking one more lazy drive through horse country. Then steer back to the interstate and reality, refreshed by Bluegrass air.
For more information: Contact the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, 301 East Vine Street, Lexington, KY 40507; (859) 233-7299, 1-800-845-3959, or www.visitlex.com.This article is from the April 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.