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.
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 ClubLake 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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