French Lick

A classic American resort is a short drive from home
Crystal Smith Hammon

If travel enthusiasts have a quirk, it's our willingness to traverse great distances in search of beauty, adventure and restoration when we can find all three in our own backyard. For Hoo­siers, there's no better example than the French Lick Springs Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel, the two hotels that comprise the French Lick Resort. 

Setbacks? Over the decades, French Lick has had a few. The Orange County destination has clawed its way back to relevancy every time, ironically, by leveraging two Beaux Arts hotels listed as National Historic Landmarks. 

Even if you've been to the resort before, you should never trust your­self to appreciate such a storied place in one visit. Return as often as you can to unearth its secrets, discover what's changed or treat yourself to a few days of pampering without the expense and inconvenience of airline travel. 

In fair weather, it's charming to sit on spacious verandas that wrap the two hotels and imagine yourself a citizen of a gentle era when people came to partake of the town's "miracle waters." Just be careful not to discount French Lick and West Baden as sleepy little resort towns. Long ago, they were favorite haunts for gangsters, luminar­ies and politicians who came to relax, gamble, schmooze and party, all of which you can still do-legally, thanks to the French Lick Casino. Today, they are among the few sites in the Midwest that manifest the shimmering glamour of the Gilded Age. 

This year the West Baden Springs Hotel is the backdrop for the film adaptation of Michael Kory­ta's mysterious novel So Cold the River. Read the Bloomington native's book, watch the movie, then book your room. The hotel's dome-shaped atrium has the gravitas of an architectural wonder. After driving through the hills and hollers of rural Indi­ana to reach French Lick, it appears like a mirage. The movie (and your next trip) will kindle true love for this Indiana landmark. 

Not to be outdone by its only sibling, the French Lick Springs Hotel's two-story lobby is capped by six magnificent ceiling murals, commissioned by Bill and Gayle Cook as part of the hotel's renovation in the early 2000s-one of the couple's many gifts to the people of Indiana. Each panel tells the mytholog­ical story of the four seasons. (Insider's hint: look for faces from the Cook family, which are said to appear in two of the six panels.) Lavish furniture and decor make this gilded lobby a stunner. A trolley runs between the resort's two hotels, so you can explore both sites regardless of where you stay. 

There are other inviting places in French Lick to lay your head for the night, but both hotels have onsite shopping, luxurious wellness spas, all-sea­son swimming pools and multiple dining op-tions. 1875: The Steakhouse is The French Lick Springs Hotel's upscale, dinner-only restaurant, overlooking a lovely courtyard. Say yes when you're offered the complimentary glass of tomato juice. It's been the restaurant's signature beverage since Chef Louis Perrin invented tomato juice in 1917 when he ran out of oranges to make juice for hotel breakfast guests. 

There is never a wrong time to visit French Lick. The resort offers bowling, horseback riding, bicycling and other activities. Save one day for self­care by booking an appointment for a massage, a facial, or both. Relax between appointments in a well-appointed sanctuary made for reflection and restoration. 

Hit the links at one or all of three notable golf courses from March through November. (The nine-hole Valley Course is open all year, weather permitting.) The Donald Ross Course is a beloved favorite, built in 1917 and renovated in 2006, with numerous upgrades since then. 

When the shop's pros suggest that you "club up," believe them. It's a challenging course, carved out of southern Indiana's undulating terrain, hence the name, "The Hill Course." You'll have to carry the ball if you want to conquer the fairways and make the mostly-elevated greens. 

Don't miss the chance to dine at Hagen's Club House Restaurant afterward. Named for Walter Hagen, who won the PGA Championship there in 1924, the onsite restaurant serves spectacular hand-breaded tenderloins. 

If you're ready for one of the longest courses in America, play the resort's nationally-esteemed Pete Dye Course. Built atop Mt. Airie, the course's ma­jestic views are breathtaking. 
Words to the wise: if you want to stay during the holidays, think ahead to next year. The resort is al­ready sold out for this year's holiday season. If you're flexible throughout the year, weekdays are the best time to book your stay. 


See the world's largest circus diorama and learn about local influences, from the Civil War and Black history to railroads and baseball.

On select dates in November and December, book a trip on The Polar Express™, an 8O-min-ute train ride toward the North Pole that lets your family relive the classic story, set to the soundtrack of the movie. Make the trip perfect: wear your paja­mas. Be on your best behavior. Santa is on board! 
For information, visit Frenchlickthepolarexpress­ 

The magic of the holidays happens inside and outside the French Lick Resort with spectacular displays of light and Christmas decorations. The resort's gingerbread house often takes six to eight weeks to build. 

The former property of basketball legend Larry Bird has been transformed into a convention space and theatre where you can see world-class, live entertainment and variety shows. 

Off the beaten path, in French Lick's country­side, shop for one-of-a-kind jewelry at this fam­ily-owned jewelry business, owned by Janis and Merrill Hinshaw. The Hinshaws have been making jewelry since 1961 with rocks drawn from around the world. 

ON THE WAY ... Stop by Envision Designs in Paoli, where you can purchase handbags, totes and other locally-made products constructed with discarded fabrics. Profits go to funds that benefit the First Chance Center for people with disabilities.