By Tom and Patti Burkett
We heard from Tom’s sister that the West Baden Spa Hotel in French Lick , Indiana was something to see, so when we were in the area, we detoured to have a look. The original hotel, the Mile Lick Inn, was built before the Civil War. The area’s mineral springs had long attracted recreational and health-impaired visitors. The last renovation of the original building included a two-story pony and bicycle track, an opera house, and a casino. After that building burned in 1901, the current structure rose in its place. While the resort features every amenity imaginable, the showstopper is a central atrium two hundred feet across, with a fireplace that burns fourteen foot logs, is ringed on the upper floors by the interior balconies of the guest rooms.
We hadn’t seen any of this yet when we arrived in town to discover the lane leading to the hotel entrance flooded by French Lick Creek, which runs along the edge of the resort property. Heading into town, we were again turned back, as the creek had flooded the downtown as well, blocking traffic on Indiana Route 56. There followed an hour of driving along various backroads looking for an accessible route into the hotel. After ascending and descending numerous hills, we worked our way around to the uphill side of the Donald Ross designed golf course and finally reached the resort parking lot.
If you’ve ever visited an old-style resort hotel, this will look familiar to you. Many outbuildings house the staff and equipment for numerous outdoor pursuits, ranging from riding to archery, trapshooting to yoga. The hotel itself sports wide porches for enjoying the water view and taking in the seasonal breezes. Riding, cycling, and hiking paths spread out from the central complex, winding through a total of four high-end golf courses. You can’t boondock in the resort parking lot, but just a few miles away is the Springs Valley Recreation Area, with several campsites on the shore of Tucker Lake.
The inside of the building, especially the atrium, is truly stunning. The roof soars overhead, splashed with stained glass windows, and numerous seating areas are sprinkled below it. Three restaurants offer fine and casual dining. In mid afternoon we opted for dessert and coffee. The massive Indiana stone fireplace was nearby, but not lit on this temperate day. Oversized seating, couches and chairs, gigantic tropical plants, and impressive statues made the room feel more cozy and less cavernous. The afternoon felt a bit like a European getaway, and it seems that was the designer’s intent, echoing the Baden-Baden resort in Germany.
For a truly out-of the-way town, French Lick has an interesting history. The medical power of the sulfur springs was bottled as Pluto Water, a popular laxative in the early 1900s. The resorts and casinos drew characters like Al Capone and Joe Lewis, and Irving Berlin was a regular entertainer. Both the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox held spring training here during World War 2, and NBA star Larry Bird still holds the high school scoring record at Springs Valley High, his hometown school.
Nothing will get you to this part of Indiana except a desire to see things like this. You can drop south off US 50 or head north from Interstate 64 and drive though the Hoosier National Forest. it’s just miles of trees, lakes, small towns, and scattered gems like the West Baden Hotel. Come see for yourself, out here off the beaten path.