Over Christmas break, we decided with our friends that we needed to get away and soon. We didn’t want to go very far, but we needed an overnight trip. We had done Nashville, Cincinnati and Chicago. Then it came to us in a eureka! moment: West Baden, IN. We planned to drive up Saturday around lunchtime, spend the night and leave the next morning. Easy peasy.
Turns out, the entire trip was less than 24 hours, and it was just what we needed. It was such an easy trip that the general consensus was, “Why have we not been here yet?”
Just to clarify — and this was a big point of confusion before we went — there are two hotels in the area: the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Springs Hotel. Owned and operated by the same company, the West Baden and French Lick are about a mile apart. They are in neighboring villages, and they share a website when you are booking, so be aware of that. But they are definitely two different resorts offering two different experiences. We opted for the West Baden Springs Hotel for our adventure.
An easy, one-hour jaunt, the drive into West Baden is beautiful; you half expect a choir of angels to start singing when you pass under the “Welcome to West Baden” gates. French Lick is the hamlet right next to West Baden, an area reminiscent of Germany. In fact, West Baden is named after Weisbaden, Germany, a town known for its mineral springs, and there are Germanic influences throughout the town.
The valley where West Baden and French Lick are located, sometimes referred to as Springs Valley, was originally known as Mile Lick. These towns got on the map because of their restorative mineral springs. In 1855, The Mile Lick hotel was built to “service” all the people coming into town to go to the springs. It was later named the West Baden Springs Hotel by local businessman Lee Sinclair, who revamped it into a luxury resort, complete with a casino and an opera house. In 1901, this hotel burned to the ground in two hours, thankfully with no injuries or fatalities to any guests. Sinclair rebuilt the hotel into the grand structure it is today. Architect Harrison Albright designed the hotel, with a 200-foot interior atrium dome, which he called the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was the largest interior dome until the Houston Astrodome was built in 1968. The hotel was finished in only a year and re-opened in June 1902.
After Sinclair died, the hotel fell on hard times, especially during the Great Depression. On Black Friday, the stock market crashed and all the guests left overnight. Business never returned, and the family sold the hotel to the Jesuits in 1934 for only a $1. Over the course of many years, this hotel was home to a Jesuit seminary, a college and was eventually abandoned and tied up in legal woes. In 1994, the Cook Group of Bloomington, IN, bought both the French Lick Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel and spent millions of dollars renovating both and restoring them to their original grandeur. West Baden Springs Hotel reopened in 2007.
The German name for mineral springs is “sprudel.” Sprudel is also the name of the unofficial hotel mascot, a little bearded gnome who is painted throughout the hotel and on the entrance sign. According to legend, Sprudel is a bit of a troublemaker, possibly due to his imbibing a horn of beer.
This place is a calm, beautiful, contemplative step back in time. It has all the grandeur and luxury of what it probably looked like in the 1900s, with a host of modern amenities that travelers want. The atrium dome is the center of the hotel, and people are drawn to it like a magnet. The furniture and layout are designed to invite guests to gather and converse, or to be alone and relax. Restaurants, the bar and check-in all are located off the atrium.
Check-in is a step back in time. With beautiful post lamps and old-fashioned corrals at the desk, you could have parked your horse outside with your luggage. If you didn’t see the computers, you would think it was the year 1910.
The historical tour of the hotel runs about every hour in the afternoons, and they meet at the check-in desk. We were not able to make a tour, but I did eavesdrop on a portion of one and made note of the hotel’s historical details that were mentioned.
We headed over to the casino at the French Lick hotel via the trolley train. Originally built in 1930 in Italy, this beautifully restored train tops speeds of 11 miles an hour. It is a short, 10-minute trip over to French Lick, and this journey was a highlight of our stay, mainly because of our conductor, Walter, who gave us an entire history of the trolley and the property. Walter can definitely tell a story, and we invited him to come to dinner with us. He was that entertaining.
We arrived at the casino, which was hopping, but not too crowded, at 4 p.m. on a Saturday. We stayed a couple of hours, won a little cash and headed out. Point of note: it is a full smoking casino, which is not ideal for nonsmokers.
Off to dinner with our winnings (not really), we had reserved Table One at the Sinclair restaurant, which is the private chef’s table that can accommodate up to 10 people. In full disclosure, this was what we centered our trip around. It’s unlike any chef’s table experience I have ever had. It’s a private room next to the kitchen that features a door and windows, which can be made completely opaque for privacy. The prix-fixe, five-course dinner, which includes unlimited wine, is only $125 a person. The wine we had was top-notch, and we felt the need to capitalize on every bit of our $125 worth of it.
We left West Baden the next morning, relaxed, still full and quite content having enjoyed the perfect overnight getaway!
For more information about West Baden Springs Hotel, visit frenchlick.com.