Driving along the hills above French Lick, I pause at the top for a few seconds. Below me are glimpses of early 20th-century grandeur — the magnificent French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels, lovingly restored and considered among the great hotels of the world.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the southern Indiana towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs, with a total population of around 2,000, are in the middle of nowhere. But I’m lured here by the opulent history and one-of-a kind splendor.
That elegance was originally built in the 1800s to take advantage of the mineral springs found in the area. But by the early 20th century, they attracted the rich and famous to relax, eat, gamble and play a round on a Donald Ross championship golf course.
After all those years, these hotels still know how to make a first impression.
I’m in awe as I walk up the stairs of the West Baden Springs Hotel, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened in 1902. I marvel at endless details such as gold-ringed columns, balconies with lace-like filigree railings and a Rookwood fireplace able to burn 14-foot logs. But it’s the massive domed atrium — the largest in the world for 60 years until eclipsed by the Houston Astrodome — with its 100-foot-high curved skylights that amazes me and dwarfs me all at the same time. I feel tiny like Alice in Wonderland after she consumes the Drink Me Potion.
But, of course, West Baden is just one stop on my journey. I take a trolley to the beaux-arts-style French Lick Springs Hotel for more exploring. At one time, 13 trains ran here daily, making it a popular stop for notables such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Golden Age movie star Gloria Swanson who were attracted to its beauty as well as Pluto water, the odiferous, yet restorative, sulfur water bubbling from the natural springs.
Lucky for me, when I step into the West Baden signature sprudel bath filled with those Pluto mineral waters, the sulfuric underground aroma has been filtered out, making the 25-minute experience refreshing, invigorating and even a little decadent.
Feeling renewed, I head to the French Lick Springs Hotel’s lobby with its hand-painted tapestry ceilings and 5,000 square feet of gold leaf trim. Magnificent discoveries await me at every step. A few turns and I’m at the vintage bowling alley with its narrow lanes. I think about throwing a few balls, but all six lanes are in use. Besides another hallway entices me even more — the casino with its 27-foot ceilings and stained-glass dome.
I win $2 on the slots and then quickly lose it again. But I’ve gained so much on this trip that it’s a win in my book.
The Souvenir: Just add water to the dehydrated Pluto Bath Salts ($12.95) and get the relaxing and restorative benefits of the famous springs in your own home.
Embrace Fall: The Lost River Renegades take hostages, purses and wallets during the French Lick Scenic Railway’s Wild West Hold-up re-enactment ($18) of a classic train robbery through the rolling hills of Southern Indiana Sept. 3-5 and Oct. 8 & 9. 800-748-7246, frenchlickscenicrailway.org
When You Go: 8538 W. Baden Ave., West Baden Springs, 812-936-1902; 8670 W. state Road 56, French Lick, Indiana, 812-936-9300, frenchlick.com