02 February 2016

Jan 4, 2016 INDIANA French Lick 3 - Birthday Day

We continued our visit in French Lick/West Baden, Indiana with breakfast in the Cafe at Sinclair's. It was a small menu. I had hoped for something special like eggs sardou (poached eggs over artichoke heart with spinach/hollandaise sauce). Mike ordered the pancakes and I had bacon (my downfall) and over-medium eggs with potatoes. Basic, but did the trick to fill us up.
We had heard about Table One, a small group dining experience presented at this hotel. It is something like Zazio's chef's table back in Kalamazoo. We wondered if we might attend for my BD dinner that night, but alas not happening on a Monday night.

Our waiter did take us into the private room though and what a wow factor. The table was set for eight with elegant Versace dinnerware. The room was small, no space for cooking. We wondered where the cooking demo would be. Our waiter flipped a switch and suddenly you could see through a window wall into the kitchen. How dramatic was that. We were sorry to miss it.

Next we hopped in the car and drove around the area a bit to see the country side. It was quite hilly with lots of trees. Bet it is lovely in summer. We checked out downtown French Lick. There were some cute shops, a Harley-Davidson dealer, and a few restaurants. All closed at the moment.
We cross the street to see the sister hotel of West Baden Springs. It is the French Lick Resort, just a mile from our place. Normally we would walk that distance, but although not snowy, it was pretty chilly. This hotel was also built in fine fashion in 1901 and has been open continuously except for a short time in 2005. At that time the Cook Group did a top-to-bottom refurbishment including more than 5,000 square feet of new gold leaf and other remarkable ornamental design feature updates.
This resort has a few more stores and a 51,000 square foot casino. Of course, we had to drop a few bucks there, but we held it down to $25. At one point I was ahead by $3, but dumped it all back in. Bad girl, bad girl, whatcha gonna do? One nice thing is this casino was not overwhelming with smoke. They had a smoke-free area, but no need to huddle in there. The whole space was quite clean and fresh

We also discovered a miniature of our hotel. Here you can really see the dome and grounds.

This resort was also the first place tomato juice was served. In 1917 Louis Perrin ran out of OJ and needed a quick substitute for the breakfast menu. He combined squeezed tomatoes, sugar, and a special sauce. It was a hit with his guests and word quickly spread about the tomato juice cocktail.

Next stop was the French Lick Winery. We are not enthralled with most mid-west wineries after living in California for 20 years, but we try to support the industry. This winery was cute with a lunch cafe included. They also sold fudge and ice cream. We bought two bottles of wine, one called French Lick Tickle. It was a pink moscato. Something a little naughty sounding about that one, so just had to buy it.

On our way back we saw an old bank building just inside the hotel gate. It had apparently been active until recently. Visa and MasterCard stickers were still on the door. Peeking inside odds and ends were strewn about including some old whisky jugs. The original beautiful safe remained open but empty.

Back at the hotel, Mike was ready for a nap and I had a spa appointment waiting. Down the spa hallway was a luxurious set-up of private rooms and a wide range of soothing potions and options. I love massages, so I tried the hot stone version for the first time. It was pretty wonderful.

Smooth basalt lava stones were soaked in water at 120F and then kneaded over my body. A little different then a hand massage, but I liked it for a change of pace. Before and after the treatment there was a lounge with a variety of refreshing beverages, soft music, and a two fireplaces. Very relaxing!

They also offer a mineral bath treatment here, a left over from long ago days. One of the ladies in the lounge just raved about it. She had had two that day. There was also a pool and hot tub one floor down. On the way down was a cute little bubble chandelier.

Mike was still resting so I went on a photo shoot outside. With the sun now shining, it had warmed a bit. There was a little graveyard on the hill next to the drive. I wondered what that was all about. Turned out to be graves of 39 Jesuits priest and seminarians who died over the 30 years when they possessed the property.

There is also a short trolley on track between the two hotels. It happened to be pulling into the depot station as I walked around the grounds. It was decorated in holiday lights and greenery. Very cute.

I saw a building marked Billiards and Bowling Pavilion. It is closed at this time. But looking into the windows, it appears to be under renovation. It is rumored this game room also housed illegal gambling and only men were allowed in according to the info plaque.
Another small building and a domed stone gazebo were originally spring houses, each with waters with different healing purposes. But they had been sealed during the Jesuit occupation.

I'm not a golfer, but I could see the Pete Dye, the Donald Ross, and the Valley Links golf courses from afar. The Senior PGA Championship was played at the Dye in 2015.

On the way back I walked the long porch with its wood rocking chairs. Inside I found the library with its big fireplace, desks, and books. There was much stained glass to be admired also, most installed by the Jesuits. All and all, this was a lovely and peaceful place to spend a few days.

For dinner we went to the Sinclair Restaurant. At breakfast we only saw one other couple. For dinner, there were only three groups seated. So we got very special attention. Our cutsie waitress was originally from Latvia.

I really wanted Prosecco for dinner, but they were out. They then offered a few bottles not on the menu. One was Di Barolo Asti!!!! Can you believe it? I recognized the label immediately. It was from a winery we had visited in Italy and an Asti that we had tasted there. No doubt, that is what we ordered and so enjoyed.

Again, we shared a shrimp cocktail. Mike had an eight ounce filet mignon with garlic potatoes and green beans. I had a vegetable Napoleon. They brought Mike a serrated knife. He really did not need it as the steak was so tender. But I used it to cut my thick portobello mushroom layers. I ordered cheese cake to take back to the room for dessert later. I also got a complimentary chocolate cupcake with candle for a birthday surprise.

