Travel, Etc. --> Southern Indiana
A Southern Indiana Road Trip
New Harmony, French Lick and West Baden Springs
For a short “Indiana road trip” getaway last month, Linda and I decided to visit two historic Indiana towns that we had never seen … New Harmony, the home of two Utopian experiments at the beginning of the 19th century, and French Lick, to see the newly restored West Baden Springs Hotel.
We chose the Interstate route to New Harmony and stopped for lunch in Jeffersonville at the King Fish restaurant right on the Ohio river. It seems that King Fish is a Louisville area institution that has been around since 1948. And it was a little like stepping into the past. It reminded me of the kind of seafood restaurant my parents took us to in Florida on vacation back in the 1960s … or maybe the old Key West Shrimp House in Indianapolis. The menu is extensive and filled with the usual assortment of fish and shellfish, most of it fried. The view of Louisville across the river from the deck tables was beautiful, the weather was nice, and for $28 we were served enough fried shrimp, cole slaw, onion rings and crinkle cut French fries to feed a family of four. So, if you're ever passing through Jeffersonville and want a deep-fried trip down memory lane, it's worth a stop … probably falls in the embarrassing guilty pleasure department.
New Harmony is not exactly next door. Located in the southwestern-most tip of Indiana near the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio rivers, it seems pretty remote today. But if you traveled by keelboat, it was pretty accessible in 1814 when the first Harmonites arrived. For us, it was a three and a half hour drive. A town with only a thousand residents and one stop light, New Harmony is mostly a museum, filled with preserved buildings and artifacts left behind from the very important place in history it occupied from 1814 until the 1860s. Harmonites and their charismatic leader, George Rapp, were a splinter sect of the German Lutheran church. They had first founded a town in Pennsylvania in 1804 and moved on to Indiana in 1814. They were pacifists, held all property in common and since they believed that the second coming was imminent, they advocated celibacy. Frankly, the whole thing sounds a lot like Jonestown without the Kool-Aid, but they were industrious, they built fine homes and churches, manufactured and sold products, and were so prosperous that they became the envy of the entire region. By 1824, Christ had not returned and George Rapp sold the entire town and took his flock back to Pennsylvania to build yet another town, ostensibly to be closer to Eastern markets for their products, but I'm guessing that keeping his sexually frustrated flock busy by having them build yet another town may have had something to do with it, too. The buyers were Robert Owen, a Welsh utopian thinker and Robert Maclure, the president of the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia. The utopian society they founded failed within two years, but the famous scientists that Maclure recruited as residents stayed and along with Robert Owen's sons, they turned New Harmony into a center for scientific research and the first home of the U.S. Geological Survey. David Dale Owen became the state geologist for three states including Indiana, and his older brother Robert Dale Owen, a member of Congress, went on to found the Smithsonian Institute.– pretty impressive stuff. And the Owen family is still active in New Harmony. Over the last 50 years, Jane Owen and her late husband Kenneth Dale Owen, have been instrumental in the preservation and restoration of New Harmony. The 92 year old Jane Owen even owns the New Harmony Inn where we stayed and the excellent Red Geranium restaurant where we dined.
We arrived on Sunday just in time for the 2 p.m. tour that originates in the contrastingly contemporary visitors center. There are two tours each day – at 10 am and 2 pm, and since many of the historic buildings are locked, it is the best way to really experience the history and learn about the past. The town itself is filled with beautiful gardens, walking trails, sculpture gardens and Harmonite buildings. Our docent, Linda Wallmer, was a wealth of knowledge and kept us very engaged for almost 2 1/2 hours, walking around the small town and taking us through the historic buildings. Her passion for history was only rivaled by her knowledge of New Harmony, and while we’re sure that all of their docents are good, it would be worth a call to find out her scheduled tour times.
