As the driver recalled the farm's glories--nine Kentucky Derby winners, three Triple Crown trophies-my wife and I gaped through the windows at horses everywhere. Horses training on Calumet's racetrack. Horses getting a cooling bath in the barn. Horses idly grazing in luxuriant bluegrass pastures. Not ordinary horses these; they're aristocrats-maybe the next Derby winner, valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. They looked gorgeous: sleek and powerful. We admired them, of course. But really, it was their offspring-the young, spindly legged colts, barely two or three months old-that charmed us as they scampered at their mothers' sides. And get this: The tour, a fascinating, up-close glimpse of the fabled realm of Thoroughbred breeding and racing, costs nothing. Like a number of other horse farms near Lexington-the heart of the Kentucky Horse Country-Calumet offers free regularly scheduled tours (daily in summer).
But this is only one of numerous bargains that make the region a great money-saving vacation spot for budget travelers. Though lofty mansions preside over the horse farms, visitors can stay in quality motels nearby for as little as $50 to $65 per night. Order a heaping plate of Kentucky fried chicken (this is the place to indulge) for under $10.
Thoroughbreds take the spotlight in central Kentucky. But count on much more to see and do as you follow the four-day, 525-mile drive detailed below. The itinerary, which I followed in midsummer, crosses paths with young Abe Lincoln, frontiersman Daniel Boone, and composer Stephen Collins Foster. Recall that Foster wrote "My Old Kentucky Home." You can hike deep into America's longest network of caves, view the second biggest waterfall (after Niagara) east of the Rocky Mountains, perhaps go rafting on the Cumberland River, browse the many crafts shops of Berea, and stroll a tree-shaded Shaker village. And-this is Kentucky, after all-plan on visiting one of the state's famous bourbon distilleries.
Much of the way is over lightly traveled back roads. Initially, you pass through rolling hills carpeted with bluegrass. Miles of tidy plank fences-a tradition in Horse Country-line the route. Beyond, the landscape turns rugged as you enter the forest-draped Appalachian Mountains, where here and there a stream tumbles alongside.
The drive is organized so that you can spend at least one night at Dupont Lodge in Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. Tucked into a rugged mountainside in Daniel Boone National Forest, it's one of 17 moderately priced state-park lodges (800/255-7275, www.kystateparks.com). A real budget traveler's find, any of them might tempt you to explore even more of Kentucky.
Unlike Calumet, most of the attractions you will want to see charge fees of up to $12 per person. To keep your expenses down, I've highlighted only places that I've seen and know are worth your money. Ask for youth, senior, AARP, and AAA discounts.
Day 1: On the road
Cincinnati to Lexington via the Kentucky Horse Park, 85 miles. The Bluegrass region around Lexington is home to about 450 horse farms. As a fitting introduction, make your first stop the Kentucky Horse Park (adults, $12). It's conveniently located just outside Lexington off I-75, the route from the Cincinnati airport. Once you've landed, you can be at the H orse Park in less than 90 minutes.
An amazing place, the complex is a 1,200-acre, one-of-a-kind re-creation of a working horse farm that in appearance is as splendid as any of them. More than 30 miles of white-plank fences enclose pastures and barns where as many as 200 horses can be viewed. They represent nearly 50 breeds, among them the relatively petite Tennessee Walking Horse and the massive Clydesdale draft horse. Nowhere else can you see so many breeds in one place.
Watch a farrier shoe a horse. Climb aboard a horse-drawn wagon for a 15-minute ride (no extra cost). Take a lesson in the history of the horse at the International Museum of the Horse. Pay homage to the legendary Thoroughbred Man o' War, who is buried in the park. His grave is marked by a life-size bronze statue. And don't miss the daily horse shows. No horseman myself, I was nonetheless fascinated by the "Parade of Breeds," a twice-daily display of a sampling of the park's many breeds.
For 30 minutes, we visitors watched seven horses parade into the show ring one after the other. As costumed riders put each breed through its paces, the announcer educated us on its attributes. The American Paint, splashed in colors of white, brown, and black, was prized on the frontier for its stamina and brains. The sturdy white Arabian, mounted by a rider in flowing desert robes, is admired for its courage, endurance, and beauty. In the finale, the horses gathered in front of the viewing bleachers to be petted. One was designated the photo horse. Youngsters climbed atop while parental cameras clicked.
