Standing on the shore of Patoka Lake in the southern Indiana foothills, I gaze through a tangle of oak trees at the sparkling blue-grey water, its hue partly influenced by a cloud-dappled azure sky. The lake’s glassy surface, untouched by wind or waves, is as reflective as a mirror and stretches to the opposite shore, where it rises to low hills framed by an uninterrupted canopy of hickory, maple and beech.
Fed by a legion of natural springs and vast at 8,800 hectares, the lake is pristine in every way. With the exception of two marinas, its shores are virtually untouched by any building or development. The lake was not created until 1979, although its limestone and sandstone foundations were laid millions of years ago. Herds of bison once roamed the Patoka River Valley in search of salt licks, but now the land is dominated by white-tailed deer, turkey, and the sly coyote. The sky’s megastars are the magnificent bald eagle and osprey, whose wingspan is measured in feet, not inches.
I spent a few days driving through rural southern Indiana, exploring the lake and countless small towns including Jeffersonville, Borden, French Lick, West Baden Springs, Birdseye, Paoli and Jasper. Why would I end up tinkering aimlessly in Indiana instead of, say, visiting San Francisco or the Serengeti? Mainly curiosity, since it’s one of the few states I hadn’t visited.
In late fall, just as the leaves were turning, I was in Louisville for work, just a stone’s throw across the Ohio River in Kentucky, when I decided to check out Hoosier State. As I crossed the Ohio to Jeffersonville, the first city on Interstate 65, I discovered there was a whole different Indiana out there, one beyond Indianapolis, basketball and Larry Bird and more about wine, whiskey, stunning natural beauty and tomato juice.
The scoop behind the juice
Local lore suggests that tomato juice first arose in French Lick when Louis Perrin, a chef at the French Lick Springs Hotel, one of southern Indiana’s most historic and honored hotels, served breakfast to guests of the French Lick more than a century ago Resorts prepared when he ran out of oranges to make orange juice. Always imaginative, he turned to tomatoes instead, smoothing them out and adding sugar and spices until he created a juice that was all flavorful and good. Chef Perrin’s tomato juice became so popular that travelers came to the hotel to try it.
All these decades after those tomatoes were first mashed and the juice made, it’s still a French Lick thing. Today, tomato juice is still available at the French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel – together they make up the French Lick Springs Resort – whether as an appetizer, a side for breakfast or brunch, or in a tangy Bloody Mary.
The road to wine and whiskey
Indiana’s southern third offers not only a great Bloody Mary, but also a passage into wine country. Wait. What? Wine? In Indiana? funny about it. It’s good wine in the most unlikely of places. The foundation of these rolling hills and verdant valleys is rich, fertile soil, and out of that soil—a layered cake-like fusion of limestone, clay, and rock—sprout orchards and acres of vineyards that produce myriad red, white, sparkling, sweet, and dry wines that make it are worth sniffing, waving and sipping against the backdrop of idyllic scenery.
About 40 wineries are located in southern Indiana and I managed to attend three of them including Huber’s Orchard, Winery and Vineyards in Borden. Scattered over 600 hectares of lush farmland, with 65 hectares of vineyards, the winery produces bold Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Seyval Blanc and other varieties, with my personal favorite being the Cuvee Blanc, a sparkling wine with hints of melon and green apples. The on-site sister property, Starlight Distillery, makes wonderful apple and peach brandies, as well as blackberry whiskey and spiced rum.
French Lick Winery in Westbaden Springs has wines for every occasion, from their range of whites from Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc to beautiful reds from Noiret and Merlot to sweet varietals of rhubarb, cranberry, blackberry and blueberry. But she too has a sister estate in the distillery, Spirits of French Lick. For my spirits flight I chose a Blackberry Eau de Vie, a 4 year old High Rye Bourbon, Absinthe Le Bleu and Bourbon Whiskey. All were good, but when Laurelin Doty, one of the owners, asked if I would like to try the Morning Glory Kasha Bourbon, which she thought was exceptional, I couldn’t resist. It’s exceptional, with notes and flavors of vanilla and caramel and a smooth deliciousness, and although it meant checking my carry-on at the airport to take home, I couldn’t resist buying a bottle.
