About three hours west of Cincinnati, Indiana 56 winds through the countryside like a two-lane scribble, following a muddy stream past corn stubble, fading red barns, aging silos, broken-down tractors, weathered farm houses, sway-backed trailer homes and surprisingly steep wooded hills. But just as it hangs a left and heads south to French Lick, an amazing vision looms up out of the trees.

It could be an Indiana Xanadu. Or a fairytale castle in the clouds.

Bright red and ivory parapets rise above the treetops, flying sunshine-yellow pennants over a giant crimson dome. It's like stumbling onto a cruise ship in a creek bed.

Or maybe it's more like finding the Titanic, perfectly restored, suddenly steaming out of the fog on a small-town lake. That fits. Because the West Baden Springs Hotel could be the Titanic's land-anchored cousin.

Both were launched in the early 1900s when engineers believed they could build an Eiffel Tower to the sun if they had enough steel. And like the Titanic, the magnificent historic hotel sank out of sight and became a ghostly wreck that rusted and rotted in lonely silence until it was rediscovered.

Unlike the Titanic, the Hotel was resurrected, restored and re-opened three years ago this spring.

But until the late 1990s, the Eighth Wonder of the World, with "the largest dome on Earth," was in ruins. Paint and wallpaper flaked from its magnificent walls and pillars like an architectural skin disease. The vast floors, tiled in colorful, complex mosaics, were soggy with standing water. Part of an exterior wall collapsed, exposing naked bedrooms and bathtubs like a pulled-back shower curtain.

But then it was rescued by dedicated preservationists with help from generous Bloomington philanthropists Bill and Gayle Cook, whose Cook Group Inc. makes medical devices. The Cooks contributed $550 million to the ultimate fixer-upper project, and now West Baden Hotel is dressed in its original Gilded Age finery, as beautiful as the day its doors first opened in 1901.

The brick-cobbled entry almost echoes with the sound of carriage wheels and clopping hooves as it passes under an archway that announces "West Baden Springs, Carlsbad of America." The grand entrance is flanked by a veranda that's lined with rocking chairs, where ancient spruces whisper to the breeze about the things they remember.

And under that stadium-sized dome is a sky-lighted atrium that takes your breath away like a pickpocket and leaves you with no words to spend on description. The Corinthian columns that soar nearly 100 feet into the impossibly high ceiling could be from the lost library of Alexandria. The wheel of stained glass that hangs suspended in
mid air from the center of the dome could be part of a heavenly cathedral, especially when it changes colors at night, from Vatican red to peacock blue. The frescoes could be ancient Greek or Roman. The acres of gold leaf suggest scenes from something inside a pharaoh's tomb. Everywhere are fresh wonders in a delicate balance of monumental scale and subtle detail.

West Baden was always a resort for those who are wealthy in resources or imagination. Rooms start at $189 a night. But those who pay it won't be disappointed. The staff is courteous, knowledgeable about the history, helpful and friendly in the unstuffy, relaxed, heartland style.

The restaurants are excellent. The Spa is a Shangri-La of relaxation, honoring the tradition of West Baden's healing Pluto mineral springs that lured visitors from around the globe a century ago. Conde Nast rated West Baden at the top among some of the most famous luxury resorts in the U.S., scoring higher than hotels that cost three or four times as much.

And the resort's two golf courses are spectacular. The Pete Dye course offers 40-mile views of the Hoosier National Forest. It's rated No. 1 among the Best New Courses by Golf Magazine, and will host the PGA Professionals National Championship in June. The Donald Ross Hill Course is historic, old-school golf dating from 1917. Both courses hug the rolling hills of Southern Indiana like rumpled green felt, with dramatic elevation changes and clubhouses that could be museums.

The Dye course, built at a cost of $35 million, includes the mansion of Thomas Taggart, former mayor of Indianapolis and one-time owner of the West Baden Hotel. At the Ross course, with $6.4 million in restoration, the old clubhouse is well known for Walter Hagen's PGA championship there in 1924, and its Indiana sweet-corn and crab chowder — almost worth the trip by itself.

There are bike trails, sunken gardens, history and mystery to explore. The nearby French Lick Springs Hotel, opened in 1825, is nearly as spectacular after a $500 million restoration, and includes a casino that helps support both hotels. That's really nothing new. Gambling has been part of the local lure since the 1920s, when French Lick had more casinos than cops. The Springs Hotel was a gangster getaway, and also the place where Franklin Roosevelt kicked off his campaign for president. If its walls could talk, they would sound like F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But West Baden Hotel is the star that outshines all the rest, like a Rajah's ruby in a necklace of sequins. Sitting on the veranda, you feel surrounded by the ghosts of the past. Ailing pilgrims desperate for a cure in the healing waters; families gathered for a holiday or wedding; mobsters such as Al Capone, who came for the casinos; the guests who fled overnight in the stock-market crash of 1929; the disillusioned owners who bought the hotel in 1923 for $1 million and sold it 11 years later to a Jesuit seminary for one dollar; the Doughboys who came to recuperate from the trenches in France; and the politicians who came to scheme and conquer.

The atrium casts a different spell. It awakens an unused, primitive sixth sense — a sense of space. It's a sensation that lifts the spirit. The imagination stumbles trying to grasp the sheer outdoor dimensions of the room, the engineering genius and the motives behind it. But it's not a dehumanizing scale. Instead, the smaller details give it a peaceful, calming beauty.

In any other great hotel, the garage-sized fireplace that burns 14-foot logs would be garish and oafish, with its larger-than-life scene of a Black Forest elf in the woods, overlooking the hotel from a hilltop. But here, the priceless Rookwood masterpiece from Cincinnati, researched and documented in 2006 by Katherine Flynn of Loveland, fits right in.

And watching sunlight slowly stroll around the atrium, moving like an hour-hand across the vast walls, it becomes clear why hotel lobbies used to be so inviting. They were places to gather, always crowded in those old photographs; places to relax, read a book, spend idle time without apology, with none of the hurry-up, check-in, park-your-car, find-the-room, personality we know in modern hotels that are as uniformly sanitized as a their pre-wrapped bars of soap.

Since the first visitors came to the healing mineral springs in 1832, West Baden has been a hotel, a resort, a spa, an opera house, a WWI Army Hospital, a seminary, a convention hall, a private college, a band camp, a national historic landmark, a ruin and a wreck.

Now it's a magical grand resort again. Relaxing. Comfortable. Exotically foreign, yet familiar, like a fragment of something you half remember from a dream. And it's still the Eighth Wonder of the World, just three hours from Cincinnati, right off a country road. â– 

For more information, reservations, slide shows and video, visit www.frenchlick.com.