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

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Kids can take part in a number of planned activities, from evening pajama parties to morning fishing off the pier to cooking and art classes. Our child spent an hour with staffers making sand art projects and not only had a great time but also got to take home and proudly show off two great sand artworks.

There are family events, too, like evening bonfires on the beach and the a.m. coffee cruise on a pontoon boat. The rain held off long enough one morning to allow us to indulge and we spent an hour on the lake – before jet skis and the like are allowed out – hearing about Elkhart Lake's history, watching the wildlife, gawking at the lake homes and meeting some fellow Osthoff guests.

There's a culinary school at the resort, too, but it was closed during our stay, so we'd peek in each time we'd walk past, but we didn't get to indulge.

But indulge is exactly what we did at the more formal of the eateries on the property. Lola's on the Lake has drawn rave reviews and it's easy to see why. The understated dining room is the scene of some of the friendliest service we've had at a restaurant of this caliber and the food was amazing, from top to bottom.

That we were dining with two little kids – one of whom refused to wear shoes (though was willing to carry them) – fazed no one. The kids loved their meals and so did mom and dad. That's not always an easy feat. Weeks later I'm still dreaming of the pan seared quail appetizer and I keep hoping it will magically appear again on my desk one day at lunch.

"There is a magic about this place," says general manager Lola Roeh (yes, that's her name on the restaurant, though she vows she had nothing to do with it!), "a combination of the pristine, unspoiled lake and the stunning natural beauty of the gardens and the surrounding area, the genuine friendliness and caring of the our people, carrying on that tradition of The Osthoff of the 1880s.

"I always say you can feel the spirit of the old Osthoff seeping up through the ground."

Next door to The Osthoff are Siebkens and the slightly older Victorian Village, where the Barefoot Tiki Bar overlooking the lake is great for a family lunch and at night becomes a magical place to enjoy a cocktail with a tiny umbrella and gaze out over the lake as it twinkles in the moonlight.

The story goes that the owner of Victorian Village sold the resort to his brother more than a century ago and then built Siebkens next door. Nowaways, Siebkens is run by the fourth generation of the family that purchased it in 1916 and Victorian Village is run by Ken and Judy Salzwedel, who bought it 22 years ago.

Elkhart Lake seems to really embrace its history. The downtown looks nearly transported in time from a century ago and the walls along the lengthy hallways of The Osthoff are lined with historical photographs.

"Being a lakeside resort village since the late 1800s gives us a fair amount of history to embrace," says Eickhoff. "Back to families coming up by way of train from Chicago and St. Louis to escape hot city life.

"Relaxation and enjoying the summer by the lake were at the top of the list. However, fine dining, live theater, summer musical troupes, live orchestras, Harand Camp, gambling, etc., were all part of the history of our destination. The racing history starts with original road races in the 1950s which put Elkhart Lake on the map with an entirely new customer – motorsport enthusiasts. Many, if not all of these elements of our history are still a part of our destination today, with a slightly different twist."

Downtown Elkhart Lake has a number of shops, like the well-stocked Feed Mill Market gourmet foods shop, full of cheeses, fruits, veggies and anything you'd need for the kitchen in your Osthoff suite.

Across the street, next to a modern public library, is a park that has one of the most awesome playgrounds we've seen anywhere and I'd venture to say that at least half my family may have enjoyed that playground more than almost anything else (other than the vintage caboose parked next to the old train station across the street) in Elkhart Lake.

Among the solid dining options downtown are The Paddock Club, opened in 2007, which serves European cuisine, and the more casual Lake Street Cafe next door. Eclectically decorated, this tavern/restaurant, has a large Beer Barons sign that we think might be the one from the now-defunct Milwaukee restaurant on Broadway and Juneau.

Bustling, buzzing and full of energy, the family-friendly Lake Street Cafe dishes up bistro-style American food: hearty sandwiches, wood-fired pizzas and some delectable entrees like shiitake chicken, tenderloin Shiraz and duet of duck, with duck leg confit and pan-seared duck breast.

Prices range from about $8-$10 for sandwiches to about $17-$26 for entrees. There's an expansive patio, too, where you can dine and sample some of the many specialty beers and wines. The restaurant earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence 2003-2010.

But for all Elkhart Lake's dining, resort and recreational options, both Roeh and Eickhoff say that the lake itself is still the star.

"Our lake is truly the jewel of our destination. The lake is spring-fed and crystal clear, it is a must see and do when you come to Elkhart Lake," says Eickhoff.

"You would absolutely have to spend some time enjoying the lake," adds Roeh, "whether on the beach sipping homemade lemonade, fishing for blugills or taking in a coffee cruise, sitting on the lake deck watching the sunset ... Elkhart Lake is definitely a must."

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