Sometimes extravagant, special places exist in our own backyard. How is it that they fade from our mind after time –(suppressed by the urgent chaos in our daily grind?)–and we forget about them until we revisit to entertain an out-of-town guest.
Such was the case when my mother spent a couple weeks with us in early summer. Where should we go for a little road trip? I thought of all the possibilities–Louisville, St. Louis, Nashville, Indy, even Cincinnati. But she’d already spent 12 hours in a car to get here. How about French Lick and West Baden here in southern Indiana, just an hour and a half drive from home?
The two historic hotels, French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel, now grouped together as the French Lick Resort Casino are a five minute shuttle ride away from each other, located in separate namesake towns. Both have been beautifully and lovingly restored. We drove to West Baden first.
Approaching, we could see the red domed roof peeking through the trees. That first glance–and you know it’s going to be special. But I purposely didn’t tell my Mom what she would see inside. Or tell her just yet that this grand old dame from 1902 that once held the world record for the largest free-spanning dome had a face lift to the tune of $100 million. Or that it has been listed as a National Historic Landmark and won all sorts of awards, including the recent win as the Reader’s Choice of the Top Ten Historic Hotels in America (USA Today). I thought I’d let it speak for itself.
We entered the lobby, then stepped into the Atrium. I heard my Mom gasp, then go silent. Glancing over, I saw tears welling up and spilling down her cheeks. “Ohhhh…Why haven’t I seen this before?” she said, her voice choked with emotion.
Back in 1855, Lee Sinclair had a dream to build a domed hotel inspired by the grand mineral spa resorts of Europe. His “Carlsbad of America” was fashioned after Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, near the German border. (See my earlier post about that fascinating spa town here)
The opulence and mineral springs (purported to heal anything) drew a well-heeled international set who traveled to southern Indiana to vacation at the French Lick resort properties back at the turn of the century. They kept themselves entertained with opera, live theater every night, concerts, movies, a casino, bowling and billiards, a unique double decker pony-bicycle track, saunas, mineral baths, natatorium, horseback riding, and hiking trails. And socialized in the relaxing Atrium where birds freely flew between palm trees.
But the stock market crash in 1929 changed all that. It sat empty for several years, until the owner sold it to Jesuits for a dollar. They promptly removed the fancy decor and established a seminary. Then in 1966 it was sold and donated to a private college, Northwood Institute. My husband, David, remembers attending band camp there when he was in high school.. guys flirting with girls and sending messages by throwing paper airplanes through the Atrium to reach their hotel rooms.
Falling into a state of disrepair and considered unsafe for public use, it was closed in 1989. But since its reopening in 2007, the opulence is back! The 243 luxury guestrooms have been enlarged and now have private baths.
Visitors to West Baden can dine in the Atrium, listen to live music in the cozy adjacent bar, or reserve a spot for high tea. But only guests can ride the elevator to the upper floors or schedule a spa treatment. We reserved spots on an special history tour with costumed guides (held once a month in summer) and dined in the Atrium, but missed tea. We never saw the upper floors.
But we did take the free shuttle which whisks guests staying at either hotel between properties (located a mile apart) including the new casino.
French Lick Spring Hotel is where we stayed. It was first opened in 1845 by Dr. Bowles who prescribed his guests to drink the mineral water (known as Pluto water) from the springs (like they do at Karlsbad in Czech Republic).
Guests flocked to the resort from all walks of life–entertainers, politicians, athletes, wealthy and the elite. The hotel expanded over the years through another owner, Thomas Taggart who served as a US Senator and national chairman of the Democratic Party. The guest list grew…movie stars, presidents and everybody who was anybody. Pluto water was still prescribed along with proper diet and exercise. Many guests returned to spruce up their health in both the fall and spring seasons.
Pluto water was even bottled in town and distributed across the world from 1919 until 1971–when they discovered that one of the natural elements was actually a controlled substance–Lithium–it could no longer be sold over the counter. So you can no longer drink the mineral waters here. But you can bathe in it!
The Signature Pluto Bath allows you to soak in a private tub with water from the same mineral springs bubbling since the 1920s. It costs $40 for a 25 min soak. So how could we pass that up?
The French Lick Springs Hotel underwent renovations in 2005. Over 28,000 hours of labor went into gilding the lobby in gold leaf, stenciling, tiling, touching up the murals and paintings and plaster ornamentation.
Past the gilded lobby there are 443 rooms in the French Lick hotel that are more affordable than its neighbor at West Baden. There is a bowling alley, ice cream shop, 8 restaurants, a spa, conference rooms, an outdoor pool and an indoor pool with a dolphin fountain.
The shuttle will also whisk you up the hill to a couple of golf courses. You can dine for lunch or dinner at the Donald Ross course or order a delicious lunch in the mansion overlooking the newest Pete Dye designed course. Their salmon grilled cheese sandwich was to “dye” for!
Staying at a resort such as this made it easy to relax into the weekend and not worry about fighting traffic in a big crowded city. The shuttle took us everywhere we needed or wanted to go–way up the hill to the golf courses for lunch or dinner or to the other properties. We didn’t get a chance to go horseback riding or even shop (across the French Lick hotel was downtown Main Street). We walked through the gardens, enjoyed a spa, ate well and just mellowed out in beautiful surroundings. A great way to spend quality time with my mother and my daughter!
To check out this resort go here: www.frenchlick.com