Roaring jet boats and hydroplanes, burbling waterfalls and clinking glasses provide summer's soundtrack in Madison, Indiana.

By Jess Hoffert; Photographer: Paul Nordmann
River Tours

The jet boat's buzz grows to a roar as the craft zips closer on the Ohio River. In an instant, it spins out, whipping up the water like a blender, to the thrill of riders on board. Madison's Rockin' Thunder jet boats provides guided tours of the area around historic Madison, Indiana, in speedboats that skip like stones along the water's surface. Travelers can take a two-hour ride to see wildlife and learn about river pirates, or take a two-day trek to Frankfort, Kentucky. That trip journeys through a series of limestone locks built by German immigrants in the 1830s, offering a dive into history and chances to spot bobcats and herons.

Rockin' Thunder River Tours.
Madison's Waterfront.

The jet boats are a newer attraction, but speeding on the water is part of the legacy in this southeast Indiana town of 12,000. The Madison Regatta, the town's 69th annual powerboat race, takes place July 5–7, 2019, and all eyes will be on local icon Miss HomeStreet (formerly known as Miss Madison), which will defend her title this year. Once a scrappy underdog, the world's only community-owned racer has risen to world-class status (the predictable but heartwarming 2005 film Madison chronicles her rapid rise).

Madison has plenty to be proud of on land, too. Visitors can explore 133 blocks designated as a National Historic Landmark, perhaps the most of any U.S. town. The well-preserved homes, shop fronts (including three wineries) and mansions provide tangible evidence of how commerce on the Ohio River-in addition to a busy railroad line-made this one of the Midwest's wealthiest towns in the 1800s.

West of Madison, Clifty Falls State Park blankets the area with wooded hiking trails and a series of waterfalls, plus outstanding panoramic views of downtown and the river valley. From here, jet boats and hydroplanes look like toy boats flitting across the water, but you can still hear the distant hum that's become the signature sound of summer in Madison.

Madison Regatta Musts

1 Purchase a combo ticket that includes races plus the new Roostertail Music Festival, showcasing rock, folk and country acts at Bicentennial Park (July 4–6, 2019). This year's headliners include southern Indiana's Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters, and Texas rockers Whiskey Myers.

Roostertail Music Festival. Photo Courtesy of Madison Regatta.

2 Claim a spot early under the shade of the large tree below Jefferson Street for prime views of the boat racing.

3 Reserve a site across the river at Kentucky's McCoy's Camping. Watch races there, then walk over the Milton-Madison Bridge for the music fest. (Combo ticket is required.)

Stroll the Shops

Early 1800s Main Street buildings contain a diverse array of indie shops, including Madison Table Works (gorgeous cherry- and walnut-wood works), Unique Boutique (colorful home decor), Broadway Hotel and Tavern (the state's oldest tavern, established in 1834) and Cocoa Safari Chocolates (with truffle flavors including honey lavender, key lime and strawberry champagne). A couple of blocks off the main drag, sample the dry but fruity Rivertown White in the Cellar Tasting Room at Lanthier Winery, the state's oldest, housed in an 18th-century brick building.

Madison's Main Street.

Order up!

Crystal and Jules Chef and owner Andy Richmer loves to visit with diners to make sure they're enjoying his masterfully executed specialties: house-made pasta, seared tuna and a savory Costa Rican strip steak marinated for three days.

Hinkle's Sandwich Shop Grease is the word here. And it's been keeping this tiny burger joint's tables filled since 1933. Order two or three Hinkleburgers (sliders with grilled onions and pickles), and wash 'em down with one of dozens of milkshake options.

Horst's Little Bakery Haus Don't be fooled by the "haus" name and the Bavarian cuckoo-clock decor. Breakfasts here are very American-and very good-especially the lineup of pastries, including glazed doughnuts, cinnamon buns and pecan rolls.

Get Out and Play

Clifty Falls State Park Niagara they are not. But the four modest waterfalls lend a lovely burbling soundtrack to hikes along 10 wooded paths, some leading to the secluded falls and bluff-top views of Madison. Rugged trails 6, 7 and 8 deliver the best scenery.

Clifty Falls State Park.

Lanier Mansion The 1844 Greek Revival jewel of Madison's Historic District sparkles thanks to a painstaking restoration (down to the horsehair brushes that were used to paint the walls the original colors). Tour the home, then relax in the palatial gardens landscaped according to an 1876 lithograph of the grounds: heirloom roses, peonies, wisteria and more.

Lanier Mansion.

Rockin' Thunder River Tours Zip along the Ohio and Kentucky rivers in jet boats at speeds reaching 50 mph. Tours range from a scenic two-hour outing to an overnight excursion with lodging at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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