It’s been said that life is not meant to be spent traveling backwards. That any and all memories from the past should remain there in order to keep moving forward.
But throughout my life, I have discovered that sometimes — just sometimes — in order to move forward, it is necessary to look back at days past to appreciate just how far I’ve come.
Growing up in Northwest Kentucky, leaving my small hometown to go to college — let alone travel the world — was never something that crossed my mind.
After high school, I envisioned myself going to college across the river from my parents house at a small, private Catholic university with less than 2,000 students. Here, I could be close to my family and all that had become familiar to me throughout the decade before. I was content with this choice, until I made a weekend visit to the city of Bowling Green, Kentucky in May 2003.
Located in southern Kentucky, Bowling Green (not to be confused with the Ohio town bearing the same namesake) is home to nearly 70,000 permanent residents and is the third most populated city in the Bluegrass State.
Providing an average of 265 days of sunshine a year and one of the most stunning cave systems in the world, it’s easy to see why thousands of others decide to make “The Park City” their home each year.
I know because I was one of them.
Fifteen years after I first stepped foot on the campus of Western Kentucky University (WKU) as a 17-year-old freshman, I found myself back in this place. This time as a 32-year-old travel writer who had experienced working and living in one of the nation’s top cities while exploring the cultures of more than 15 countries across the globe. I had changed a great deal, but I realized that much about Bowling Green had changed, too.
With the help of the Visit Bowling Green KY Tourism Board, I checked into my king suite at Townplace Suites by Marriott and made my way to my old stomping grounds: Fountain Square Park.
Once filled with dingy dive bars (many of which I shamelessly frequented on “Thirsty Thursdays”) and vacant store fronts, the town’s infamous square had transformed into a bustling city center. Each corner boasted locally owned and operated boutiques and some of the state’s most innovative restaurants and cafes had found their homes on the streets I once walked to class.
After walking past the City Hall where I used to have weekly meetings with the mayor and city council for the College Heights Herald, it was time to venture out and re-discover the best of what this quintessential southern town had to offer for the next three days — starting with some home cooked grub.
At the centre of Bowling Green’s microbrew and pub grub scene sits the White Squirrel Brewery, named after the infamous white squirrels that roam the nearby campus of Western Kentucky University.
Serving up an impressive list of brewed-in-house beer and a menu that features a dish for every palette, it’s quickly becoming one of the most sought after hot spots in town. Beer is made in very small batches each day and switched out regularly, which allows patrons to taste different brews each time they visit. The below menu items were personal favorites:
At the heart of the downtown scene is a community gathering spot and culinary gem known as Steamers Seafood.
What was almost lost to an electrical fire in February 2018 has made a legendary come back of epic proportions to serve up the patrons of Bowling Green some of the freshest seafood and most decadent handmade pies and desserts.
With an emphasis on giving back to the community that gas given so much to them in times of need, a portion of their proceeds go to local charities to help schools, shelters, firefighters, and military veterans.
Not only does the food make for a one-of-a-kind dining experience, both the staff and the ambiance (the restaurant was featured on HGTV!) make it any visit truly unforgettable. The below menu items were personal favorites:
One of Bowling Green's newest hot spots for southern comfort food, this down-to-earth yet sophisticated bar and restaurant boasts swoon-worthy interior design, including a bar featuring 125 different bourbons.
Part of a $5 million restoration project of downtown and the brainchild of Chef-owner Josh Poling, the restaurant seats up to 200 people with both in and outdoor seating.
Unique dishes such as Pickled Deviled Eggs and Green Chile Mac & Cheese can be found on the menu, and local ingredients are sourced whenever possible. But don't expect every dish on the menu to be there during a visit -- items are rotated out often to ensure an enjoyable experience for all diners.
Reservations are recommended for lunch and dinner due to high demand. Guests can also book the Chef's Table Experience for up to 8 people, which has a direct and full view of where the magic happens -- the kitchen. For more info, visit www.hickoryandoakbg.com.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
A short 45-minute drive down I-65 will lead one to the Music City of Nashville, Tennessee.
To the north is Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville.
While the close proximity of Bowling Green to some of the most sought after destinations in the nation is a bonus, one doesn’t have to travel far to experience adventure and luxury.
Below are just a few of the many activities offered to locals and tourists alike year-round:
Locals know and visitors soon discover that they don’t have to travel far from Bowling Green to catch a glimpse of what life is like “down under”.
In fact, all it takes is a trip down Scottsville Road to Lost River Cave — home to the only underground boat tour in the entire state.
Here, our tour guide, Chad, met us in the Lost River gift shop with ponchos and flashlights in-hand before we climbed into a golf cart that was waiting out back to take us down to the cave entrance.
On any regular day, visitors to the cave would take a leisurely stroll down a lush valley lined with oak trees past the famous “blue hole” while sharing tales of disappearing Civil War soldiers.
The rain may have prevented us from the stroll, but not from learning about Lost River’s rich and storied history.
Through the massive cave entrance we made our way down a short 15-step staircase and a brief ramp that led to a steel-grated vessel.
We ducked head-to-knee for the first 30 seconds of the tour as the cave’s famous Wishing Rock glided inches away from us overhead before opening up into a cathedral-like cavern.
