Trod by Daniel Boone in the 1700s, central Kentucky evolved from raw wilderness to a land of gentility, where local folk became wealthy by raising thoroughbred horses and producing fine whiskey. Indeed, Kentucky was virtually made for these two treasures: its ancient beds of limestone enrich the native bluegrass (making the bones of the horses that graze on it especially strong) and sweeten the waters of the pristine streams used to produce prized Kentucky bourbon.
This gracious city is bedecked with such antebellum gems as Ashland, a Federal-style mansion built by statesman Henry Clay, and the Hunt-Morgan House, dating from the early 1800s. But the main delight here is the countryside, where the fastest thoroughbreds and standardbreds in America graze on meadows of bluegrass behind white wooden fences. For a firsthand look at the business of horses, stop at Keeneland Race Course, a traditional track complete with shade trees and grandstand. Or spend an afternoon at Kentucky Horse Park, where displays on 1,200 sprawling acres celebrate the noble equus.
Head out of town on Rte. 68, a charming road edged with ancient stone walls, gabled horse barns (some as fancy as French chateaus), and seemingly endless fields of burley tobacco. The road crosses the Kentucky River Gorge, where the river flows between palisades of white limestone. Farther along, the route passes through lush, rolling farmland punctuated by stands of walnuts and oaks.
2. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
The plain yellow and white buildings of Shaker Village (also known as Shakertown) are set on verdant, oak-studded hills in the little town of Pleasant Hill. This was once home to some 500 Shakers, a 19th-century religious order and community known for its agricultural skills, ritualistic dancing, and dedication to a simple life apart from the bustle of the world. Though the Shakers are long gone (the last died in 1923), their spirit lives on at this former home — now a museum complete with crafts demonstrations, guides in Shaker dress, and such examples of their handiwork as flat brooms and wooden clothespins (original Shaker inventions). Visitors are welcome to spend the night in one of the old communal buildings, where the clean, bright rooms are sparsely decorated with handwoven rugs and simple wooden furniture.
Virgin forests and abundant game lured James Harrod to this area in 1774. Here, some 250 miles from the nearest town, he built the first permanent white settlement west of the Alleghenies. The original fort is gone, but a replica with two-story blockhouses and dirt floors conveys a vivid sense of frontier housing. In summer people in pioneer-style costumes (women wear gathered skirts and white pin-on aprons) demonstrate such frontier crafts as rug weaving, blacksmithing, and broom making. Next to the fort, the fieldstone markers of the original graveyard are scattered in a grove of trees.
To view another side of Harrodsburg, visit the venerable Beaumont Inn (originally built as a finishing school for girls). Here, amid flowered carpets, antique furniture, and curtains of Brussels lace, you can sample such local culinary delights as hickory-smoked country ham, spoon bread, and General Robert E. Lee orange-lemon cake.