US: Kentucky and Tennessee by road – 16 Aug 2007

Kentucky and its southern neighbour Tennessee have all the charm of the American South combined with spectacular landscapes, cosmopolitan cities and rich musical heritage.

And because it is a world away from the East Coast traffic, a self-drive tour of the region is a pure pleasure.

The following tour takes in the best of the region in a week. Driving times are short as there’s plenty to see and do within a few hours of Nashville.

Interactive map: Kentucky and Tennessee driving tour (Google Maps)

Interactive map - Tennessee and Kentucky driving tour



Days one and two

Nashville’s number one is its country music, so take in a show and a backstage tour at the legendary Grand Ole Opry. After the show the music goes on into the night at the Bluebird Cafe, or at one of a dozen other downtown venues that host live country, rock, blues, bluegrass and jazz.

Nashville nightlife is hard to beat but there’s plenty to do by day. Maintaining the musical theme are the Country Music Hall of Fame, the new Musicians Hall of Fame, and the RCA Studio B where Elvis and the Everly Brothers recorded.

Nashville also scores highly on US heritage with the Belle Mead Plantation, a thoroughbred horse farm where visitors get a taste of pre-Civil War life in the South. Contemporary culture can be found at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, which has a terrific collection and a programme of temporary exhibitions.

Lovers of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey should visit the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, an hour’s drive southeast of Nashville.


Nashville to Gatlinburg

Day three

The day starts with an easy three-and-a-half-hour drive. I-40 connects Nashville to Knoxville, from where the route carries on into the Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg. This spectacular resort town is great for outdoor pursuits, including golf, rafting, biking, horse riding, fishing, skiing and hiking.

Alternatively, enjoy the scenery on the 500ft ascent of Crockett Mountain by aerial tramway or skylift.

Gatlinburg also has one or two more eccentric attractions, including The Hollywood Stars Cars Museum, with vehicles from The Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie’s Angels and Back to the Future.


Gatlinburg to Lexington

Day four

The route north into Kentucky follows I-75 from Knoxville and takes about four hours. The countryside around Lexington is a picture-postcard of America with white-fenced fields where horses stand cropping grass. Our own Queen keeps a number of horses here and is a regular visitor.

The Kentucky Derby may be held in Louisville each May but Keeneland, the racecourse outside Lexington, is arguably the US’s prettiest horse racing venue. Fans should check the Keeneland schedule in advance to catch some action.

In the city itself, a major attraction is the Kentucky Horse Park, recently named as the venue for the 2010 World Equestrian Games. The park combines museums, galleries, theatres and farm exhibits.


Lexington to Louisville

Day five

Half an hour outside Lexington, near Versailles, is the Woodford Reserve Distillery, whose 19th-century buildings are set amid the fields of ‘Blue Grass Country’.

The bourbon they produce here is among the best money can buy. Visitors can invest in a bottle or else opt for a box of Bourbon Balls, a delicious blend of whisky and dark chocolate.

Halfway between Lexington and Louisville is the city of Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, where the US pioneer Daniel Boone is buried. Nearby, golfers should look out for the Valhalla Golf Club, venue for Ryder Cup 2008.

If it happens to be time to eat, the nearby Claudia Sanders Dinner House (founded by the wife of Colonel Sanders) is big on hospitality and portions.


Louisville to Nashville

Days six and seven

Louisville’s latest attraction is the Muhammad Ali Center, a state-of-the-art building which pays homage to the great man’s boxing career with multi-media and interactive exhibits.

Other downtown attractions include the Louisville Slugger Museum, which tells the story behind America’s most famous baseball bat, and 21c Hotel, a luxury 91-room hotel with contemporary art works and an exhibition space.

Three miles southeast of downtown, the Highlands is a vibrant neighbourhood of quirky shops, bars and live-music venues. Cherokee Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted who was also responsible for New York’s Central Park, is the perfect green space to stretch the legs.

The journey from Louisville south to Nashville, an easy three-hour drive down I-65, can be broken by a visit to Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home or to Mammoth Cave (at 365 miles and counting, it’s the world’s longest cave system).

Then again, there’s always more bourbon to sample – a short detour is enough to take in the Maker’s Mark distillery at Loretto.

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