A long weekend with the girls was long overdue. Years overdue. The picture from the last time we had all been together was outdated. After wincing at the embarrassing hairstyles, I called the girls and said we were taking a trip this spring, no questions asked.
We live in various parts of the country, so we decided to take a trip somewhere in the middle: Bardstown, Kentucky. The town is known for its distilleries and dynamic shopping, which is perfect for four women in their early thirties looking for a getaway. As I packed my tennis racket, I made a mental note to get at least one good picture of our group.
The Bluegrass Parkway winds through farms and open countryside, preparing Bardstown visitors for the escape so many of us need. My friends and I met at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.
After many hugs and a little catching up, we took a walk to the gorgeous lake, which stretched out before us. As we took in the surrounding gardens and charming vine-covered pergola, I couldn't resist snapping a few pictures for my scrapbook.
"Why have we waited so long to do this?" Jen asked, keeping her gaze fixed on the stunning landscape.
No one had a good answer to that.
After spending some time relaxing in the shade of Bernheim's massive oak trees, we headed to the tennis courts at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. What a beautiful backdrop, with Federal Hill — the "My Old Kentucky Home" immortalized in composer Stephen Foster's song — perched on a hilltop not far from the amphitheatre that stages the Broadway-style musical, "The Stephen Foster Story."
The four of us — who found friendship on the tennis team in college — were eager to double up and play a few matches. We all still play recreationally, though my step isn't quite as quick as it used to be.
The bright Kentucky sun shone down on us as we cheered, sighed and recaptured a little of the glory days. I couldn't help but pause during a water break and look at my sweaty friends, who had aged a little but were still the same girls I knew and loved.
"Who's ready for some bourbon?" I asked.
In Bardstown, the ultimate thirst quencher is bourbon. We were wise to book our accommodations at the Bourbon Manor Bed and Breakfast Inn, which comprises two gorgeous restored plantation homes. The antebellum mansion and adjacent house feature rooms with plush beds and Turkish towels, antique and fine art, plus garden views and, much to our delight, a bourbon bar and lounge.
After getting cleaned up and enjoying a drink at the bar, we decided to visit the Barton 1792 Distillery. The fully operating facility allows visitors to see how award-winning bourbon is made. Our private tour took us through rows of wooden barrels and highlighted the charms of a mid-size distillery.
Best of all, there was a complimentary tasting during which we could sample delicious bourbons.
"We'd better eat something soon," Amy said.
I knew just the place.
The Harrison-Smith House sits in the heart of downtown Bardstown, right on Court Square where the six-day Kentucky Bourbon Festival takes place every year. The restaurant, tucked in a circa 1780s building — one of the first five to be built in Bardstown according to local lore — features a weekly-changing menu of local meat, fruits and vegetables; barrel-proof cocktails (Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and Mint Juleps); and patio dining, weather-permitting.
We grilled our server about which bourbon to try and whether to choose the smoked barbecue or the Kentucky catfish. His recommendations for each of us were spot-on.
"This is the best pork schnitzel I have ever had," Jen said.
"Remember the summer we went to Germany, and Hallie ordered schnitzel with almost every meal?" I said.
The four of us laughed all evening, taking our conversation on a walk through the streets of downtown. We passed shops featuring work from local artists and clothing boutiques and antique stores that lured us inside. The charming storefronts and carriage rides reminded us of the small college town where we first met.
"Being in a small town again reminds me of how much I miss you girls," I said.
"The bourbon helps to ease the pain," Jen joked.
On our last day in Bardstown, we chose to go to Heaven Hill Distilleries Bourbon Heritage Center. Featured on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®, the distillery is the largest independent, family-owned bourbon producer in the country.
We enjoyed interactive exhibits, including one where we could press aroma buttons to smell new, seven- and 12-year-old bourbon. Divine! We followed our Bourbon Host into the theater and then toured the rickhouse.
We also got a chance to try the premium bourbon inside the barrel-shaped tasting room. As the smooth, brown liquid swirled in my glass, I looked at our circle of friends. Over the last decade, jobs, families and the simple passing of time had put hundreds of miles in between us. Yet here, in Bardstown, we were able to come together as though not a thing had changed.
Back at the bed and breakfast, I packed my suitcase. I gently wrapped a bottle of bourbon for my husband, and carefully folded the T-shirts I purchased for my children from a shop downtown. I paused when I came to the barrel-themed picture frame I bought at one of the distilleries. I closed my eyes and imagined the picture of the four of us raising our glasses, barely able to keep from laughing at something Jen had just said.
Each of us had to go home, but we were leaving with the comfort of knowing that soon, we would find ourselves together again. Perhaps we would break open a bottle of bourbon to relive the memories we made here.
After all, a friendship like ours definitely deserves a toast.