Caves, country and cooperage

As regular readers of this blog may have guessed, I get terribly anxious if I don’t have at least one trip to look forward to. When we returned from our summer holiday in early July the prospect of five long empty months until Christmas was just too much to bear, but funds were a little stretched.  Thankfully all this long-distance travel is excellent for collecting airmiles and we managed to find some extremely well-timed reward flights to Louisville Kentucky for a long weekend in late October, landing late last Friday evening.

Several people had recommended Mammoth Cave National Park, in the south of the state, so we booked a tour and set out bright and early Saturday morning. As it turned out, we could have had an extra hour in bed – for some mysterious reason the Mammoth cave area is on Central time, whilst Louisville (almost due north from Mammoth) is Eastern. Happily for us, it was a beautiful day – unseasonably warm at just over 80 F, which made the falling leaves and lovely autumnal colours feel very odd indeed – so we were able to spend a couple of hours hiking in the overground section of the park before our tour.


Mammoth cave was first discovered by the tourist trade in the mid 1800s, although it had been used by local tribes and animals for many centuries. The local geology – limestone rock with a sandstone cap – meant that caves and tunnels were formed over millennia, dropping deeper into the ground as the watertable shifted. Over the past century or so the cave has been used as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, the location for research into human circadian rhythms, a saltpeter mine, a putative fallout shelter, and, of course, a major tourist attraction.

Believed to be the largest cave system in the world, the mapped area currently measures 405 miles in length, and exploration continues. Once the first Mammoth Cave began to attract visitors, various entrances into what we now know are connected caves were opened and exploited by competing tour operators (in the wonderfully-named Kentucky Cave Wars), seeking to capitalise on the Mammoth name.


As in the past, modern tourists have to book on one of a selection of guided tours in order to see inside the cave, and the park offers a variety of visits from easy strolls to proper spelunking. We opted for the “Domes and Dripstones” tour – a two hour experience advertised as moderate in difficulty, and which would take us into a section of the cave initially opened as a Mammoth competitor. An unassuming concrete hut covers the entrance (which was blasted into a sinkhole) and a twisty set of steel stairs takes visitors down 252 feet through a series of spectacular domes. Our guide informed us that these features would usually only be visible to cavers dangling on ropes, which made me even happier to be seeing them from a fixed structure.


Once in the bowels of the earth (quite literally), we paused in a larger cave for the guide to deliver more information about what we were experiencing, before we continued our route horizontally through the cave system.


The last stop on the tour was particularly spectacular – a series of limestone stalactites, stalagmites, and a formation which resembles a solidified waterfall, the “Frozen Niagara”. Thanks to the sandstone cap, much of the cave is almost completely dry now, so the falling water required to create these structures is present in only a few areas of the cave system, and these were really spectacular.


Back on the surface, we checked into our B&B – the cute, chintzy and completely charming Grand Victorian Inn – before getting back on the road and heading south for a few miles to Bowling Green and the Wheatless restaurant. 100% gluten free, and very accommodating of other intolerances too, we filled up with an excellent southern-style dinner: fried pickles, fried catfish, mac’n’cheese. It was all delicious, and a particular treat for me as I can never normally eat those things (perhaps for the best!).


Unusually for us we hadn’t made any plans for the Sunday in advance, but it seemed like it might be fun to drive another 100 miles or so further south to visit Nashville Tennessee, so we did, and it was. Several hours were dedicated to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where the permanent collection traces the history of country from its roots in British and Irish folk music, to its more modern expressions, and a number of special exhibitions showcase various groups and individual musicians.


The historical section was particularly interesting, and we also enjoyed spotting the handful of artists who we’d actually heard of before. The real highlight though was a lunchtime concert given by Eric Heatherly. Discovered in the late 90s by Shania Twain, right there in Nashville, he is currently working mainly as a one-man-band style artist – playing guitar, harmonica and two different drums whilst also singing. He was an excellent performer, and we thoroughly enjoyed his set.

Back outside, the bars and restaurants on Broadway were all pumping out music (played live in almost every case) as we went in search of lunch, and the party atmosphere was palpable. (Given this was mid-afternoon on a Sunday I’m not even sure I’d want to experience it on Saturday night – how old am I?!) We filled up on tasty BBQ in a fun casual place before finishing our walk along to the river, passing several party bikes en route. I would have loved to try one of those out, but given Tom’s aversion to cycling, and my no-drinking-and-driving policy, we headed back to the B&B instead.

Now, we couldn’t in all good conscience visit Kentucky without sampling some bourbon, and luckily there were a plethora of options en route back to the airport. We selected the Barton’s 1792 distillery on the outskirts of Bardstown, and rolled up in time for the noon tour. Our guide took us through the entire process, from the arrival of the corn, rye and malted barley, through the cooking and fermentation process. We saw the ready-for-barrelling “white dog” alcohol coming out of the top of the still, and also the barrel aging house (c.1930, complete with original dirt floors and seven storeys of wooden racks).


The original distillery was established under a different name in 1872, passing through several different owners, and shutting down for Prohibition, before reopening as Barton’s in 1943. Currently owned by Sazerac, they manufacture a number of different bourbons on site – the 1792 refers to the year in which Kentucky became a state, and is their premier bourbon, aged for eight to ten years. We learned all kinds of interesting facts – that 10% volume is lost in the first year of aging, with 3-5% per year thereafter, that federal laws dictate that bourbon has to contain over 51% corn in the mix, and that the aging process must take place in new oak barrels, charred on the interior. The tour concluded with a tasting of the 1792 bourbon (a little bit medicinal for my taste, I prefer a sweeter bourbon) and their special “chocolate bourbon ball” cream liquor.


We finished the visit with a quick walk around Bardstown, a straight-out-of-central-casting representation of picture-perfect small town America, and a coffee in an old-school drugstore soda fountain – an excellent end to a most enjoyable trip.


As always, there are lots more photos over in my Flickr album for the trip

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