Shelbyville, Ky., offers the real Christmas town experience

By Patti Nickell
Tribune News Service

By now you have probably overdosed on all those Hallmark Christmas movies that begin before Halloween and continue up to New Year’s Day. You know — the ones that are always set in impossibly picturesque small towns where the entire population turns out to light up the tree and help the hero and heroine rekindle an old flame.

Wakefield Scearce Gallery, which has one of the South's finest collections of English silver and furniture, was once the chapel of a girls' school. (ShelbyKy Tourism)

If you’re tired of the fictional small towns and yearn for the real thing, Shelbyville, a small town in central Kentucky, is for you. Its holiday lights were officially turned on in early November, and while there was no word on how many old flames were rekindled, it did seem as if the whole town was there to get a jump start on the season.

Up and down Main Street, food stalls dispensed cookies and cider; artists showed off their wares and choirs sang carols. The tree in front of the courthouse was lit; merchants flung open their doors and the post office remained open for any child (or child at heart) to send that special letter to Santa.

Who needs a Hallmark Christmas when you can have a Shelbyville Christmas?

For starters, you can book a table for lunch at Science Hill Inn. What was once the dining hall for an elite prep school (founded in 1825) is now a restaurant specializing in Southern cuisine. That means Carolina shrimp and grits and fresh Kentucky trout, country ham and pimento cheese sandwiches, and, of course, fried chicken. And be sure to try the hot water cornbread, a uniquely Southern dish that is similar in appearance to a beignet.

The furniture and home décor are displayed in individual rooms, which makes it appear as if you had just wandered into someone’s exquisitely decorated home. Beautifully curated at any time, the galleries at Wakefield-Scearce are especially festive when dressed up for the holidays.

Feel like getting into the spirit of Christmas — or should I say the spirits? Then stop in at Jeptha Creed Distillery for a tour and tasting, or if you arrange it several weeks in advance, a holiday cocktail class.

Shane, the distillery’s personable tour guide, offered to join me in trying our mixology skills with a special holiday cocktail. We started with 2 ounces of Jeptha Creed bourbon, and then added one-fourth ounce of Allspice Dram, three-fourths ounce simple syrup, one-fourth ounce lime juice and an egg white.

After combining all the ingredients and ice into a cocktail shaker, we learned the proper way to shake before straining into a cocktail glass. Voila! The result is a classic cocktail that will keep you chill even if — when decorating your own tree — that string of Christmas lights is (or in this case, isn’t) on the blink.

Holiday mixology classes are offered at Jeptha Creed Distilllery. (ShelbyKy Tourism)

Jeptha Creed makes a wonderful addition to Kentucky’s distillery scene, with its beautiful setting on 64 acres of lush farmland where they grow the non-GMO heirloom Bloody Butcher corn used in their distillation process. Perhaps what is most fascinating about this boutique distillery are the master distillers themselves — mother and daughter team Joyce and Autumn Nethery.

Santa’s sleigh may be pulled by reindeer, but if he started his journey in Shelbyville, he might just hitch up a team of horses. The area is justly famous as the American Saddlebred Capital of the World, but it’s also home to America’s largest Icelandic horse operation — Lettleiki Icelandics at Swallowland Farm.

If you don’t fall instantly in love with these sweet-natured equines, then there’s surely a little of the grinch in you. With their five natural gaits they are a joy to watch. On this visit I had to be content with just watching, but I am already planning a return visit in the spring to ride one myself and learn the tolt (unique to the Icelandic breed where at least one of the horse’s feet is always touching the ground).

Visitors have several options here — watching a workout, taking a tour, or signing up for riding classes. You need to book in advance for any of these (

Walking around looking at all the holiday lights will give you an appetite, so indulge at one of the area’s fine restaurants. The Bell House is a lovely restaurant housed in a renovated 1902 home. You may be taken aback by its cotton candy pink exterior at the center of Main Street, but inside things are a bit more subdued.

Soft lighting and tables scattered throughout several rooms allow for an intimate dining experience. The menu is fairly traditional, with their take on the classic Kentucky Hot Brown; pork tenderloin with a Henry Bain glaze and a truly delicious crispy rosemary chicken.

Another bastion of Southern cooking is the Old Stone Inn & Tavern in nearby Simpsonville. Dating to the 1700s, its hospitality roots go back to when it was a stagecoach stop offering food and shelter to passengers. Design features such as a large fireplace and uneven wood floors attest to its provenance, and the menu — while catering to 21st century palates — still honors its heritage.

I went for Sunday brunch where an array of dishes is offered buffet-style, but if you opt for dinner, you can order from a menu heavy with perennial favorites such as crab cakes, fried chicken and the ubiquitous Hot Brown.

So, this holiday season don’t sit in front of the TV and watch movies about charming Christmas towns. Head to Shelbyville for the real thing.