Thunder kicks off the Kentucky Derby Festival, but when you have access to some of the best parties, it's best enjoyed from the Indiana side of the river.
If you were among the shivering, huddled masses squeezed cheek-to-jowl inside the public viewing areas for Saturday's Thunder Over Louisville
, I can say, honestly, that I have shared your pain.
Notice, I used past tense, "have," because this year was completely different.
Last Saturday my wife and I strolled between a luxurious feast at Jeffersonville's Bristol Bar & Grille and a hop-head's heaven, the Craft Beer Extravaganza at Rocky's Sub Pub (directly across the street from each other on Riverside Drive.) Save for the slight chill in the air, that was as near to a perfect Thunder as I've ever spent. Some reasons why:
First reason: The view for the airshow is simply better from the Hoosier perch. If you look at a map of the riverfront between Louisville and Jeff, you notice the Jeff side juts into the river, which puts the rolling, tumbling, twirling and banking aircraft right over the heads of the Indiana crowd. Not sure how much afterburner action was visible from Louisville, but those tongues of flame were vividly clear from the Indiana side.
Second reason: If you were in Louisville, the smoke got in your eyes, not ours. Yes, I know this changes annually, but by and large, the wind blows north to south for this event, which made our view of the fireworks just spectacular. I've been sprinkled with ash twice on the Ky. side. The view from Rocky's (which also includes the shoreline in front of its sister restaurant, Buckhead Mountain Grill) is quite possibly as good as it gets.
Third reason: The beer selection at Rocky's was incredible. Shortly after I arrived, Rocky's manager Thomas Kaphammer suggested Bluegrass Brewing Co.'s newly released Saison (French for "season") as a starter, and it was incredible: fruity, aromatic, crisp and spicy. I later had a Stone Brewing Co.'s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale that was full-bodied, dark, rich and at 8.7 ABV, warned to the mouth, "Drink me slowly." Needing something a tad lighter, I later got an Upland Wheat (simple, refreshing and clean) before splitting another Saison with my wife later that night. (That beer, BTW, is now on tap at BBC. It's a must drink.)
It should be noted that we had three 12-year-old boys in tow. Not only were they safe within the fenced in areas of Rocky's party, they had a ball doing the kids' activities and sliding down the grass banks of the river. At $25 a head, which includes an expansive dinner buffet, that's a huge deal for kids (adults cost $85).
Fourth reason: The Bristol's food was just outstanding (cost was $170 to $95 a head, depending on your seat). Manager Scott Harper's crew hit a grand slam with this spread. At the point of entry was smoked salmon, which led over to barbecue and all the appropriate south-a-fied fixings. But it was the buffet's center which riveted my attention: raw oysters on the half shell and steamed crawfish. At the end of the line was fresh sushi. Unreal!
And after being on the breezy bank for the afternoon, it was a nice change to sit inside the quiet, glass-fortified structure of a dining room—a facility I'd not been to previously, and one that was surprisingly elegant. Owner Doug Gossman visited tables, welcoming guests, making you feel as if you were in his home, not his place of business.
Fifth reason: We had in-and-out access to Riverside Drive. Before the fireworks, we grabbed the boys and waded among the crowds along the street. Talk about a cultural stew I might not have thought safe blended together. Yet everyone was clearly having a good time. Below the Kennedy Bridge was a micro-carnival complete with a handful of rides and every imaginable glowing, buzzing trinket for sale. The contrast between the private parties and public affair was immediate, and after about a half hour, we returned to our cushier quarters. How spoiled we'd become in only an afternoon.
Sixth reason: The Bristol's dessert and coffee spread. As night fell and dragged temps down with it, we headed back to the Bristol for hot coffee and terrific desserts. This time I was surprised at how the dining room got lovelier under dim lights and with the vestiges of that day's sunset glowing in the distance. Oh, and the sweets? Delicious. Yeah, I was naughty. Way sugar-naughty.
Seventh reason: These guys and gals are pros. According to my Kentucky-side reporting colleague, Rick Redding, this reason applies to both sides: Everyone in charge of both parties acted as if their particular event was just a walk in the park. Real pros get a kick out of serving others: it's their calling, not a job. Tom and Scott, both your teams reflected that. I don't see how anyone could have been more hospitable.
Eighth reason: The traffic is way simpler and faster from Indiana. How, you ask? My best guess is there are probably 400,000 on the Kentucky side trying to get out of downtown all at once, but on the Indiana side, there aren't nearly so many folks trying to get back to Kentucky. Once I-65 South reopened at 10:45-ish, we were rolling back to Goshen and in the garage at 11:15. My wife switched on the news and said, "Look at all the people still stuck in traffic on this side of the river!"
"Yeah, look at 'em!" I echoed, momentarily forgetting the times I've been side mirror to side mirror with some of you, creeping home at a snail's pace and with a full bladder. And before I gave it another thought, I slid beneath the covers and was asleep.
That, my friends, is how to spend your Thunder!
Photo by Steve Coomes.