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It pays to thirst at these festivals

Courtesy Kentucky Bourbon Festival

If your group wants a relaxing May Sunday with a picnic on a blanket, listening to top-name entertainers and perusing the work of quality artisans and craftspeople, the First Flush Festival at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, S.C., is your cup of tea.

If you are looking for a little stronger libation, journey to Bardstown, Ky., in September for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Both festivals are on the American Bus Association’s list of Top 100 Events in North America for 2012.

“We celebrate our first harvest of the year; we call our harvests flushes,” said Bryn Riley, tourism events manager for the Charleston Tea Plantation. “First flush tea is considered premier tea, the champagne of tea. The first harvest is the most special.”

In addition to sampling first flush tea, festivalgoers sample a variety of Lowcountry cuisine from local food vendors and listen to live music all day, including one headline major act. Hootie and the Blowfish were at this year’s festival.

“It is a festival-in-the-park kind of thing,” said Riley.

The 127-acre Charleston Tea Plantation, the only commercial tea plantation in North America, makes green and black varieties of American Classic Tea.

The First Flush Festival will be held for the sixth time May 20. “No place else in the United States can you see tea grown and processed,” said Riley.

“We just celebrated our 20th anniversary,” said Linda Harrison, executive director of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. “It started out and is still a promotion for the bourbon industry to educate the public about bourbon and how it is made.”

Highlights include a bourbon all-star sampler with master distillers, a competition to create a bourbon cocktail, a country-music concert, a bourbon-style cooking school, a jazz concert, a bourbon-barrel-rolling contest and a black-tie gala.

Harrison said there are also many family-oriented events that are kept strictly separate from the bourbon activities, among them arts and crafts, children’s activities and a popular hot-air-balloon glow that kicks off the festival on Tuesday night.

“The balloons are just gorgeous,” said Harrison. “More than 3,000 [people] attended. It is a family event with inflatables for the children to jump on and vendors with food. It is a very relaxed atmosphere at the fairgrounds.”

The 2012 Kentucky Bourbon Festival will be Sept. 11-16.