We took a quick walk outside to see the sunken garden light show. It was quite cold but our hearts were warmed at the sight. It was very special and very roman-tique!
All in all it was a fun and lovely couple of days for a birthday outing. We were in good company. Others who have visited here are composers Irving Berlin and Paul Dresser (who wrote Indiana's state song On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away at this hotel). Boxers Joe Louis, John Sullivan and James Corbett trained here. Al Capone and General John Pershing also stayed here (I'm sure not at the same time!).

The next morning we bade goodbye to French Lick.

PS - Lick is a geographical term. It is a place where animals lick exposed natural deposits of salt. French Lick was originally a French trading post built near a spring and salt lick. The town was called Salt Spring on a map drawn in 1937.

01 February 2016

Jan 4, 2016 INDIANA French Lick 2 - The Dome is Our Home

... at least for two nights of celebration. Having a birthday on January 4th is good and bad news. The bad news is everyone is partied out from the holidays, so not much enthusiasm to celebrate my BD. The good news is when traveling there are no lines (like at Disneyland) and it is not crowded. Yet festive holiday decorations are still up for us to enjoy. Bonus: prices are cheaper!!

The West Baden Springs Hotel is fabulous, even if you are not a golfer and even if it is the middle of winter. As we walked in the door we were met by two young bellhops with wide smiles, behind a huge wood-carved desk.
They directed us across the floor of the hemisphere dome. Three other arched entries lead to the mineral springs, the long front porch with rocking chairs (similar to the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island), and the front desk.

In the middle of the floor of the dome stood a huge Christmas tree. The six-story high structure was lined with balconies decorated with boughs of greenery and huge Christmas ornaments hanging beneath them. We have been to a number of historic hotels, but have never seen anything like this. Jaw-dropping! Here Mike is waving from our sixth floor balcony.
When built in 1855 as a health resort by Dr. John Lane, it was originally called the Mile Lick Hotel. It was also the largest free-spanning dome in the world. It is 200 feet in diameter at floor level. At that time it was dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World." It remained the largest in the U.S. until 1955 when the Colliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina was built.

Dr. Lane also changed the name of part of the town from French Lick (which still exists right "next door") to West Baden, after the famous mineral springs in Wiesbaden, Germany.

In 1888, Lee W. Sinclair purchased the hotel. In 1901 a fire ravaged the structure (no fatalities, thank goodness). That offered the opportunity to rebuild the site as a sophisticated resort destination rather than a health spa. He also developed a nearby opera house, golf course, pony and bicycle track, ball field, and lovely grounds to complete the package.
In 1923, the property was bought by Ed Ballard and it became a gambling center. 

Then in the stock market crash of 1934, he sold the hotel to the religious order of the Jesuits for $1. They eliminated many of the fine amenities and operated a seminary school, known as West Baden College, for 30 years. In 1983, it became Northwood Institute, a private college. From 1985 until 1992 it remained vacant and neglected to the point where it was unsafe for entry.

In the next incarnation of the life of this structure, the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana bought it for $250,000. They invested $140,000 and an anonymous donor contributed $70,000. The monies stabilized the structure and at that point it was put up for sale to investors. It was a package deal for this hotel, along with the French Lick Springs Hotel, another historic inn located one mile away in French Lick.

The Cook Group (a Bloomington medical device and supply company) and other interested parties (such as Donald Trump--glad he did not get it!!) looked at the package. Cook ultimately purchased the properties. Then in 2005, they invested $500 MILLION (that's half a billion!) to complete the historic restoration project and grounds improvements. They did so in a most exquisite fashion.

Somewhere along the line there were as many as 780 rooms. Today half of the 243 luxury suites face inside the dome and half face the lovely outside grounds. We had an inside room on the 6th (and top) floor. Our room included a tub, separate marble shower, separate toilet room, bar, sitting area, king-size bed, and two windows and a balcony overlooking the entire dome interior. When we got to our room there were birthday roses waiting. A nice touch!

Public areas featured the original long wood reception desk with nearby vault, a colorful fireplace that holds 14-foot logs, spa with natural mineral baths (more tomorrow), complete circle walkways around each floor, museum featuring the history of the hotel (antique logo dinnerware, barber chair, awards, and much more), Women's Golf Hall of Fame, library, billiard and game room, a few stores, four dining choices and more. The lighting fixtures and mosaic tile were also awesome.

The dome is, of course, the outstanding feature. During the day you see the sky through clear windows. At night are lights changing reflective colors. The interior design of the dome is elaborate with paintings of period men and women and gold leaf decorations (see our balcony photo above). Every detail is top notch and lovely.

Another feature I love is that every few yards around the circular hall are compasses in the carpet. Although there are no windows to the outdoors to orient yourself directionally, as you walk the hall you can keep track of where north is by the change in the carpet design.
After exploring the many nooks and crannies of this circular wonder, we stopped at Ballard's Bar, located in the dome, for a few cocktails and snacks. We shared a wonderful shrimp cocktail and soup-and-sandwich. Back in our room I sat on our wooden balcony floor (no chair quite fit out the door) and people-watched for a long time while Mike read. It was so relaxing and entertaining, I had a hard time breaking way for bedtime.
In 1974 this hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, became a National Historic Landmark in 1987, and is an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

For more info at Wikipedia, click here.
Here, you will also find books about the history of the hotel.