But hard times found this hotel, too. After gambling was abolished once and for all in 1949, the heyday was over. French Lick Springs Hotel would pass through a series of owners, and suffer the double indignities of ham-fisted modernization and half-hearted renovation attempts before a historic preservation consortium -- with a hard-won casino license in hand -- stepped in for an honest-to-goodness restoration.
Together at last
Today, a new entity in the valley is spreading a broad canopy: French Lick Resort Casino. Under its shade, the two historic hotels that were rivals a century ago are now part of the same $382 million restoration and development effort. They share a central reservations number and signing privileges. French Lick's new full-service spa is already open. West Baden's will be any day now.
The 18 holes at the 1917 Donald Ross Course at French Lick have been fully restored. A second existing 18-hole golf course is being converted to a more challenging 9. And by spring 2008, a third set of links, the new 18-hole Pete Dye Course at French Lick, is scheduled to open.
But they're not kidding themselves. The hotels are grand, the spas plush, the courses challenging. There are fine-dining restaurants, pricey gift shops, billiard rooms, bars and swimming pools here now; and a new entertainment hall where nationally known stars take the stage.
Even with all that, they know it's not enough to really bring these hotels, and this valley, back from the brink permanently. However, the new casino's 42,000-square-foot gaming floor just might.
Maybe this time, the odds, and history itself, will work in French Lick's favor. Its cards, and its money, are on the table.
French Lick and West Baden are located in southern Indiana, about 60 miles northwest of Louisville, the nearest significant airport.
By air: Louisville International airport is served by the major carriers or their short-hop affiliates, with round-trips from Chicago going for about $150.
By car: From Chicago, the trip is some 290 miles each way if you take Interstate Highways 90 East/65 South to Indianapolis and pick up Indiana Highway 37 South to Indiana Highway 56. But there are lots of more scenic, less stressful routes.
French Lick Springs Hotel: On a recent Friday night, I paid $149 for a standard king room in this 433-room hotel. But weekend nights in July could run $169-$249. The room was equipped with flat-screen TV and coffee service, but no fridge or safe.
West Baden Springs Hotel: Although the hotel has 246 rooms and suites, and many overlook the atrium, only 40 have a balcony. I stayed in a balcony room on a recent Saturday night for $325. A flat-screen TV, mini fridge, safe and bathrobes came with the room. On July weekends, standard rooms with views of the grounds may go for $210 a night.
Common to both properties: A mandatory $13-per-night resort fee covers valet parking, admission to fitness center and pools, in-room high-speed Internet and the shuttle that runs between the two hotels every half-hour. Guests have signing privileges at both properties.
1875 Steakhouse in the French Lick Springs Hotel is the sort of place where reproduction leaded-glass windows pick up the light, and Republic of Tea iced tea is served from the bottle with a flourish, as if it were wine. The menu here leads people like me to assume the following logic: If the 8-ounce filet costs $43 anyway, I might as well spend a few more dollars and try the 32-ounce prime Wagyu long-bone rib eye for $52. (Yes, it was worth it.)
The hotel also has places to get coffee, ice cream and pizza. And the Power Plant Lounge features a wall of electrical switches, gauges and transformer boxes -- they don't work anymore, but they're more interesting than any game you might watch on its flat-screen TVs. In the walkway connecting the French Lick Springs Hotel to its casino is the Grand Colonnade Buffet, open for breakfast ($10), lunch ($13) and dinner ($20). In the casino itself, you can get a taco salad and iced tea for less than $10 at Diamond Jim's.
Prices on the Italian-themed menu at Sinclair's in the West Baden Springs Hotel range from $10-$14 for antipasto, $11-$13 for salads, $16-$25 for first courses, $34-$36 for fish courses, and $30-$47 for chicken and meat courses. The Cafe at Sinclair's serves breakfast and lunch. There's also a snack bar for coffee and ice cream. And the hotel's signature bar, Ballard's Lounge, is right in the domed atrium.