En route to the park, pick up "Uniquely Bluegrass," a free map to Horse Country, at the Kentucky Welcome Center at the I-75 rest stop, or get one at the park. On leaving, explore narrow lanes that meander among the horse farms. The seemlessly manicured landscape of thick green grass and well-tended fences is unlike any you have ever seen. And behind every fence look for horses, including lots o f those antic colts.
Lexington itself is an attractive city blending modern skyscrapers with well-preserved old neighborhoods. As a history buff, I sought out its most historic site, the stately brick childhood home of Mary Todd Lincoln at 578 West Main Street ($7). In her debut as First Lady in 1861, Mrs. Lincoln initially was ridiculed by Washington society as a log-cabin woman from the frontier. But a tour of her home sets the record straight. She proved unusually well-educated for a woman of her time, informed the guide, which certainly didn't escape the future president's notice when he came calling.
From the Cincinnati airport, take I-275 east and I-75 south to Iron Works Pike in Lexington. Follow the signs to the Kentucky Horse Park. Stay nearby at the 62-room Super 8 Motel (859/299-6241), $47; the 98-room Motel 6 (859/293-1431), $46 weekdays, $52 weekends; or the 108-room Red Roof Inn (859/293-2626), $49 weekdays, $61 weekends. Dine at the International Buffe t, all-you-can-eat for $9.99. Further information 800/845-3959, www.visitlex.com.
Day 2: On the farm
Lexington to Mammoth Cave National Park, 150 miles. Like a quirky old museum, the Kentucky heartland is filled with a rare mix of Americana, the odd treasures and trinkets of the nation's past. See what I mean on today's drive.
Plan on beginning the day with a tour of a horse farm. You must phone ahead, perhaps a week or two in advance, for an appointment. The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau provides a list of farms scheduling tours (see "Information" above). I called Calumet Farm (859/231-8272) to book my wife and myself for the daily 10 a.m. tour. The van carries a maximum of 12 passengers. Other farms: Claiborne (859/987-2330), Gainesway (859/293-2676), and Three Chimneys (859/873-7053). No charge, but a tip to the guide is customary.
Just outside Lexington, 850-acre Calumet is instantly recognizable by its white, cupola-tipped barns trimmed in brilliant red. The colors (and name) pay tribute to founder Warren Wright (in 1924), then owner of the Calumet Baking Powder Company. "No other farm in the history of racing has ever dominated the sport as completely as Calumet," say the experts.
So our guide, Hershel Lathery, had plenty to tell us as he steered us for an hour through this kingdom of horseflesh. On this day, Calumet was home to more than 100 horses, including about 35 colts. "They don't want for anything," Lathery said, detailing the feeding, care, and training of potential Derby champions. Our tour ended at the horse cemetery, where two famed Derby winners, Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948), are buried.
From Calumet, we headed west on the Bluegrass Parkway to Bardstown, site of My Old Kentucky Home State Park ($4). On the 250-acre site stands the impressive, Georgian-style brick house formerly owned by a cousin of Stephen Collins Foster. On a visit in 1852, the composer was inspired to write the chorus for a song he ha d been working on. It became "My Old Kentucky Home," the state anthem. In a bout of nostalgia-I still can sing the Foster tunes I learned in school-I took the 30-minute tour. You might save your money and view the house from outside. Listen for the garden chimes pealing "Beautiful Dreamer."
From Bardstown, follow the signs south to Loretto, home of Maker's Mark, a premier bourbon distillery. It's tucked away in a pleasant whiskey-scented valley. There's no charge for a 45-minute tour and lesson in bourbon making and-boo-no free sips of this famed Kentucky product. But the guide does cap her talk by distributing bourbon-flavored chocolates.
This passage through hometown America leads fittingly to Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, where Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809. Now a part of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site (no charge), the birthplace is memorialized by a temple-like marble structure where the Lincoln cabin once stood. In this rural setting, t he neoclassic edifice seems out of place. But the little spring where the Lincolns drew their water is still bubbling forth.
Head south now to spend the night at Mammoth Cave National Park, site of the longest cave in the world. Though about 330 miles of passageways have been found, more of the cave is yet to be explored. Begin tomorrow with a tour.
