West Baden Springs Hotel is nothing if not a survivor. It’s lived through fire, the 1929 stock market crash, and neglect. Marveling at the six-story, free-span dome—believed to be the world’s largest until the Houston Astrodome came along, and at one time called the “Eighth Wonder of the World”—it’s hard to believe this magnificent structure was in utter shambles 30 years ago.
Partnered with French Lick Springs Hotel a mile west on State Road 56, West Baden Springs Hotel offers a luxury resort experience in Southern Indiana’s otherwise humble Orange County. The first glimpse from the approach is outstanding, and it’s hard not to be impressed when the soaring big-top facade comes into view.
The French Lick property dates back to 1845 and West Baden to 1855, but the dome as we know it today didn’t take shape until 1902. Natural mineral springs are the region’s claim to fame, and for decades, drew visitors to reap the reputed health benefits of “taking the waters.” (In fact, “West Baden” is an Americanized tribute to Wiesbaden, a spa town in Germany.)
At one time owned by former Indianapolis Mayor Tom Taggart, the French Lick Springs Hotel has operated continuously since its founding, hosting an illustrious roster of celebrities, politicians and gangsters. West Baden hasn’t been quite as lucky, falling on hard times before finally closing to the public in the 1980s. The story has a happy ending, though. Indiana Landmarks came to the rescue in the mid-1990s, and in 2005, Bloomington-based Cook Group Inc. bought both the West Baden and French Lick hotels, pouring more than $500 million into massive restoration efforts. The gold leaf–graced French Lick Springs Hotel reopened with a new 51,000-square-foot casino in 2006, and the renovated West Baden Springs Hotel followed a year later.
Although the resort’s outdoor pools, golf courses, and hiking trails are best enjoyed during the warm-weather months, winter proposes visits steeped in an allure all their own. Guests of either property can make use of the amenities at both hotels with a shuttle service running between the two for easy access. Through January 7, a last gasp of Christmas at West Baden includes stunning holiday decorations and a nightly light show, along with the Indiana Artist Holiday Exhibition presented by the Brown County Art Guild.
Historic walking tours provide a fascinating way to get the lay of the land, and visitors can still take the waters with spa mineral baths (shell out an extra $5 for the aromatherapy option). Horseback riding at the West Baden Stables is offered daily, as long as the temperature stays above 30 degrees, and thrill seekers can journey to Paoli Peaks 10 miles to the east for skiing, snowboarding, and tubing adventures.
Being stuck inside here certainly isn’t a bad thing. The West Baden atrium feels like a giant living room, with cozy seating arrangements and live piano music, while the French Lick casino, indoor pools and hot tubs at both properties, a small bowling alley at French Lick, and a handful of shopping venues fill out laid-back itineraries nicely. (P.S.: Eddie Money plays the French Lick Hoosier Ballroom on January 19.)
Food-wise, the two hotels cover nearly a dozen on-site dining options, from upscale steakhouses to casual bar fare, pizza, ice cream, and cafe snacks. Or, wander into the tiny town of French Lick itself for additional small-town food and drink options.
For more information, call 888-936-9360 or visit frenchlick.com.