May 22, 2009

Vacation / Travel Supplement

Orange County: Resorts are close to home and far from ordinary

Dogwoods frame the main entrance to the historic French Lick Springs Hotel in Orange County. (Photo by Patricia Happel Cornwell)

Dogwoods frame the main entrance to the historic French Lick Springs Hotel in Orange County. (Photo by Patricia Happel Cornwell)

By Patricia Happel Cornwell (Special to The Criterion)

“Vacation” means different things to different people.

For one person, it’s a glitzy hotel. For another, it’s golfing, horseback riding or swimming.

Some people love to walk in the footsteps of history. Others just want to traipse around in their own back yard.

Whichever definition of “vacation” is yours, it’s just down the road in Orange County in southern Indiana.

Despite its name, Orange County is overwhelmingly green and blue. More than half of it is in the vast Hoosier National Forest, shown in gray on the map. Most of Patoka Lake lies within its boundaries as do Jackson, Tillery Hill and Springs Valley State Recreational Areas.

Orange County resorts

Historically, however, Orange County has been famous for its luxury hotels at French Lick and West Baden.

Now owned by the same company and completely renovated, they have won numerous awards and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1812, French Lick was the site of an Indiana Territory fort. The posh accommodations found there today are a far cry from that crude beginning. If you haven’t seen these hotels in the last few years, you won’t believe your eyes.

French Lick Springs Hotel was built in 1845, drawing crowds to bathe in the “miracle waters” of its sulfur springs, which it bottled as “Pluto Water.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other early

20th-century notables enjoyed its hospitality. One can picture the 32nd president sitting in one of the rockers on the long colonnaded porch.

Today, the hotel has 443 rooms, indoor-outdoor pools, golf courses, a spa, a salon and a fitness center. It houses restaurants, a bowling alley and a casino. “Retail therapy” is available at several shops, and guests can avail themselves of guided historic tours.

Pluto mineral baths are still popular. The two resorts share riding stables and three golf courses.

French Lick Springs Hotel also occasionally hosts concerts. Upcoming headliners include country singers Clint Black on May 30 and Lee Ann Rimes on June 19.

French Lick Springs Hotel is located at 8670 W. State Road 56 in French Lick. For more information, call 888-694-4332 or log on to

West Baden Springs Hotel was built in 1902 to replace an 1855 hotel destroyed in a fire. It is surmounted by what was then the world’s largest dome, hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Like French Lick, it attracted visitors to its mineral waters. At one time, seven rail lines brought people to “take the cure.” Presidential candidate Alfred Smith, “Diamond Jim” Brady and gangster Al Capone were among West Baden’s guests.

During the Great Depression, West Baden was sold to the Society of Jesus for a dollar and served as a Jesuit seminary from 1932 to 1964. In 1966, it was sold to Northwood Institute, which operated until 1983 and sold the property in 1985. I remember seeing it about that time with falling plaster, buckling floors and overgrown gardens.

The historic building languished until the mid-1990s when corporate, philanthropic and historic preservation interests coalesced to restore it. The restoration was not completed, however, and the building awaited new funding before work was resumed in 2006.

Reopened in 2007, West Baden Springs Hotel offers 243 rooms, a natatorium, a spa, a salon, a fitness center, restaurants, shops, formal gardens, horseback riding and golf.

As impressive as the massive dome is, I observed that many people, on entering the huge atrium, look down rather than up because they are fascinated by the intricate mosaic floors.

Unlike its sister resort in bustling downtown French Lick, West Baden Springs Hotel immerses you in a hushed, idyllic setting. Wild violets bloom under tall trees and well-disciplined boxwoods form geometric patterns around the fountain in the formal garden.

West Baden Springs Hotel is located at 8538 West Baden Ave. in West Baden Springs. For more information, call 888-936-9360.

Orange County attractions

Orange County is also home to the Indiana Railway Museum, French Lick Winery, Patoka Lake, Paoli Peaks Big Splash Adventure Indoor Water Park.

At the Railway Museum in French Lick, you can admire train memorabilia and, on weekends from April to November, take a 10-mile round-trip train ride to Cuzco.

On special weekends, “train robberies” are perpetrated by McKnight’s Rangers, re-enactors on horseback. The next “robberies” will be on May 23-25.

The museum is in the 1907 Monon Depot on State Road 56. For more information, call 800-74-TRAIN or log on to

Wine lovers will enjoy French Lick Winery’s spacious tasting room, gift shop and Vintage Café. The wine cake is worth tasting, too. This moist pink cake tastes like a Grape Nehi soft drink for those old enough to remember that soda.