After absorbing about as much history as possible, we checked into the very peaceful New Harmony Inn, a 90 room inn located in a wooded area overlooking a small lake, complete with a walking trail around it. Our room was very nice, with Shaker inspired furniture and a lovely deck facing the lake. We even enjoyed a dip in the indoors pool, which also doubled as the location for the local water aerobics class the next morning. (This is a really small town!)
Dinner in the nearby Red Geranium was as enjoyable as we had been told to expect. And a pretty amazing find in a town this small, although it certainly looks like they do a lot of wedding and conference business. The dining room is beautiful but we opted to sit on the shaded and private patio, enjoying the sounds of a water feature and the birds. We had pre-selected their one night dinner and room package that provided lodging along with a three-course menu option that allowed us to select from the entire menu for only $219.95 inclusive. Chef Brent Tharpe has created a very elegant menu that would not be out of place in any major city and pairs it with a very extensive and well chosen wine list that really centers on new world wines. In fact they have a Wine Society and do monthly wine dinners.
We began with glasses of Ponzi Pinot Gris with our calamari and crab cake appetizers, and shared a wonderful traditional spinach salad with a Catalina dressing. We paired the main courses with a bottle of Bogle Phantom that was fairly priced at $39. My 12-ounce grilled pork chop was served with potato mousseline, caramelized onions and French green beans and and apple purée … very nice. Linda chose the most interesting dish, a Chicken Saltimbocca with prosciutto, spinach, provolone and sautéed mushrooms that was served with matchstick potatoes... excellent. We topped it all off by sharing a decadent tiramisu and then by taking a long walk at dusk. We walked through the Roofless Church, Carol's Garden, traced our way through the entire Cathedral Labyrinth and wound up in the Harmonite Cemetery. The Harmonites didn't believe in grave stones or funerals, so the grave yard is a large meadow surrounded by a six foot brick wall with only one entrance. The meadow also contains two Indian burial mounds. Reverend Rapp chose the site because he felt that it was already holy ground... a little spooky in the late evening shadows. The next morning, after a fabulous breakfast at the Red Geranium, we took the 95-mile, two-hour drive to French Lick to see what all the fuss is about. We had originally thought about spending the night at the newly-restored West Baden Springs Hotel but since we don't play golf or really enjoy gambling, it just didn't make sense. In retrospect, the refurbished hotel was so beautiful we really wished we had planned to spend the night.
Our first stop was the French Lick Springs Hotel. Originally built in 1901, it has been painstakingly restored to its original grandeur. And, it was pretty grand,
with 443 rooms, gardens, mosaic flooring, acres of gold gilding and extensive ceiling murals in the lobby and public spaces. The sulfur spring in the gardens is the same one I remember from a visit when I was ten...Pluto Water is a smell you don't forget. They don't call it that anymore but I remember my Mom bought a green bottle of it that had a devil logo on the label. The new additions are an extensive conference center and a 50,000 square foot casino where Linda and I once again reaffirmed the fact that we don't really enjoy gambling. They do have a small non-smoking area that encouraged us to feed a few dollars into the slot machines, but I'm guessing that on a Saturday night, you would have to burn your clothes after crossing the smoke-filled main casino to get there. It was Monday at noon so it may not have been a typical crowd, but our strongest impression was that of our own "youthfulness" compared to the rest of the gamblers.
The crown jewel of this project has to be the West Baden Springs Hotel. Billed as the eighth wonder of the world when it was built in 1902, it has been restored and refurbished in a "cost is no object" fashion that is simply amazing. The six-story domed atrium spans over 200 feet and all the elaborately gilded columns, Victorian light fixtures and mosaic floors have been restored to their original luster. The entire hotel is simply filled with amazing classical murals, bas relief sculptures, stained glass and wonderful Victorian details. We're talking cloth hand towels in the public restrooms here! We had lunch at the Café Sinclair in the Atrium and decided to return this fall for a night in the hotel with enough time to wander the vast gardens and check out the Spa, multiple pools and the formal restaurant. All in all, a fun weekend … once again proving that there are interesting things to do in Indiana … you just have to look for them.
August 19, 2009