Standing at the edge of Patoka Lake in the southern reaches of Indiana, I gaze through a scrim of oaks toward the sparkling blue-gray water, its hue affected in part by a cloud-speckled cerulean sky. The glassy surface of the lake, unruffled by wind or waves, is as reflective as a mirror and stretches toward the far shore where it rises to low hills framed by an unbroken, leafy canopy of hickory, maple and beech.
The lake, fed by a legion of natural springs and huge at 8,800 acres, is pristine by any standard. Except for two marinas, its shores are virtually untouched by any development or homes. The lake was created only in 1979, although its limestone and sandstone bedrock foundation was laid millions of years ago. Bison herds once roamed the Patoka River Valley in search of saltlicks, but now the land is dominated by whitetail deer, turkey and the wily coyote. The megastars of the skies are the magnificent bald eagle and osprey with their wingspans measured in feet, not inches.
I’ve been driving around rural southern Indiana for a couple of days, exploring the lake and myriad small towns, among them Jeffersonville, Borden, French Lick, West Baden Springs, Birdseye, Paoli and Jasper. Why would I end up aimlessly puttering around Indiana rather than, say, visiting San Francisco or the Serengeti? Curiosity, mainly, as it is one of the handful of states I hadn’t yet visited.
In late autumn, just as the leaves were changing color, I was in Louisville, a stone’s throw across the Ohio River in Kentucky, for work when I decided to check out the Hoosier State. Once I crossed the Ohio into Jeffersonville, the first town off Interstate 65, I discovered there is a whole other 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 tomato juice first came into existence in French Lick, when more than a century ago, Louis Perrin, a chef at French Lick Springs Hotel, one of southern Indiana’s most historic and venerable hotels, was preparing to make breakfast for the resort’s guests when he ran out of oranges to make orange juice. Ever resourceful, he turned to tomatoes instead, smooshing them up and adding sugar and spice until he created juice that was everything savory and nice. Chef Perrin’s tomato juice became so popular that travelers would sojourn to the hotel just to try it.
All these decades after those tomatoes were first squished and the juice concocted, it’s still a thing in French Lick. Today you can still get tomato juice at French Lick Springs Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel — together they are the French Lick Springs Resort — whether it’s as an appetizer, as a breakfast or brunch side or in a flavorful Bloody Mary.
The way to wine and whiskey
The southern third of Indiana offers not only a great bloody mary but also a passage to wine country. Wait. What? Wine? In Indiana? Funny thing about that. It’s good wine in the most unlikely of places. The foundation of these rolling hills and verdant valleys is rich, fertile soil, and from that soil — a layer cake-like amalgamation of limestone, clay and rock — sprouts orchards of fruit and acres of vineyards that produce myriad red, white, sparkling, sweet and dry wines worthy of sniffing, swirling and sipping against the backdrop of the bucolic countryside.
About 40 wineries dot southern Indiana, and I managed to partake at three of them, including Huber’s Orchard, Winery and Vineyards in Borden. Scattered over 600 acres of luxuriant farmland, with 65 of those acres in vineyards, the winery produces bold cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, seyval blanc and other varieties, with my personal favorite the cuvee blanc, a sparkling wine with hints of melon and green apples. Its onsite sister property, Starlight Distillery, produces wonderful apple and peach brandies as well as blackberry whiskey and spiced rum.
At the French Lick Winery in West Baden Springs, wines for every occasion are offered, from its range of whites from chardonnay and vidal blanc to lovely reds of noiret and merlot and then to its sweets of rhubarb, cranberry, blackberry and blueberry. But it, too, has a sister property 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 wanted to try the Morning Glory Kasha Bourbon, which she deemed extraordinary, I couldn’t resist. Extraordinary it is, with notes and tastes of vanilla and caramel and smooth deliciousness, and although it meant checking my carry-on bag at the airport to take it home, I couldn’t resist buying a bottle.