Located in the former Kimball piano factory, the winery sits back from State Road 56. For more information, call 888-494-6380 or log on to

If you like outdoor fun, you will love Patoka Lake, 8,800 acres of “water wonderland” amid a 26,000-acre property that accommodates boating, fishing, water-skiing, camping, hiking, biking, archery, swimming and picnicking.

Houseboats, party barges and pontoon boats can be rented at the marina, located at 2291 N. Dillard Road in Birdseye. For more information, call 888-819-6916 or log on to

Springs Valley Lake, also called Tucker Lake, is six miles south of French Lick on County Road 550 West. It offers hiking, primitive camping, bicycling and fishing, but only using electric-motor boats. For more information, call 812-275-5987.

For those who prefer climate-controlled recreational activities, Big Splash Adventure is a new 40,000 square-foot indoor water park and 154-room hotel a stone’s throw from French Lick Springs on W. State Road 56. For more information, call 877-936-3866 or log on to

If you’re up for exploring, seek out the Lost River at the “Rise at Orangeville.” This Registered Natural Landmark is seven miles west of West Baden via State Road 56 and State Road 150 to County Road 550 West. This road follows the river.

At the stop sign in Orangeville, the river vanishes beneath a rock wall, part of southern Indiana’s underground “karst” system. You can hear, but not see, falling water. There is no park, not even a picnic table—just a curiosity of nature.

Orange County festivities

From mid-May through late October, the Orange County Home Grown Farmers Market is open in Orleans on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until noon and in French Lick, next to the Railway Museum, on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. For more information about both farmers markets, call 812-732-5877 or log on to

Bluegrass fans will want to be on the Orleans town square on June 13-15 for the Lotus Dickey Hometown Music and Arts Reunion. For more information about this outdoor concert, call 812-723-4318 or log on to

The last week of July finds youngsters grooming their prize calves and rabbits, and homemakers baking pies for the Orange County 4-H Fair in Paoli. Events include truck and tractor pulls, and a lip sync contest. For more information, call the Orange County Purdue Extension Office at 812-732-7107 or log on to

The Orange County Pumpkin Festival rolls around the end of September and runs through the first weekend of October. There is a parade in French Lick on the first Sunday in October, and downtown you will find a flea market, carnival rides, food stands and nightly entertainment. For more information, call 812-936-2405.

Orange County directions

Orange County lies west of Salem and south of Bloomington. State Road 37, State Road 56 and State Road 150 converge at the 1850 Greek Revival courthouse in Paoli, the county seat.

Besides the resorts at French Lick and West Baden, lodging can be found at numerous motels and inns. Cabins can be rented at Lake Patoka and some private campgrounds. For more information, log on to the Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site at

From Indianapolis, Orange County can be reached via State Road 37 South, 108 miles to Paoli. French Lick is 11 miles west of Paoli on State Road 56. From New Albany, Paoli is 44 miles via I-265 West and I-64 West to the Greenville/Paoli exit then State Road 150 to State Road 56.

From southwestern Indiana, be alert to a perplexing road change. From I-64 East, exit 79 puts drivers on a brand new road called State Road 37, which becomes State Road 145 to French Lick. This is not to be confused with the old section of State Road 37 at exit 86 that has now been renamed State Road 237, but becomes State Road 37 again farther north toward Paoli. The new stretch of State Road 37, built to funnel travelers to the resorts, is not included in any of the 2009 editions of the Indiana state maps or atlases that I found nor on MapQuest online or in the Garmin GPS system.

Orange County Mass times

Eastern Daylight Mass times for area Catholic parishes are as follows:

  • Our Lady of the Springs Church, 8796 W. State Road 56, French Lick—Masses are scheduled on Saturday at 5 p.m., and on Sunday at 7:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. For more information, call 812-936-4568.
  • Our Lord Jesus Christ the King Church, Highway 150 E., 833 S. Triangle Road, Paoli—Mass is scheduled on Sunday at 9 a.m. For more information, call 812-936-4568.
  • St. Vincent de Paul Church, 1723 I St., Bedford—Masses are scheduled on Saturday at 5 p.m. and on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. For more information, call 812-275-6539.
  • St. Joseph Church, 341 S. State Road 66, Marengo, two miles south of the traffic light in Crawford County—Mass is scheduled on Sunday at 9:15 a.m. For more information, call 812-347-2326.
  • St. Mary Church, 777 S. 11th St., in Mitchell. Father Richard Eldred, the pastor, celebrates the weekend Mass there at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday.

(Patricia Happel Cornwell of Corydon is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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