What a Wonderful World!
By Sarah Ivens
I nearly called this article ‘Weird and Wonderful’ for never have I stayed in a place so uniquely fascinating, bewildering and beguiling. Set off a leafy, twisty road in a hidden part of quiet Indiana, the French Lick Resort is as beautifully strange as it’s name.
As soon as I checked in at the enclave’s top notch hotel, West Baden, time stood still and I fell down the rabbit hole. Leaving modern cars, computers and cares outside, guests stumble into a gigantic glass atrium, the largest freestanding dome in the United States. A woman is playing the harp in one corner. A gigantic fireplace, big enough to hold 14ft logs, crackles in another. Clinking cups echo musically as an elegant English afternoon tea, complete with fine china and divine cakes, is served for the peckish. Pacing the ornate tiled floors are dapper looking gents clutching golf clubs, wearing big grins; while ladies doze on chaise longues under sparkling chandeliers, paperbacks resting in their hands.
There are no clocks, no televisions, no overbearing tour guides whipping people into action. Guests are left to be in the moment – or in 1902, when the resort first opened for business, with journalists of the day declaring it the eight wonder of the world.
The resort’s natural mineral water and spa baths were alleged to cure almost anything and had been drawing crowds to the area for 100 previous to that, but when the slick new owners started investing their fortunes at the turn of the 20th century, it soon became the place to be – a palace of parties Gatsby would have been proud of. Clark Gable loved it there, as did John Barrymore and Bing Crosby and from it’s opening to 1931, it ran like a dream. Amenities included a casino, a live theater and an opera.
Tomato juice was served for the first time ever at the hotel in 1917, invented by chef Louis Perrin when he ran out of orange juice and needed an alternative at breakfast for his demanding guests. When not dining, lucky guests had their choice of a natatorium, two golf courses, bicycling on a double-decked covered oval bicycle track that was the largest in the country, and horseback riding. To cater to their well-heeled clientele, the hotel even provided a bank, a stock brokerage and a trolley bus between amenities. Back then, the enchanting glass dome that had hypnotized me when I arrived was filled with palm trees and free range exotic birds.
Legend has it that today, at night, ghosts of depressed money men, not birds, have free roam of the atrium. According to locals, many of the country’s richest men were staying there, in bedrooms overlooking the lobby, the day of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and decided to jump from their balconies rather than face financial ruin. The beautiful people were finished, and sadly two years later, so was the hotel.
But in the nineties, an Indiana local – who happened to have a few hundred million to spare – polished this sparkling gem back to life and turned it once again into a decadent resort fit for kings, queens… and Willie Nelson, who was a recent guest.
Famous golf course architect Pete Dye designed his masterpiece and namesake course here in 2009, and it’s now a constant winner of top venue awards in golfing magazines and will play host to next hear’s Senior PGA Championship. The two spas, one at West Baden and one at French Lick, are homages to taste and tranquility, each possessing outdoor swimming pools, which provide perfect settings for a re-read of Tender Is The Night, and a cheeky swig of an Old Fashioned. The resort steakhouse, named 1875 after the year the Kentucky Derby first ran, is a haven of comfort food and worry-erasing wine, while supper up at the Pete Dye Mansion offers mouthwatering BBQ and sundaes overlooking rolling green hills and the 18th hole. Horse-drawn carriages can trot you back to your bed at night, or can deliver you to one of the many white rocking chairs lined up overlooking the fragrant English garden fountains, waiting to swing you to sleep at sunset.
The most remarkable thing about this decadent step back in time for me was remembering how to unwind properly. With patchy network reception and a plethora of old school pursuits to indulge in (anyone for billiards?), it was easy forget the mad dash of the world around me and slow down and relax. In my little slice of old Indiana, I found a new me. And I liked it.