May 16, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Beautiful family vacation spot is nearby

Cynthia DewesThe beauty to be seen in this world never ceases to amaze me.

Especially at this lovely time of the year, we appreciate God’s hand in nature, but the manmade beauty we find is wonderful as well. It, too, reflects the divine imagination.

One of these wonders is the West Baden Springs Hotel, located a mile from the equally grand French Lick Hotel in southern Indiana. These two historic buildings were once world-famous centers of luxurious relaxation. Among other things, West Baden offered mineral water “cures” in the natural spring water spas on its grounds.

West Baden Hotel features a high-domed interior atrium surrounded by circular hallways of rooms. French Lick Hotel is built along the lines of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. But with time and events such as the Great Depression, both hotels declined and business fell off.

French Lick continued hotel operations while West Baden became a Jesuit seminary for a time, later a school for chefs, and finally stood empty with one partially collapsed wall. Happily, local preservationists and philanthropists stepped in to restore the hotels to their former grandeur, and today the entire area thrives as a resort destination.

We first visited West Baden Hotel when the building was barely stabilized and one apartment was finished. It looked pretty sad. Recently, we visited again, and the change in the place was dramatic if not downright astonishing.

Parts of the mosaic tile floors remaining in the atrium are surrounded by carpeting which copies the original Art Nouveau style. New furniture and lamps have also been made to order to recreate the originals. All features, such as the Rookwood pottery fireplace, gilded cornices and stained glass panels, have been restored to their previous glory.

Besides the public rooms, guest rooms in both hotels are beautifully decorated and furnished. Both offer indoor and outdoor swimming pools and all possible amenities, including access to a new casino located between the two on a pretend lake. Busloads of day-trip gamblers help support the resurgence of the area.

On the West Baden grounds sits an old log cabin with an interesting history. When the famous black prizefighter Joe Louis used to come to the area in the 1920s for bouts, he would stay in a segregated hotel. Later, after that hotel burned down, the fight promoters built the cabin for him to stay in.

There is a stable offering rides for all ages, an expanding golf course which will host a PGA tournament in 2010, and the French Lick Winery, which sells good-quality wine. A shuttle bus carries people between the hotels and these places.

Hour-long tours of each hotel are conducted by Historic Landmarks of Indiana. There is even a railroad museum and train ride available to view local attractions, including the boyhood home of Larry Bird!

In addition to the French Lick and West Baden hotels, there are less expensive accommodations available in the town as well. And if fine dining is not in the budget, there are fast-food places down the street. Patoka Lake is close by for those who might like to camp and enjoy water sports as well as the historic sites and (maybe) the gambling.

Considering how expensive gasoline prices are now, family roadtrip vacations may be a thing of the past.

But if we can afford to drive a couple of hours south to Orange County, we’ll find a great destination offering beauty, history, sports and fun. And gambling.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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