Patoka Lake Marina, Lodging and Winery is a one-stop shop for fishing, boating, swimming and renting houseboats, floating cabins and even regular cabins. But it’s about the wine, too. Patoka Lake is known for its fun, tasty wines and wine slushies, especially when they’re paired with local meats, cheeses and chocolates. There’s Reindeer Juice, a plum-based wine; Love Potion crafted from strawberries, the berry of love; and Biker’s Black and Boo, popular at Halloween and made from blackberries and blueberries. Plus, you can take a wine cruise on the lake — or wildlife or sunset cruises — and then afterward be-bop back to the winery and sleep in one of three winery suites or one of two silo suites that are converted from real silos.
Where to sleep
In addition to the cool, unique lodging options at Patoka Lake Marina, travelers, especially honeymooners, have been coming to this area since the turn of the 20th century, primarily because of the healing properties of the mineral water, the woodsy and romantically rural location, and two of the most historic hotels in the U.S., the French Lick Springs Hotel and West Baden Springs Hotel.
Both luxury hotels are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are AAA Four-Diamond starred. Gold leaf, glitz and glamour characterize French Lick Springs Hotel, first established in 1845, with the West Baden Springs Hotel, with its photo-worthy architecture and atrium that lent its splendor to it being called the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” dating to 1855. Both hotels have world-class spas. When I have a little extra time and money, my sole extravagance is a facial, and the Hungarian Facial at West Baden Springs Hotel left my skin glowing for days afterward.
Where to eat
The splurge of my visit was dinner at 1875: The Steakhouse in French Lick Springs Hotel. Start off with tomato juice, of course, and then choose from entrees like salmon, pork chops, French-cut chicken or the house favorite, steak. The full-of-flavor filet mignon, I must say, was the absolute best I’ve ever had the privilege to try, and at my age of I’m not tellin’, I’ve eaten at some great steak houses.
Other formal and casual choices at French Lick Springs Hotel are Sinclair’s Restaurant, Table One, Power Plant Bar and Grill, Spring No. 8, Grand Colonnade and Pluto’s Pizzeria. Next door at West Baden Springs Hotel, go for Café Sinclair’s, Ballard’s in the Atrium and Xanadu Coffee and Creamery. Other splendid choices are Hagen’s Club House Restaurant at the Donald Ross Golf Course at French Lick and the Mansion at Pete Dye Course, also at French Lick, for fine cuisine and views of forests and hills to forever.
In Jeffersonville, public art in the NoCo Arts District is the showstopper of this walkable and vibrant little town. For good eats, try the tomato pie with a craft beer at Upland Brewing, best enjoyed while you’re gazing across the Ohio River at the stately skyline of downtown Louisville.
Yet one more dining spot I highly recommend is the Schnitzelbank Restaurant in Jasper. Yes, it’s German, as you would guess by the name. Authentically German, too, with plates piled to overflowing with specialties of sauerbraten, schnitzels and goulash. In typical small-town fashion — Jasper’s population is about 16,000 — everyone from my fellow diners to the servers were friendly and talkative and treated me as if I were a long-lost cousin.
Nature and the last word
I never would have thought that Indiana would be so beautiful with its hilly geography, shimmering lakes, plush orchards, fields of fresh vegetables and tall corn, mélange of small towns and pumpkin patches galore.
While autumn provides the toastiest leaves in brilliant golds and oranges and reds so dazzling they practically sparkle, come spring, consider a visit then, too, as southern Indiana transforms into a different palette of color. That’s when the blossoms of apple and peach orchards and a trillion wildflowers explode in vibrant pinks, whites, purples and yellows and the sugar maples and hickories sprout in every shade of green from tea to emerald to hunter.
While southern Indiana may not be quite as exciting as the San Francisco or the Serengeti, for its natural beauty, laid-back lifestyle and amazing wine and food, it’s exciting in its own special way.
If you go
The closest airports with easy access to southern Indiana are Louisville (SDF) and Indianapolis (IND). Visit Indiana has a comprehensive guide on road trips in southern Indiana with sections dedicated to the region’s state parks, caving, shopping, museums, festivals and more. Visit www.visitindiana.com or download a visitor’s 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.patokalakemarina.com or call 812-685-2203. Contact French Lick Resort at www.frenchlick.com or call 888-936-9360.