Often road trips are the best way to get from A to B, especially if they involve an overnight stay or two along the way. There’s no guessing what gems you’ll discover.
Such was the case when my husband and I undertook a trip from southern Ontario to Florida to conduct research for the annual Travel Guide to Florida. I had allowed for an overnight stay at the halfway point of our trip. I knew the mileage involved, however, never having done the trip by road before, I could not pinpoint exactly where to book our stay. Instead, I decided to play it by ear. Wherever we ended up by 5 p.m. on the first day of our trip was where we would lodge for the night.
That’s how I discovered Berea, Kentucky, a haven for a thriving population of artists, including weavers, instrument makers, painters, sculptors, furniture artisans, jewellery designers, glass workers, potters, quilters and musicians.
The story of Berea’s artisan community is interwoven with the historic Berea College, the first interracial and co-educational college in the South. Founded in 1855 by anti-slavery advocate John G. Fee, the college is well known for its mission to provide students an opportunity for a tuition-free quality education so they graduate with very little, if any, debt. Only academically promising students with limited economic resources and “upstanding character” are admitted to pursue bachelor degrees in 32 majors at an estimated cost of US$23,000+ per student per year. While Berea primarily services the Southern Appalachian region, students from across the U.S. and from more than 60 countries represent a rich diversity of colours, cultures and faiths.
In return for free tuition, all students, without exception, are required to work 10 to 15 hours per week in approved jobs on campus or in the community while carrying a full academic course load. Such work experiences offer them tremendous opportunities to put into practice what they learn and to develop skills future employers will appreciate. Student-led tours of the college are available.
A variety of hands-on workshops by individuals specializing in artisan skills and crafts are also open to visitors year-round. From March to November, the Kentucky Guild of Artists & Craftsmen schedules both weeklong and weekend classes in the visual arts at their beautiful facility in Berea. In July, the Berea Festival of Learnshops features workshops on a wide range of interests, including sustainable living, culinary arts, collage, painting, Appalachian crafts, fibre arts, jewellery, glass, storytelling, literary arts, theatre, music, dance, Native American folk arts, bonsai, woodworking or professional development for educators. This family-friendly event also organizes children’s activities and classes where intergenerational family members can create together.
Accommodation choices in Berea range from inns to RV parks. My hands-down favourite is the Historic Boone Tavern Hotel, named for Appalachian hero Daniel Boone and located on College Square in the heart of town. Built in 1909 at a cost of US$20,000, the brick building was constructed by the College’s Woodwork Department. Since then, the hotel has hosted such dignitaries as the Dalai Lama, Henry Ford, President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. In keeping with the community’s sustainable goals, an $11-million renovation prepared this gem for another 100 years by making it a LEED Gold Certified Green Hotel. Throughout its history, college students have handcrafted guest room furnishings and, today, original southern cuisine is featured at its award-winning restaurant.
So, on any road trip to Florida, an overnight stay in Berea has become a ritual in both directions. Some things are just meant to be and I am so pleased I trusted my initial instinct to wing it. If you’re headed to Kentucky or en route to Florida, I strongly recommend a visit to beautiful Berea for an enriching and creative experience any time of the year. You might want to stay a few days just to take it all in.