When invited to travel and write about a city or town, research is the first place I start. Just for preventative measures; to avoid ending up in a Stephen King-style town.
When Karen Miller, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Owensboro, KY contacted me regarding a weekend visit for last November, I got busy. While researching, I quickly realized that this small town was not what I expected. For one thing, it's not small; Kentucky's Festival City has a population of more than 100,000 in the metropolitan area. I thought to myself, "This is Owensboro?"
No zombies or children in the cornfields turned up in my research, so I turned my trusty car southward on I-65 toward Louisville and took a right just before the bridge. Located three and one half hours south of Indianapolis, Owensboro nestles along the banks of the Ohio River in the Bluegrass, Blues & Barbecue region. It's not splashy or glitzy, just...quietly comfortable with itself.
The Fairfield Inn, where I lodged for the weekend, offers an indoor pool, workout room and a breakfast worthy of the soccer team visiting that weekend. The river city is ranked as Kentucky’s No. 1 Sports City by Sports Illustrated.
The Miller House Restaurant, in the historic downtown area, is one of those picturesque places you drive by and say, "I wish I lived there." Charming, with a front veranda wrapping around the home-turned-restaurant, it was aglow with welcoming lights. Recently renovated and re-opened, the proprietors are happy to accommodate tours and receptions.
The Southern Sampler appetizer includes, fried grit sticks, cheese torte, sweet potato chips, zesty cheese straws and fried green tomatoes, giving a delicious sense of the south. The grilled sirloin was tender, juicy and topped with, what else, bourbon butter.
Arriving at the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, the annual Holidaze event was in full swing, featuring more than 100 regional artists. The festival also showcases the Holiday Forest, a dazzling display of decorated holiday trees. The quality of fine art and regional artist talent led me to another, "This is Owensboro?" moment.
Offered the chance to eat fudge for breakfast and a tour of a vineyard the next morning, I knew it was going to be another great day. Browns Valley Vineyard is a small family-owned operation on the outskirts of town offering table and wine grapes for commercial and home winemakers.
Trunnell's Farm Market, just up the road, was opened for our chocolate morning meal, as promised. Tasting two (or twelve) flavors, I, naturally, picked Kentucky Bourbon chocolate fudge, and ordered a half pound to go. I also took home pumpkin, and another half pound of the chocolate, in case I ran out.
Originating from a plan devised by the Master Gardeners Association, Western Kentucky Botanical Garden is a collection of specialty gardens, including Japanese, herb, rose and many more.
Children have their own garden, complete with a yellow brick walkway and a Playhouse in the Garden, a child-size structure complete with a kitchen for birthday parties.
Crowne Gifts’ can be considered nothing short of an adult's toy land. Whether browsing or buying, an array of eclectic and unusual items, such as bejeweled boxes, painted glassware and wine wafers, will bring squeals of delight as you find treasures tucked into every corner.
Crème Coffee House, located conveniently next door, whips up a worth-every-calorie, heavenly concoction called frozen hot chocolate. I found myself thinking, again, "This is Owensboro?"
Next stop was Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, because in Owensboro, when they say barbecue, they mean mutton. Yes, mutton. Aged lamb, slow-cooked over hickory to tenderness and lovingly treated with the secret sauce. This entree has earned the eatery numerous titles and praises in books, magazines and newspapers throughout the country. Not only did the meat exceed expectations, I had the added pleasure of tasting burgoo, a regional hearty stew of chef’s choice of various meats, vegetables and spices.
Host to visitors from around the world, the International Bluegrass Music Museum dedicates an entire room to the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Other exhibits include The Timeline of Bluegrass Music, a 1940’s café replica, complete with a jukebox, and several showcases of instruments and costumes. After touring the museum, Ronnie Reno, pillar of the Bluegrass genre, shared a table with me and told tales of performing with Monroe, Merle Haggard and others. Playing the mandolin after dinner, Reno proved he is still a master.
Owensboro Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Madama Butterfly, portrayed by the exceptional talent of Jee Hyun Lim, was Riverpark Center’s annual Holbrook Concert. The 1479-seat venue overlooks the Ohio River and presents nearly 800 events annually.
The next morning found me at Hal’s Windy Hollow restaurant and museum, open only for Sunday brunch buffet. Owner Hal Miller opens his museum, eatery and heart to family, friends and visitors alike. I was fortunate to be given a private tour by Miller whose has a zest for life and a gentle way of sharing his memories, both fun and tragic. With one hand he indicates a signed Tex Ritter poster or a Roy Rogers’ lunch box, with the other he points out a Nazi flag, captured by his brother while they stormed Normandy Beach, all the while adding commentary creating a surreal quality, as if we were walking through a movie set of his life.
With hundreds of items in his collection of movie and WWII memorabilia, he recalls watching the government-issued artist sketching history as it happened, tells of the western movies filmed in the area. Two fires over the years meant losing irreplaceable pieces, but Miller doesn’t lose spirit. He is surrounded by loved ones and makes new friends weekly at the popular restaurant.
Just minutes from Owensboro, spread across 157 scenic acres, is the upscale campground Diamond Lake Resort. Offering traditional fishing, camping, cottages and motel rooms for the less-brave camper, this outdoor haven also offers special events. Chili and BBQ cook offs, luaus, sock hops and the Street Legends car show keep families vying for RV and camper sites all season long.
Looking for entertainment? Musical acts perform in the resort's renovated 749-seat theater. Paint ball, a swimming pool and restaurants keep boredom and hunger at bay. If you’re a go-kart enthusiast, three tracks should satisfy your need for speed. If not, enter to win the professional gran prix, held at the resort annually. I test drove the go-karts and guarantee fun can be found going in circles; just avoid any drivers going the wrong way.
Getting into the driver’s seat of my own vehicle and heading home, I thought about Bluegrass, camping, opera, barbecue, fine arts, and symphony all wrapped up in a slow, southern smile...
So...THIS is Owensboro.
Elizabeth J. Musgrave is a syndicated columnist, theater critic, and travel writer. You can now follow her on Facebook, and Twitter @ejmusgrave1, and catch her on 93 WIBC's Saturday Morning News Show as Indy's Arts & Entertainment adviser, giving advice on things to do in the Indy area, including restaurants, spas, festivals, events, theater and films. Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gotta Go Guide: Check out these websites for current and upcoming events in Owensboro.
Windy Hollow Restaurant: 270-785-4088
*Photo credits: Karen Miller-Owensboro Convention and Visitors Bureau; James and Peggy Ryan 19th Centruy Parlor, John Hampden Smith Decorative Arts Wing, Owensboro Museum of Fine Art; Brian Smith-Diamond Lake Resorts; Elizabeth J. Musgrave; Izzy Evans; TStorm
**Gotta Go appears in the following newspapers: South Sider Voice, Indiana Weekender, West Side Community News, West Indianapolis Community News, Pendleton Times-Reporter, Fortville-McCordsville Reporter, and New Palenstine Reporter