BY ELIZABETH GRANGER AND KAREN WEIK
Southern Indiana is home to a treasure chest of visitor experiences, but none so rich as French Lick and surrounding Orange County.
An hour south of Bloomington, this year-round destination boasts four seasons of fun and dazzles with two of Indiana’s crown jewels—for over a century now—French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel. Plus, where else can you find a sanctuary for African animals like elephants and giraffes alongside the Polar Express?
Once known for its medicinal waters, by the end of the 1800s, French Lick had 14 trains arriving daily, bringing wealthy guests to indulge in her two sumptuous hotels. But by the mid-1990s, economic depression and decades of decline had taken a toll. That’s when Bill and Gayle Cook, a Hoosier couple dedicated to restoring historic landmarks, stepped in and stepped up. They spent millions returning the two Indiana gems to their former opulence. Today, guests enjoy luxury and high-end service at both properties, complete with a casino, providing something for all ages.
“We are seeing more and more families traveling with multiple generations,” said Dyan Duncan, Director of Marketing for French Lick Resort. “Families can enjoy group activities like horseback riding, bowling, golf or even FootGolf together, and the kids can take advantage of the KidsFest programming while adults visit the casino, enjoy a nice dinner or relax in the spa.”
But a world-class resort is just the beginning for this county in South Central Indiana. Big Splash Adventure Indoor Water Park and Hotel is kid-tested and approved for all year fun. Or, for those seeking outdoor water recreation, there’s Patoka Lake—Indiana’s second largest body of water—for water-skiing, boating, houseboat rentals, one-of-a-kind floating cabins and wine cruises to suit every fancy. And Patoka Lake Winery, across the street from the marina, serves award-winning wine in a setting of rustic charm. (Brides-to-be take note, their event center is highly sought-after too!)
Speaking of wine—one of the state’s best, and a premier member of the Upland Wine Trail, is French Lick Winery and sister distillery, Spirits of French Lick. For over 20 years, John and Kim Doty have been creating best-selling varietals and libations enjoyed across the Midwest and beyond. Their Vintage Café offers mouth-watering Italian fare to boot.
But remember the African animals and Polar Express? Yes, both are here. Orange County boasts two signature experiences few places can rival. Beautiful Wilstem Ranch, situated between French Lick and Paoli, hosts an ever- expanding sanctuary for elephants and other exotic animals, with plans for a drive-through safari park. Up-close-and- personal interaction with the animals is a once-in-a-lifetime memory-maker. Fall 2018 brought Jeff Watson and his grizzly bears to Wilstem Ranch, for what Watson calls, “a safe, unique, educational experience”.
Flipping the seasonal coin to winter, and another must- do experience in Orange County, all aboard for French Lick Scenic Railway’s Polar Express®! Just like the name and story invoke, this pajama-clad holiday train ride sells out every year in November and December and is not to be missed! (Check out their website for details on a new dinner train too!) Then, slide over and spend the day skiing or tubing at Paoli Peaks. One of only two ski areas in Indiana, families and skiers from as far away as Alabama trek here for affordable winter recreation and shorter lift-lines.
And what about basketball great, Larry Bird? French Lick was his home too. Find sports memorabilia from his glory days playing for Indiana State University and later,
in his professional career, for the Boston Celtics, at several area eateries. His former home, now known as Legend of French Lick, operates as an event and entertainment center. You can book over-night stays there too, or even try on his Olympic jacket at local restaurant, 33 Brick Street.
Rounding out this prime vacation destination are three bucket-list golf courses, a top-notch museum (with an out-of-this-world diorama celebrating the county’s circus history), several restaurants listed in the Indiana Foodways Alliance food trails—including local favorite, Paoli’s co- operative Lost River Market, for homemade cinnamon rolls and huge cookies—to unique shopping experiences, wood carving, seasonal festivities and much more.
As two sisters said, who come from Kentucky each year, gathering their grandchildren for a “Grandma Camp,” French Lick is their number one choice for fun.
“Family is very important,” says one of the grandmothers. “It’s all about making memories.” Indeed. For your next memory-making trip, look no further than French Lick and Orange County, Indiana!