Irene Thomas travels to Elkhart Lake and finds the area blissfully free of chains, big box stores and billboards – an America not found much anymore
There’s a small village on the shores of a crystal-clear lake in Wisconsin, that you may wish you had heard of a long time ago. Elkhart Lake, a bit over a mile in size, with just under 1,000 permanent residents, offers vacationers just about anything they’d want – and you just might be planning your trip there as soon as you finish reading this article.
This area, adjacent to the heavily wooded Kettle Moraine State Forest, midway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, has been a legendary respite for vacationers since the 1800s. Elkhart Lake features a wealth of outdoor recreation options on land and water, top-flight dining, a world-class spa, French culinary school, delightful locally-owned shops (and an authentic German Christmas market in winter!) along with its crown jewel – Road America’s premier motor racetrack, which put this quaint little village on the international map over five decades ago.
Originally a gambling resort town, Elkhart Lake was a hot spot back in the Victorian era, and various inns, hotels and other buildings have been lovingly and beautifully maintained with that period’s distinctive architecture. Simply strolling the small downtown’s shady lanes and viewing the well-kept flower gardens, a block or so from the lake, brings on a mood of peaceful relaxation.
During the early 1950s, Elkhart Lake began enjoying its new identity as a road racing haven, as top sports car drivers traveled from around the world to take on the hills and sharp corners of its open-road race circuit. The circuit was founded by World War II vets who had returned to the placid small town and thirsted for the excitement they had experience during their time abroad. The open-road circuit then segued into the international motorsports venue of Road America after open-road racing was banned. Fortunately, the historic circuit remains a lovely public drive, marked with nostalgic signs such as Wacker’s Wend, Kimberly’s Korner and Dicken’s Ditch, commemorating early racers.
Road America, a wooded 640-acre property, is known as ‘America’s National Park of Speed’. Just one mile from Elkhart Lake, it is the site of international motorsport events with celebrity drivers and riders. This year-round venue is one of the very few that allows the public into the paddocks and pits, offers free parking and allows patrons to bring in their own picnics. It hosts activities for groups of all sizes, and racing experience is not required for those wanting to try the sport for themselves. Attracting 700,000 visitors annually from around the world, generating $70 million in revenue, Road America holds 425 events each year, often running multiple events in one day, using the 4,048-mile track, the interior Briggs & Stratton Motorplex and the other surrounding grounds. Events include NASCAR, American LeMans, the Corvette World Tribute and various motorcycle competitions, along with many others. Major race weekends run from May-September, and tickets should be bought in advance as they typically sell out.
Road America also hosts a variety of adventure programs all four seasons, such as paintball, ATV rides, disc golf, geocaching, go-karting, motorcycling, Supermoto, snowshoeing, dog sledding, hiking, outdoor survival and more.
But there is much more to Elkhart Lake, than road racing. Just about anyone will find their niche here. A totally different experience is offered at the lavish Osthoff Resort, which is home to an onsite year-round culinary school, L’ecole de la Maison, open to the public. This world-class school has workshops from two hours to two days, teaching in a hands-on and interactive experience, including whole food to presentation. The very affable and approachable Chef Scott Baker teaches such courses as a French Christmas, Chocolate Desserts, Northern Italian Cuisine, and Teen Cuisine, to name but a few. Note that 48 hour reservations are required.
Shopping and dining here are treats as well, with a bevy of independent, one-of-a-kind stores and restaurants. Check out the eclectic array of handicrafts, antiques and collectables at Rhine Street General, or the Scandinavian products and foodstuffs at Nordic Accents. For a sophisticated palate, just about anything can be found at the Feed Mill Market, including fine Wisconsin cheeses and meats. Local and regional artists have a hefty offering at Two Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden, and nostalgia buffs will have a heyday at Lieutenant Dave’s Area 51 Vintage Shop. Saturday mornings from June through mid-October, you’ll find the Farmers and Artisans Market inside the village, from 8.30am. to 12.30pm.
Dining choices range from rustic and casual to do-it-up semiformal. Check out the European and nouvelle cuisine at The Paddock Club or the Lake Street Café, which hold Wine Spectator’s Awards of Excellence, or dine elegantly at Lola’s on the Lake at the Osthoff, overlooking the lake (perfect for that special evening). A charming local favorite is the Off the Road Café, located in the town’s original railroad depot, where you might want to relax for hours with a special coffee and homemade baked good, or gourmet sandwich (check out the hefty ‘Freight Train’.)
Back in the gambling times of the village, bars were part of the scene, and the place TO be seen. When racing took over, bars kept up the tradition, and one don’t –miss place (even it you just visit for a Coke) is the Stop-Inn Tavern at the landmark, turn-of-the-century Siebkens Resort, right on the banks of the lake. While the resort itself is beautifully remodeled to state-of-the art standards, the Stop-Inn’s walls are still covered from top to bottom with old racing posters and memorabilia, and its heavy wooden furniture dates back several decades. It is known as the ‘best bar on the racing circuit’ and is packed with racing enthusiasts during the season. It’s a delightfully cozy, nostalgic spot to enjoy a brew and listen to live music any time of the year.
Recreational choices are almost endless in Elkhart Lake. The 282-acre, 120-foot deep, vividly blue spring-fed lake measures just a bit more than a mile across, and a leisurely hike around its wooded banks takes about 90 minutes. Its shore line is distinctive with lush cedar trees native to the area, and its sandy bottom provides for safe swimming and boating. The area surrounding it provides excellent hiking in the glacial hills and forests, as well as biking, fishing, pontoon cruises, sailboating, kayaking, canoeing, tennis, golf and volleyball. Winter activities include skiing and snowshoeing. Lovely trails for hiking and snowshoeing are to be found in various parks and state forests, such as the Ice Age Trail’s foot path and the Old Plank Road Trail’s 17-mile for bicyclists, runners, in-line skaters, horseback riders, moped users, Nordic skiers and snowmobiles on ten feet of asphalt and eight feet of turf.
Ready for some pampering? Head to the Osthoff with its holistic, organic-approached Aspira Spa, a truly five-star site with unique treatments in a sublime setting.
History buffs might want to visit Wade House, a former stagecoach inn now operating as a living museum. Wade House holds a Civil War Weekend in September filled with battle re-enactments, military drills, medical care situations, period music and food, demonstrations, and more. The weekend spectacle involves more than 500 re-enactors. Each year features a different historic scenario crucial to the outcome of the war.
Elkhart Lake hosts special events and festivals all year, but a few of the best include Jazz on the Vine, a Mother’s Day weekend celebration, the three-day family-themed Independence Day event, and the wintertime SchneeFest. Christmas is a big deal here, with the December nine -day Old World Christmas Market and its authentic German artisans’ craft fair under warm tents (just like Germany, without the cold!) at the Osthoff Resort, with traditional German and Wisconsin holiday foods and beverages.
Three state parks nearby also offer trailer and RV camping, including Long Lake (920-533-8612, Mauthe Lake (262-626-4305) and Terry Andre (920)451-4080.
Just one hour from Milwaukee and two and a half hours from Chicago, Elkhart Lake is a rare treat – offering imaginative and dining, truly unique attractions and recreation, and pristine natural surroundings. Whether simple or extravagant – you will you’re your expectations surpassed in this lovely walkabout, lakeshore location.
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