Grand Rivers isn’t a typical tourist town.
The western Kentucky village has no stoplights, gas stations or fast-food chains. There are no mega-hotels or shopping malls. But, with a population of slightly more than 325, the village attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year.
While Grand Rivers may not be overflowing with brand names and iconic corporate logos, it’s a village with a reputation and role to play, acting as a gateway of sorts, a last stop for travelers embarking on a journey into the heart of nature.
Surrounded by outdoor beauty, the village offers access to two major lakes, Kentucky and Barkley, as well as luscious landscapes in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. Pass Grand Rivers on The Trace, the nickname for the road traversing the forest, and disappear from the hustle and bustle of society and daily life.
“We are authentic,” said Kim Kraemer, executive director of Grand Rivers Tourism Commission. “This is a real place; it’s real small-town America. We have that culture and history. I don’t think you could make this place up.”
The lifeblood of Grand Rivers is four-fold in the forms of two top-tier resorts and marinas, a world-renowned restaurant offering much more than food and a first-class theater bringing a bit of Branson to the region.
The more things change
Grand Rivers wasn’t always a draw. The city formed in the late 19th century, as iron prospectors sought to mine the rich Kentucky landscape, near the confluence of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. The rush brought thousands of people who settled and established a thriving operation. But, their time would be short spent.
By 1920, the iron industry onslaught had played out, and many left the area. By 1937, plans began for the Kentucky Dam and creation of Kentucky Lake. By the 1960s, the Cumberland River was also dammed to form Barkley Lake, with the Barkley Canal added later to connect the two massive manmade bodies of water.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy declared the land south of Grand Rivers as a national recreation area, using powers of eminent domain to remove many people from their homes. Entire communities were forced from the area, leaving Grand Rivers as the last village standing.
In 1977, the mother-son duo of Patti and Chip Tullar decided to open a hamburger stand in town. The business not only took off, it expanded to the point that it has become one of the main attractions in Grand Rivers. The establishment of Patti’s 1880s Settle-ment helped spark a new era for the small village.
“It was a boarded-up town,” recalled Chip Tullar, who turned over operation of Patti’s to his brother Michael and now runs Rose of the Lake bed-and-breakfast. “Thirty-six years ago, the town had 350 people. It still has 350, but it’s grown significantly.”
A waterway of life
Anchored on either side of Grand Rivers are two of its top attractions, Green Turtle Bay and Lighthouse Landing. Each facility boasts lodging options, access to the water, fine dining and its own signature flair.
Green Turtle Bay, on Barkley Lake, features 81 condos with one to four bedrooms, wedding facilities, two restaurants and more than 450 slips in the marina. A full spa, Jade and Earth, was recently added.
“They do everything from massages to facials,” said Brian McDonald, Green Turtle Bay marketing manager. “We just started doing cosmetic procedures.”
Those staying at the resort also have access to water-vehicle rentals, ranging from two-person jet skis to 84-foot houseboats. Barkley Lake generally offers smooth sailing and is typically filled with smaller craft, McDonald said.
“The world is so busy now; everyone has an iPhone or an iPad in his hand,” he added. “This is like an oasis from that, a chance to connect with nature and the simple joys of the world.”
On the other side of Grand Rivers, stationed on Kentucky Lake, is Lighthouse Landing, which offers guests the chance to stay in a lakeside cottage or at a wooded campsite. The marina has 200 slips for boats, and the resort hosts a variety of live entertainment.
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Much like Green Turtle Bay, Lighthouse Landing also offers boat rental, but guests can go one step further. Chip Riddle, an American Sailing Association-certified instructor, offers classes to those aspiring to take command of the seas at his Sailing School.
The four-day classes generally take place Thursday to Sunday on select weekends of the year. They range from covering the ba-sics of sailing to navigation. Each class is limited to four students, with people coming from across the United States to participate.
“They’re pretty intense classes,” Riddle said. “When you go through a class, you should feel comfortable sailing a boat and have the certification to rent one.”
Teaching sailing is a retirement job for Riddle, who previously worked in the insurance business. Setting up in Grand Rivers, he’s able to relax, make the lake his office and share his passion with others.
“This is the best kept secret around,” he said. “Outside of peak season and holidays, you can go out during the week and, other than maybe a bass fisherman or two, you have the lake for yourself.”
Stop and smell the Rose
Visitors to Grand Rivers looking for accommodations on a smaller scale can find them at Grand Rivers Inn, the town’s sole hotel, or Rose of the Lake, the first-class bed-and-breakfast operated by Chip Tullar and Mike Grimes.
The Rose of the Lake partners reacquired the property two years ago and have invested thousands of dollars into making the home a warm and welcoming place for guests. Those staying at the bed-and-breakfast are invited to use household amenities, including a downstairs pool table, an outdoor gas grill and video game systems and 3-D movie players for the kids.
Outside, a large pool and deck offer visitors a chance to relax away from the lake or take in the sun. In the evening, they can climb to the top of a leveled deck and watch the sun set over Green Turtle Bay and Barkley Lake.
And, while skipping out early in the morning to hit the lake might seem like a good idea, don’t think about it too much. Tullar and Grimes won’t let any guest leave hungry, serving a multi-course meal suited for any appetite.
A vibrant village
While the lakes are the primary interest of those visiting Grand Rivers, the village offers a number of shops, amenities and oppor-tunities itself.
“Grand Rivers is your Norman Rockwell small-town atmosphere. It’s just a warm place. Everyone who lives or works here loves seeing visitors come in; we’re a tourism town,” said McDonald, a lifelong resident whose father serves as mayor. “I don’t think people realize how much there is to do here.”
Outside of the resorts and Patti’s, Grand Rivers also boasts the Badgett Playhouse, a first-class theater offering a variety of pro-fessional shows, such as Branson-style revues and, this summer, a musical tribute to Johnny Cash. The 6,000-square foot, 285-seat theater hosts more than 175 performances each year.
Making their way through town, visitors will also discover a number of different shops, from antiques to boutiques and bikes to biker apparel. Locals at each shop, restaurant or business in town are quick to show a little Southern hospitality to each and every guest.
At the end of the day, as the sun sets across the Grand Rivers Jetty on Kentucky Lake, named the top romantic spot in Kentucky by Cosmopolitan magazine, people realize Grand Rivers isn’t the best vacation spot for those looking for the bright lights and busy schedules of New York City or Las Vegas.
But, for those looking to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and reconnect with the natural beauty offered by the mid-South, there may be few places better to visit. McDonald may have said it best.
“You can come to Grand Rivers, stay at a premier resort and have that luxury, pampered feel inside of a small-town atmosphere.”