Boasting liberally-flowing waterfalls and spectacular views of rock formations, we slid our fingers across the cave’s cool, smooth limestone.
We learned the very rock above us could once be found at the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago.
A total tour time of 20 minutes, we made our way back out under the Wishing Rock and up to the gift shop to warm up and browse the local handmade jewelry and food items available for purchase.
Our tour guide, Chad, explains the importance of the rock formations in Lost River Cave.
To book a tour in advance (recommended), tickets start at $5.95 for children and up to $20 for adults. Zip-lines for children and adults are also available for a separate fee. Book at https://lostrivercave.org/cave-tours/.
For hundreds of years, the powerful health benefits of Himalayan salt caves had only been enjoyed by those in Europe, as the continent boasts thousands of natural salt rooms. That was only until a few years ago when cities across the U.S. began to adopt the same natural, drug-free healing remedies of Himalayan salt, known as halo-therapy.
Bowling Green became one of these cities in 2016 with the establishment of the holistic wellness centre, Be Happy Yoga & Salt Cave, located on Nashville Road.
The brainchild of certified yoga-instructor Susan Polk and her husband Doug Polk, the cave features six tons of Himalayan pharmaceutical-grade salt that is infused with dry aerosol using a specialized halogenerator to help alleviate symptoms of asthma, allergies, respiratory issues, anxiety, and depression.
Be Happy incorporates color therapy into each 45-minute salt session using fibre optic lighting in in the walls and ceilings to that brings a truly calming and relaxing effect on the body and mind full-circle.
Visitors can also enjoy guided deep relaxation, meditation, therapeutic massages or yoga sessions in or outside of the cave, in addition to affordable group packages that include cave time and yoga classes in their cushioned yoga room.
To book an individual ($25) or group ($175 for up to 10 people) cave session at Be Happy Yoga & Salt Cave, or to view the yoga class schedule and a full list of other services offered, visit behappybg.com.
Editors Note: Suffering from a severe sinus and bronchial infection during my visit, after a two-hour deep meditation and relaxation session, my breaths were deeper and clearer in the days following my cave treatment. Be Happy also offers an on-site store where guests can purchase an array of pure Himalayan-salt gifts including salt-therapy air inhalers that are recommended for those suffering from chronic asthma and other respiratory diseases.
At the very heart of Kentucky’s rich farming heritage, one will find Chaney’s Dairy Barn.
A Bowling Green staple since 1940 when the property officially became a dairy barn, it’s history dates back to 1888 when the Chaney family saw a vision for a legacy that would last generations.
Most known for it’s big red barn and world-famous Jersey Milk Cows Althea and Topsy, Chaney’s has consistently anticipated and surpassed the market challenges and needs of the diary industry as one of only 500 diary farms left in the U.S.
With a keen eye on the rising price of milk throughout the decades, Carl and Debrah Chaney set off in search of new avenues of profit that would allow them to maintain the farm’s legacy and the humane treatment of its prized cows.
For more than two years, they researched every facet of the diary industry, and came to discover that a new business model was growing in popularity in the sweetest way possible: the introduction of homemade ice cream sold directly from the farm.
Without hesitation, the idea to open a dairy barn was born, and since the first scoop was served in 2003, the Chaney’s haven’t looked back -- and the entire nation has taken notice.
USA Today has deemed Chaney’s “#1 Ice Cream in Kentucky,” as more than 13,000 tourists came through its doors in 2017 to try popular flavours such as “Wow Now Brownie Cow,” “Bourbon Crunch,” and “Big Red Rumble” with chunks of red velvet cake.
In addition to ice cream, Chaney’s also serves sandwiches, hearty soups, ice cream pies, and a wide variety of Kentucky-proud food items.
For an extra special treat, order their “Chaco” (giant ice cream taco) with one scoop of Big Red’s Rumble, one scoop of Peanut Butter Fudge Swirl, and one scoop of Cow Tracks.
As I packed up my suitcases and checked out of the Townplace Suites by Marriott, I took one last drive through one of America's most beautiful campus's.
I walked past the student publication building where I discovered my love for writing; past Southwest Hall where I met my best friend; and up the hill to say a quick "hello" to Henry Hardin Cherry.
It was here that I realised that there is a crossroad between “big city” living and small-town charm. in the middle of it all, one will find Kentucky, and the very best of it in Bowling Green.
A town that had once been described to me as “not too small and just big enough” I realized wasn’t perfection, but was pretty darn close. Indeed, looking back on my life thus far, I can say with certainty that the very best of its years started in this town, and for that, I am thankful.
For more information on how to book an upcoming trip to Bowling Green, Kentucky, or to visit any of the restaurants or locations mentioned in the article above, visit www.visitbgky.com. This article was created in sponsored partnership with The Bowling Green Tourism Board.
Editor's Note: In addition to the establishments mentioned above, there are numerous other activities and dining options that are appropriate for visitors of all ages. Other recommended favorites:
Alexandra Booze is a freelance travel writer and editor of the digital travel, food, and lifestyle publication East Coast Contessa. Since 2016 she has worked with more than 450 travel and hospitality brands from across the globe to provide social media, influencer marketing, photography, and editorial services.