Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another article to submit

I'm going to send this one to AOPA Pilot:

One of the challenges that all of us who are passionate about flying face is finding ways to share the experience with our loved ones that possibly are not quite as enamored with the experience. In my case, it is my wife that does not share my love of flying simply for the sake of flying. She does, however, recognize that the airplane provides an efficient means of squeezing interesting trips that would take an entire weekend to accomplish with a car into a single day. With that in mind, I am always on the lookout for destinations that fulfill the following criteria:

  • Close enough to an airport to allow for easy transportation to and from the destination without incurring the additional expense of renting a car or paying for a taxi;
  • Interesting to visit for those that do not consider an aviation museum, fly-in, or $100 hamburger sufficient justification for a trip;
  • Within an hour or so of flying time from home.

Additionally, I require a solid forecast for pleasant flying conditions for the entire day. Too much heat and/or turbulence causes nausea, diversions around threatening looking weather cause anxiety, and strong winds bring stressful takeoffs and landings in our tailwheel RV-6. As you can imagine, the occasions when I have a suitable destination, prefect flying weather, and a lucky symmetry of our time availability are relatively rare.

We recently had just such an occasion, though, and it is this most recent experience that I wish to share with you. I had heard through various sources that a trip to French Lick, Indiana might be just the kind of destination that I look for. The rumor mill had it that easy transportation to and from the airport was provided (gratis!) by the Hotel/Casino in town. A brief internet search confirmed that rumor as fact, and also provided enough of a description of the area to entice me to make the trip at the first opportunity.

The Weather-out-the-Windowtm forecast on the morning of our proposed departure looked eminently flyable, and an ensuing consultation with a higher authority (DUATS) confirmed that the conditions were not only prime for the trip out, but also that they would remain that way for the balance of the day. Looking at the winds and distances involved showed a travel time of 1+15 in the RV-6. While that estimate was right on the border of acceptability, it appeared quite favorable when compared to the 4+20 it would take to go by car. I have learned through 17 years of marriage that when justifying the cost of a plane trip, the wise pilot always stresses the amazing time savings inherent in travel by air.

The wise pilot also remembers to caution his passenger about the risk of drinking too much morning tea prior to departure in a small airplane, and in that task I failed completely. One could argue that the incumbent discomfort she felt during the latter half of the flight presented the perfect opportunity to argue in favor of a faster airplane, but discretion being the better part of valor, I decided against it. Fortunately all turned out well, but I do not plan on making it a habit to arrive in the airport pattern at a blistering 160 knots as I did on that fateful day.

The FBO was kind enough to phone the French Lick Resort to ask that we be picked up at the airport, and just a few minutes later we were loaded up and on the way to town in their plush Buick minivan. The driver of the van was quite cheerful and we enjoyed his descriptions of the local area on the 10 minute drive to the hotel. We also took the opportunity to ask what is probably the most asked question he receives: what in the world does French Lick mean? While I could share the answer with you, I think I will leave it unanswered as an enticement for you to make the trip yourself to find out.

As it turns out, there are two hotels that comprise the Resort: the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Springs Hotel. After inquiring as to what it is we wished to do while in town, the driver advised that since we weren’t interested in going to the casino, we should start with a visit to the West Baden Hotel. Listed as a National Historic Landmark, the West Baden Springs Hotel was rebuilt in 1902 after a fire destroyed the original facility in 1901. It is a very unique structure with its huge, 200’ diameter domed atrium.

While it had fallen into disrepair over the years, it is now in extremely good condition after a full renovation that was completed in May, 2007. After walking around the atrium enjoying the beautiful architecture, we went outside to stroll around the grounds. The weather was perfect for a long walk in the European-style gardens and a few minutes spent sitting by the large garden fountain relaxing to the sound of the water.

After lunch at Sinclair’s, the West Baden’s fine restaurant (named after Lee W. Sinclair who was the man credited with creating the hotel into a world-class property after the 1901 fire), we boarded the shuttle bus for a trip over to the French Lick Springs Hotel. The French Lick has an equally storied history and has weather many of the same challenges and restorations as its sister hotel. It was originally built in 1845 as a place to lodge travelers that were coming to French Lick to partake in the natural sulphur springs and famous Pluto mineral water.

As with the West Baden Hotel, the French Lick Hotel also succumbed to a fire in 1897. It was rebuilt through the efforts of U.S. Senator Thomas Taggert who went on to bring casino gambling to the resort, despite the fact that gambling was illegal at the time. As such, the hotel became the go-to place for gamblers, politicians, gangsters, and entertainers. In that way, the French Lick Casino of the 1920’s was the precursor to cities like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Regular daily train service from Chicago made it a simple matter to travel to French Lick.

While there is a good-sized casino there, gambling is no longer the only reason to travel to French Lick. There is now a Pete Dye designed golf course that will open this year and will host the PGA Championship event in 2010 to accompany the original Don Ross course that first opened in 1917. The Don Ross course hosted the PGA Championship, won by the legendary Walter Hagan, in 1924. Spa, specialty shops, a pool complex, and 443 rooms/suites round out the offerings.

There are also plenty of restaurant opportunities to be enjoyed at the French Lick Hotel. While we were nowhere near ready for another meal, we did walk around to see the various options for future reference. There is a buffet that looks like an attractive option for a return trip if we would like to try a weekend brunch, and there is a small pub called the Power Plant Lounge that looked like a good place to while away an evening should we ever make on overnight trip of it. The lounge inhabits the space that formerly served as the control room to manage the old power plant that used to provide heat and electricity for the entire hotel complex. One full wall is still covered in the switches, levers, and gauges that the operators used to keep things running.

It was getting late, so we decided that we had better start heading back towards the airport for our flight home. It can take a little longer to get back to the airport in the afternoons as a lot more of the resort patrons are up and about, and many of them are shuttling back and forth between the two hotels. The driver was eventually able to find a large enough gap in the traffic flow to make the trek out to the airport. I mentioned that there is no charge for the shuttle service, but we were so pleased with the pleasant, informative drivers that we left generous tips after each ride.

The weather had help up every bit as well as the forecast had indicated that it would, and had even gone so far as to provide a generous tailwind for our return trip. Having learned a valuable lesson regarding the issues surrounding over exuberant beverage drinking and travel by small plane, we didn’t have a recurrence of the discomfort endured by the co-owner on the outward bound leg of the trip no the return leg. The ride was smooth at 7,500’ and the few clouds that we saw were non-threatening. We landed at just about eight hours after we had left, or put another way, in less time than it would have taken to drive to and from French Lick non-stop.

I think she was impressed.



  1. Don't try to be too witty or Rod Machado might strike you down!

  2. Good article, great insight into the partner-and-flying issue! That being said, the article is too long and at times sounds too much like advertisement for the two resorts. Maybe shorten the middle part (description of the resorts), and add more in-flight experience report, especially near the end. Who said Gonzo Journalism? :-)