In Travel & Visitors Guide

Elkhart Lake, just about an hour from Milwaukee, is fun for the whole family. (Photo: Elkhart Lake Tourism)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The sprawling Osthoff has two outdoor pools and lovely strolling gardens.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The view from the Barefoot Tiki Bar at Victorian Village Resort.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

This pan-seared quail appetizer was, itself, worth the 70-minute drive.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Downtown Elkhart Lake still has a turn of the 20th century look.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

But it also is home to some really good restaurants, like Lake Street Cafe.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Kids - and trainspotters - will love peeking into the old caboose next to the station.

Elkhart Lake boasts a long tradition of excitement

The gangsters are gone, and it's been years since old Otto Osthoff reportedly dumped his hotel's one-armed bandits into the deep end of the drink, but don't think for a minute that the fun ever ended in Elkhart Lake.

While many in Wisconsin think immediately and only of the revving of race car engines when they hear the words Elkhart Lake, folks in the know conjure visions of poolside cocktails, lazing in the sun on a patch of beach, whirring around the water on a jet ski or enjoying a sumptuous meal in a great restaurant.

That's because at just about an hour from Downtown Milwaukee, Elkhart Lake is one of the closest real-live Wisconsin resort towns. But, it seems, a lot of folks don't even realize it's there.

"This has been a challenge we are working to overcome," says Elkhart Lake Director of Tourism Kathleen Eickhoff.

"Many Road America fans come up from 67 south of Elkhart Lake and never realize there is a beautiful lakeside village less than two miles up the road with 16 pubs and restaurants, three lakeside resorts, a spa, cooking school and 27 holes of golf."

Steeped in history – cars have been racing there for decades and the small town has been a fun and relaxation destination for more than a century – Elkhart Lake isn't big but it packs a powerful getaway punch.

Along the northeastern shore of the lake is a concentration of resorts: the sprawling, modern Osthoff and the well-over-a-century-old Victorian Village and Siebkens. Two blocks up some quiet residential streets lined with gorgeous wooden Victorians and sturdy brick bungalows is the small downtown with restaurants, shops and one of the best kids' playground I've seen anywhere in the state.

Take a boat ride out on the lake and you can spy some serious lake house action ... the stuff of dreams.

But you don't have to be a dairy baron to enjoy the charms of Elkhart Lake, and Eickhoff says that once people discover the allure of the town, they can't resist it.

"Elkhart Lake has been a lakeside resort village since the late 1800s, and people are amazed when they discover how beautiful and accessible Elkhart Lake is from Milwaukee and Chicago," she says. "However, once they find us, we have a very loyal following and our visitors come back year after year."

On a recent visit, Mother Nature did her darnedest to wash out our mini vacation, but we – and Elkhart Lake – wouldn't stand for it. (Although her downpours did quash our attempt to see an 1860s-era base ball game at nearby Wade House, it didn't stop us visiting Henning's Cheese in nearby Kiel.)

While our two bedroom suite – which is actually a condo – at The Osthoff (as parents we've learned that unless we want to go to bed at 8 p.m., a suite is key, whenever possible, at a hotel) is homey, comfortable and well-appointed, we were determined not to sit in it our entire stay.

There's a spa for adults in need of some TLC and an arcade for anyone old enough to reach the flippers on a pinball machine or the top of an air hockey table. The indoor pool and whirlpool might not have the same vibe as the nearby outdoor counterparts, but they don't disappoint.

There's a coffee shop, too, but to call it that seems wrong. Just beyond the lobby, the sprawling area with a terrace overlooking the pools and the pond, is appointed in dark woods and stately furniture and decor, suggesting it was originally meant to serve as a space for cocktails. But now lattes are served at the long bar and the room is the perfect place to chill out and read a book, chat or gaze out over the resort's gardens.

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