From Lexington to Bardstown, take the Bluegrass Parkway. Then follow a series of well-marked back roads to Loretto, Hodgenville, and Cave City. A state road map will keep you from getting lost. Stay in the park at the 42-room Mammoth Cave Hotel (270/758-2225), $49 to $75. A nearby alternate in Cave City is the 110-room Days Inn (270/773-2151), $70. Dine at the Mammoth Cave Hotel. The fried-chicken plate (salad, vegetables, biscuits), $9.95. Further information (800/346-8908, www.cavecity.com).
Day 3: Adventureland
Mammoth Cave to Cumberland Falls, 115 miles. This is a day for adventure. Or simply enjoy the beauty of two natural wonders.
If it's challenge you seek, sign up for one of Mammoth Cave's more strenuous tours. Popular with the hardy is the two-hour trek into the underground to view Frozen Niagara ($9), where fluted stalactites spill from above like a large pink waterfall. You will have to negotiate 300 steps, shuffling single file, ducking, and dodging down a tight, twisted path and steep stairway. Don't bump your head in the dim light. The rest of you can get a glimpse of the spectacle on the gentler 30-minute Discovery Tour ($4). Reservations are necessary (800/967-2283 or http://reservations.nps.gov).
Afterward, spend the afternoon hiking, horseback riding, swimming, or relaxing by the river at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. Only riding involves a fee-$12 for 45 minutes. Horse and foot trails snake through shady Appalachian woodlands, dipping and climbing much of the way.
Cumberland Falls, a 60-foot drop of the Cumberland River, looks like a smaller version of Niagara , and its roar is similarly thunderous. Below the falls, Sheltowee Trace Outfitters (800/541-7238, www.ky-rafting.com) runs all-day rafting trips ($53.25). Spend another day in the park and join in the fun.
From Mammoth Cave, take I-65 south to the Cumberland Parkway east. At Somerset, take U.S. 27 south to Kentucky Route 90 east to Cumberland Falls. Stay at the park's 52-room Dupont Lodge (800/325-0063), $73 for a one-bedroom cottage in the woods. An alternate in Somerset is the 54-room Days Inn (606/678-2052), $55 weekdays, $60 weekend. Dine at the park's cafeteria, all-you-can-eat for $11.95.
Day 4: An American sampler
Cumberland Falls via Berea and Harrodsburg to Lexington, 105 miles. Ahead awaits beautiful mountain and pastoral scenery, highlighted with a bit of offbeat shopping and stops at two worthy historical sites. It's a day as American as apple pie.
As you turn back toward Lexington, stop in the village of Berea, which justifiably calls itself "The F olk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky." The shopping (or browsing) really begins on the 16-mile approach to Berea. Several flea markets line U.S. 25 from Renfro Valley north to Berea. Who knows what you might find?
In Berea, take a look at one cluster of crafts shops near the Welcome Center and another at College Square. At Appalachian Mountain Dulcimers, 110 Center Street, step inside and say hello to woodworker Warren A. May. He's been crafting dulcimers-the "official musical instrument of Kentucky"-at his shop for 25 years. You're invited to watch him work.
Kentucky was once the American frontier, and the little town of Harrodsburg, just west of Berea, was founded in 1774 as the first pioneer settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. The event is marked by a large timbered fort, Fort Harrod ($4), said to be an exact replica of the original. A state-park site, it ably transports visitors into the past. Daniel Boone paid a visit not long after the town was laid out.
Save an hour or two to stroll the nearby Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill ($10.50 for a self-guided tour). The carefully preserved town, built solidly of stone, was founded in the early 1800s by a now-nearly vanished religious community that practiced celibacy and promoted a peaceful way of life. More than 30 original buildings occupy 2,800 acres of farmland-a lovely landscape of green rolling hills and meadows. Costumed interpreters recall life in the Shaker heyday, and artisans re-create the Shaker brooms and ot her handicrafts for which the residents once were famous.
Afterward, take U.S. 68 on the short drive back to Lexington. The quiet road winds through a rocky canyon past the soaring palisades of the Kentucky River. On this Kentucky itinerary, the views never stop.
From Cumberland Falls, take Kentucky Route 90 east to Corbin and I-75 (very scenic) north to Renfro Valley. Pick up U.S. 25 into Berea. From Berea, head west on Kentucky Route 954 and 52 to Danville and then north on U.S. 127 to Harrodsburg. From there, follow U.S. 68 to the Shaker Village and Lexington. Stay and dine in Lexington (see Day One). Next morning, retrace 70 miles back to the Cincinnati airport.