|By Monique Curet, The Columbus Dispatch,
OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 19, 2008 - WEST BADEN SPRINGS, Ind. -- Southern Indiana might not be the first place that comes to mind if you're looking for a luxe resort with a timeless elegance.
But think again.
West Baden Springs Hotel -- reopened in 2007 after a $500 million renovation -- is a sanctuary steeped in history. Its old-school opulence harks back to the grandeur of an earlier time.
Passing under the graceful arches and onto the brick roadway of the West Baden property, it's as if you've turned back the clock to the early 20th century. On the left, walking paths crisscross lush gardens. To the right, the rocking chairs of the hotel's veranda beckon.
One look at the place makes you want to exhale deeply.
But the most spectacular sight is yet to come. West Baden's six-story domed atrium sets the tone for the resort, with tables for chess around the edges and low-key musical performances luring visitors to pause and rest on comfy sofas and chairs. Small shops selling everything from coffee to Versace sunglasses are situated around the perimeter.
West Baden has a reputation as an escape; it's where the ruling class came to get away from it all in the early 1900s. The hotel first opened in the 1850s, and by the latter part of that century, seven railroad lines serviced the area, delivering passengers seeking tranquillity and the area's mineral waters, said to have healing powers.
The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1901 but reopened the next year in a bigger and better incarnation -- including a stock brokerage and the domed atrium, complete with free-flying birds. West Baden Springs advertised the potency of its mineral baths and drinking waters, citing them as a cure for all kinds of ailments.
Among the guests were Al Capone and professional baseball teams holding spring training. But the hotel couldn't survive the 1929 stock market crash and closed its doors in 1932.
In the decades that followed, the hotel was variously under the ownership of the Jesuit order of Roman Catholic priests, a private college and a real-estate development company. It was vacant and deteriorating when the Cook family bought it in 2005 and began restoration.
West Baden Springs, which reopened as a hotel last year for the first time in 75 years, is a National Historic Landmark. During the renovation, no attention to detail was spared.
Every decorating choice, from carpet to window dressings and lamps, manages to convey a sense of history and luxury. Public areas feature marble floors with mosaic-tile inlays, and public areas and guest rooms are decorated with photos and postcards featuring scenes from the hotel's heyday.
My husband and I visited West Baden Springs during the July Fourth weekend not sure what to expect.
The hotel looked lovely and welcoming on its Web site, but it was hard to envision such an oasis in the middle of the Indiana countryside.
The hotel lived up to the hype, however. The five-hour drive from Columbus was just enough distance to give us a sense of escape, and the hotel's amenities made for a relaxing and somewhat decadent weekend.
West Baden Springs offers plenty of leisurely ways to pass the time: Relax with a drink and take in the spectacular sight of the atrium; sip afternoon tea; take a carriage ride or tour of the property; lie by the indoor or outdoor pool.
Or visit the spa, a 14,000-square-foot facility that still offers the mineral baths for which the hotel initially gained fame.
The spa also boasts "tranquillity rooms" for both men and women awaiting services, saunas in the locker rooms, and touches such as heated massage tables and warm towel wraps for your feet during a massage.
If active pursuits are more your style, many choices abound. We took a 2 1/2 -hour train ride on the French Lick Scenic Railway, operated by the Indiana Railway Museum. It was a family-friendly (read noisy) and ambling ride on vintage train cars that nevertheless was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
West Baden Springs is nicely balanced by its sister property, French Lick Springs Hotel, just down the road and linked by a free shuttle service. Where West Baden Springs offers tranquillity, French Lick has a bit of glitz and glam.
Its casino is small but serviceable and often plays host to entertainers. This month's headliners include the Beach Boys and Crosby & Nash and Charley Pride.
French Lick also offers horse-trail rides, bicycle rentals, a bowling alley and the 18-hole Donald Ross golf course. The resort's Pete Dye golf course is slated to open next year and will be the site of the 43rd PGA Championship in 2010.
Also, a 60,000-square-foot sports complex includes an indoor putting green, driving range and tennis courts.
Guests at Baden Springs have full access to the amenities at French Lick, and vice versa.
West Baden Springs has limited dining choices: The Cafe at Sinclair's serves breakfast and lunch daily, and Sinclair's offers fine dining in the evenings. Ballard's Bar & Lounge in the atrium has a more casual menu, while two smaller venues (one by the pool) serve snacks. French Lick has different choices, including a buffet and a steakhouse.
If West Baden Springs sounds too good to be true, consider this caveat: Luxury doesn't come cheap.
The extras that helped make the stay enjoyable -- a massage and afternoon tea -- were pricey. A 50-minute massage was $130, before tip. And afternoon tea for two (where the food quantity, but not quality, left something to be desired) set us back $70, plus tip.
One more quibble: The hotel charges a resort fee of $12 a day. It covers several items, including wireless Internet access, concierge service and access to the swimming pools, which seem as if they should be included in the room rate.
But overall, West Baden Springs delivers if you're looking for a getaway within driving distance that can transport you to a more genteel time with the added benefit of modern luxuries.
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