OK, think fast. What comes to mind when you picture Kentucky? For me it was rolling hills, whitewashed fences, thoroughbred racehorses grazing on bluegrass. Bourbon. Loretta Lynn. Abraham Lincoln's birthplace. Daniel Boone. Tobacco farms. Moonshine and music.
But houseboats? No.
Grider Hill Dock and Indian Creek Lodge
A little over an hours' drive south of Lexington is Lake Cumberland, created by damming a portion of the Cumberland River in the 1940s, thereby reducing flooding and creating hydroelectricity. A drive south along Route 127, through the rolling hills and horse farms, into gorges and gullies, "knobs and hollers," past Mennonite and Shaker communities. And at the farthest end of the lake, over the dam, is tiny Albany, KY, Indian Creek with its lodge, and Grider Hill Dock.
I never pictured a houseboat vacation in Kentucky, or fishing for huge stripers so eager to be caught that an hour on the lake is all it takes to reach the allowable limit. But there I was, on the first part of my trip, in an elongated finger of the main lake, enjoying peaceful fall days meandering through coves on elegant, elaborate houseboats. I spent cool nights in a stone-walled room at Indian Creek Lodge, with sweeping views of the lake and the marina, and fine country dining in the lodge restaurant.
This end of the lake is barely populated and from the lake itself, at this time of year, it's easy to imagine a solitary world. Unless you're close to the dam, where you can see the cars pass, it seems as though Grider Hill Dock and the lodge are the only signs of civilization. Summertime, though, when the houseboats are filled with families and the state parks surrounding the lake filled with campers, is a totally different atmosphere. Crowded, boisterous, fun-loving and convivial.
"Most people don't realize," says Tony Sloan, owner/manager of Indian Creek Lodge and Grider Hill Dock, "that Kentucky has more flowing water, more navigable rivers, than any other U.S. state except Alaska."
Lake Cumberland is 101 miles long and looks, from above, like a jagged tear in the fabric of this beautiful state. Much of the lake is surrounded by high limestone canyons and gorges. Construction is limited to several hundred feet beyond the shores, so is virtually hidden from view.
"And," Tony tells me, "there is no industry anywhere around the lake, no pollutants, so the water is pristine."
In the summer, families come from all over the southeast to enjoy a houseboat vacation, sometimes clogging this end of the lake with traffic. And the fishermen come, too... the most avid arriving in late spring and early fall when they don't compete with the houseboats, jet-skis or other pleasure craft.
"In the summer," Tony continues, "the lake temperature is 85 degrees Fahrenheit." Now, that surprised me, since I am accustomed to lakes that look like this being much, much colder. But it also explains why there is no trout fishing here; the lake is too warm. Striped bass thrive here, in the deeper cooler waters. ("They are an anadromus fish, able to live in both salt water and lake water," I was told, and then I was gently advised that they are called "stripers" or "striped bass," but not "striper bass," which is what I had been calling them). There are huge catfish waiting to be caught as well.
The 18-room Indian Creek Lodge overlooks the marina and docks, and is quite elegant in a bare-bones way. The stone walls are offset with floral chintz spreads and curtains, simple pine furniture, and huge windows providing panoramic views. The lower floor rooms, with slightly smaller windows, are ideal in the spring and fall because they have little porches with chairs that face the lake. The upper rooms are far more preferable in the summer. The porches face a hill and the window wall overlooks the lake from a high vantage point; it's pretty hot and buggy to be sitting outside so the air-conditioned vista is much, much nicer.
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