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Big-City Pleasures & Small-Town Treasures in the Northern Kentucky River Region

  • Newport Aquarium
    Newport Aquarium

By Marty Rosen

Early one morning as our rented canoe slipped past a grass island on the South Fork of the Licking River, we startled a blue heron. Then it startled us, with a splash and a clatter of wings as it left its feeding grounds and rose up through the fog. 

We were after the same prey, the smallmouth bass that make the Licking River and its tributaries one of the Northern Kentucky River Region’s finest fishing grounds.

The fishing is good here in this quiet stretch of rural Pendleton County, in the center of one of Kentucky’s most diverse and attractive regions – a place where you can explore the past, drive quiet country roads through quirky towns or watch NASCAR drivers roar around an oval track.

Covington, Newport & Cincinnati

Let’s start by heading north.

A mere 30 minutes away (by car, not canoe) from where we were paddling, the Licking River flows into the heart of a great American metropolis, draining into the Ohio River right across from Cincinnati to form the boundary between Covington and Newport, Kentucky.

Here, where George Rogers Clark mustered troops during the Revolutionary War, you can still stroll past examples of 19th Century commercial and domestic architecture in a remarkable range of styles – Italianate,  Greek Revival, Queen Anne, High Gothic and more – that reflect the prosperity and power of a thriving commercial center.

From those historic districts, you can look across the Ohio and see the gorgeous Cincinnati skyline. In fact, from Covington you can walk to downtown Cincinnati (and the Cincinnati baseball and football stadiums) on one the great feats of nineteenth century engineering, the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1866.

Or from Newport, you can walk to Cincinnati on the famous Purple People Bridge – a former railroad bridge constructed in 1872 that now serves pedestrians only.

Attractions & Festivals Aplenty

Covington and Newport are at the center of the Northern Kentucky River Region, where you’ll find all the best aspects of metropolitan life – just with few of the big-city hassles. It’s home to the fabulous Newport Aquarium (which houses the largest collection of shark rays in the world, not to mention penguins, jellyfish and plenty of other exotic watery critters); eclectic shopping and entertainment at Newport on the Levee, dining for every taste and budget, and attractive lodging choices that include fine riverfront hotels offering panoramic views.

The area is home to some great festivals, too, including not one but two festivals celebrating goetta, the region’s unique breakfast sausage – a delicious mix of pork, beef and steel-cut oats that was developed by German-American settlers and has since earned a devoted cult following. (Goettafest in August is a local and visitor favorite.)

Best of City & Country

For travelers who want to split their time between city and country, Covington and Newport offer a perfect base of exploration.

Any westward day trip must include the twisty two-lane road to quaint Rabbit Hash in Kentucky, where the Rabbit Hash General Store has been purveying “notions and potions” since 1831. Keep going down Beaver Road in the direction of Beaverlick and you’ll find your way to Big Bone Lick State Historic Site – site of an ancient salt lick where marshy land once trapped mastodons, mammoths, bison and other big-boned critters. The fossil remains here have intrigued folks like Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin, and a bison herd is still maintained at the park for visitors to see today.

Keep heading west and you’ll arrive at Carrollton, a fine stopping point where the Kentucky River flows into the Ohio. Hugging the riverfront, this town is home to pleasant shops, galleries and dining, plus serves as the gateway to General Butler State Resort Park.

Then circle around to Sparta, home of the Kentucky Speedway, where NASCAR racing is on the card in summer and fall – and where on occasional “Drive the Track” days, racing fans can enjoy the thrill of driving their own vehicle on a NASCAR oval.

Delightful Day-Trips

Head southeast along the Ohio from Newport or Covington and make a quiet loop through little riverside villages, including historic Maysville. (Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton co-founded the town, although Rosemary and George Clooney helped put it on the map.)

Here, you can gaze across the Ohio River and reflect how it must have looked to a runaway slave during the early 1800s. This was one of the major crossing points on the Underground Railroad – and the place where Harriett Beecher Stowe witnessed a slave auction that later became one of the more vivid scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Today, Maysville’s picturesque riverfront and stately architecture make it a relaxing destination for travelers – and it’s become a popular spot for couples planning a romantic wedding as well.

From Maysville, continue east along the Ohio or head southwest to Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park, where a salt lick once lured game, native hunters and eventually settlers.  And in 1782 (nearly a year after the Revolutionary War had officially ended) things came to a head here in a battle that pitted British loyalists and their native American allies against a force of Kentucky militiamen – a force that included Kentucky’s legendary pioneer, Daniel Boone.  The Kentuckians were routed in what became the final battle of the Revolutionary War, which is commemorated each year in an August re-enactment.

More to See & Do

At Blue Licks, you’re back to the shores of the Licking River – and if you’ve fallen in love with these quiet roads and quaint towns, just keep on going.

Drop southwest to Cynthiana, where Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan fought two Civil War battles – including his last, a defeat in 1864. Then move on to Grant County, home of the famous Quilt Box, one of the country’s finest quilting shops. And if you really want to step back in time, spend a night at Mullins Log Cabin in Corinth – an 1850s one-room log cabin with no electricity, but plenty of character.

Ready to plan your great Northern Kentucky River Region escape? Your first stop should be www.nkytourism.com, which brings together a bounty of information about this sprawling portion of the state. The site also links to individual websites covering each county in the area to offer even more local knowledge and advice.

 

IF YOU GO

Events, Attractions and Recreation

Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, 859-384-3522, http://parks.ky.gov/parks/historicsites/big-bone-lick/

The Original Goettafest, 859-491-0458, www.mainstrasse.org

Glier’s Goettafest, 859-292-1613, www.goettafest.com

Newport Aquarium, 800-406-3474, www.newportaquarium.com

Thaxton’s Canoe Trails and Paddler’s Inn, 859-472-2000, 877-643-8762, www.gopaddling.com

General Butler State Resort Park, 502-732-4384, http://parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/general-butler/

Kentucky Speedway, 859-647-4300, www.kentuckyspeedway.com

Marry Me in Maysville, 606-564-9419, http://www.cityofmaysville.com/marry-me-in-maysville/

Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park, 859-289-5507, http://parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/blue_licks/

Restaurants

Welch’s Riverside Restaurant, 502-732-9118

Molly Malone’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, 859-491-6659, http://covington.mollymalonesirishpub.com/

Tom + Chee, 859-291-2433, www.tomandchee.com

Delites Diner, 606-564-7047

Shopping

Newport on the Levee, 866-538-3599, www.newportonthelevee.com

Rabbit Hash General Store, 859-586-7744, www.rabbithash.com

The Quilt Box, 859-824-4007

Lodging

Carrollton Inn, 502-732-8444

General Butler State Resort Park, 502-732-4384, http://parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/general-butler/

Hampton Inn, 859-581-7800, www.hamptoninn.hilton.com/covington

Super 8, 606-759-8888, www.super8.com

Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park, 859-289-5507, http://parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/blue_licks/

Mullins Log Cabin, 859-322-3082, logcabin1999@yahoo.com