Patoka Lake Marina, Lodging and Winery is a one-stop shop for fishing, boating, swimming, and houseboat, floating cabin, and even regular cabin rentals. But it’s also about the wine. Patoka Lake is known for its fun, tasty wines and wine slushies, especially when paired with local meats, cheeses, and chocolate. There’s Reindeer Juice, a plum-based wine; Love potion made from strawberries, the berry of love; and Biker’s Black and Boo, popular at Halloween and made with blackberries and blueberries. Plus, you can take a wine cruise on the lake—or wildlife or sunset cruises—then return to the winery and sleep in one of three winery suites or one of two silo suites converted from actual silos.
where to sleep
In addition to the cool, unique lodging options at Patoka Lake Marina, travelers, especially honeymooners, have flocked to this area since the turn of the 20th century, largely for the healing properties of the mineral water, the wooded and romantic rural setting, and two of America’s most historic hotels , the French Lick Springs Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel.
Both luxury hotels are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and have been awarded AAA Four Diamonds. Gold leaf, glitz, and glamor characterize the French Lick Springs Hotel, first established in 1845, with the West Baden Springs Hotel, with its photo-worthy architecture and atrium that gave it its splendor, dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world” by 1855. Both hotels have top-notch spas. When I have a little more time and money, my only extravagance is a facial, and the Hungarian facial at the West Baden Springs Hotel left my skin glowing for days afterwards.
where should we eat
The highlight of my visit was dinner at 1875: The Steakhouse at the French Lick Springs Hotel. Start with tomato juice, of course, and then choose from entrees like salmon, pork chops, French chicken, or the house favorite, steak. I have to say the full-bodied filet mignon was the absolute best I’ve ever tasted, and at my age, I won’t say, I’ve eaten at some great steakhouses.
Other formal and casual options at the French Lick Springs Hotel include Sinclair’s Restaurant, Table One, Power Plant Bar and Grill, Spring No. 8, Grand Colonnade and Pluto’s Pizzeria. Visit Sinclair’s Cafe, Ballard’s in the Atrium and Xanadu Coffee and Creamery next door at the West Baden Springs Hotel. Other great options include Hagen’s Club House Restaurant on Donald Ross Golf Course in French Lick and The Mansion on Pete Dye Course, also in French Lick, for fine dining and views of woods and hills forever.
In Jeffersonville, public art in the NoCo Arts District is the focal point of this walkable and vibrant small town. For fine dining, try the tomato pie with a craft beer at Upland Brewing, best enjoyed while gazing across the Ohio River at the stately downtown Louisville skyline.
Another restaurant that I highly recommend is Schnitzelbank Restaurant in Jasper. Yes, it’s German, as the name suggests. Authentically German too, with bulging plates of sauerbraten, schnitzel and goulash specialties. In typical small-town fashion – Jasper’s population is about 16,000 – everyone from my fellow guests to the waiters were friendly and chatty and treated me like I was a long-lost cousin.
Nature and the last word
I never thought Indiana would be so beautiful with its rolling countryside, shimmering lakes, lush orchards, fields of fresh vegetables and tall corn, a mix of small towns and pumpkin patches galore.
While fall brings out the most comforting foliage in brilliant shades of gold, orange, and red so iridescent they practically sparkle, consider visiting in spring even as southern Indiana transforms into a different color palette. Then the blooms of apple and peach orchards and a trillion wildflowers explode in bright pinks, whites, purples and yellows and the sugar maples and hickories sprout in every shade of green from tea to emerald to hunter green.
While southern Indiana may not be quite as exciting as San Francisco or the Serengeti, it is exciting in its own way for its natural beauty, laid-back lifestyle, and fantastic wine and food.
when you go
The closest airports with easy access to southern Indiana are Louisville (SDF) and Indianapolis (IND). Visit Indiana offers a comprehensive guide to southern Indiana road trips with sections on area state parks, caving, shopping, museums, festivals and more. Visit www.visitindiana.com or download a visitor guide at www.gosoin.com/about-the-area/visitors-guide. Another good site is www.discoversouthernindiana.com. Contact Patoka Lake Marina Lodging and Winery at www.patokakemarina.com or call 812-685-2203. Contact French Lick Resort at www.frenchlick.com or call 888-936-9360.