Elkhart Lake is a treasure trove of leisure pursuits. Enjoy swimming, boating, and bonfires on the beach? Car racing, hiking, or biking? How about shopping at a traditional German-style Christmas Market without crossing the ocean? Located on pristine Elkhart Lake in east-central Wisconsin, the town offers fun for all seasons.
Native Americans lived on the banks of the lake and honored its pure water and abundant source of fish. Nearby woods yielded copious baskets of ripe cherries. Train service arrived in the 1880s with vacationers stepping off into a picture perfect environment to play.
An hour’s drive north of Milwaukee, Elkhart Lake has outdoor exploration and indoor luxury for romantic getaways and family gatherings.
The compact downtown offers a host of shopping and noshing options. A broad array of fine art and fine crafts in clay, metals and wood is displayed at Two Fish Gallery and Sculpture Garden. Nordic Accents stocks classic and modern Scandinavia clothing and collectibles. Vintage Elkhart Lake Wine Shop conveniently has a tasting bar for wine pairings with local cheeses. The Off the Rail diner in the original railroad depot is a terrific spot for coffee, drinks, bagel specials such as the Flying Scotsman with smoked salmon or “toasties,” aka paninis.
Car buffs discover many Indy and NASCAR events at Elkhart Lake’s Road America. There is also vintage car racing—and two historic race circuits for you to test drive.
Finding accommodation is easy with three resorts and several B & B’s within close proximity to town.
My visit to the Osthoff Resort in December yielded many memorable adventures and culinary delights. The “queen” of resorts along the lake, the Osthoff Resort and Spa features the broadest range of activities and dining in the area. The spacious 245 suites include a welcoming fireplace, full kitchen, dining and living rooms. In the summer, the Lake Deck presents live weekend entertainment and fun beach food. The Summer Pleasures program gives kids their own programs while everyone joins in on bonfires. Rental options include bike, kayaks, canoes, hydro-bikes or paddle boats.
Wintertime is magical at Osthoff Resort. For 15 years the Old World Christmas Market has set the holiday mood for locals and visitors alike. The grand heated tent—replete with a welcoming Santa—brings artisans from around the world. I was tempted by unique gifts such as Czech blown-blown glass ornaments, Russian nesting dolls, German hand-carved nutcrackers, and fine apparel.
The kids enjoy their own unique and memorable experience during “Breakfast with Santa.” They whisper their toy wishes in Santa’s ear, pose for a photo, and then dash to the pint-sized, knee-high buffet table with favorite breakfast treats. After selecting their candies and whipped cream for their holiday pancakes, then decorate holiday cookies with Mrs. Klaus.
Thanksgiving is another Osthoff tradition where multiple-generational families and friends The popular Big Band March Weekend features dance instruction, dances and a gala dinners.
Year-round Osthoff’s Aspira Spa offers peaceful and serene retreat to guests.
Recommendation: For a unique experience, try the Sacred Waters Massage. The hotel’s General Manager studied Native American traditions before implementing the service. The massage uses warmed lake water in a smooth pouch. The therapists literally carry water from the lake in a deer skin pouch. Before they leave, they say a blessing and bow to the four directions of the earth as the Native Americans have done. After the thoroughly relaxing massage, I felt lifted and inspired by the ancient practices of the three local tribes.
Cooking classes at the Osthoff L’ecole de la Maison elevate your cooking knowledge and appetite. Most classes conclude with a full course meal. Having experienced the French The late “lunch” we cooked at the French Christmas fare class was truly a dinner with coq au vin and wonderful sides. Some classes emphasize German heritage and Wisconisn roots while others range from “Casually Italian” to “Fresh is Better.”
The Osthoff restaurants are exceptional. Lola’s is the signature classic dining venue with bay windows fronting the lake. The award-winning wine list augments the meal. With starters from caramelized scallops to sweet potato gnocchi to the famous lobster bisque, bourbon braised five-onion with Swiss fondue brulée, one moves on to entrées such as grilled dry-aged ribeye and shrimp sampi.
Otto’s offers a strongly German accented menu and hearty breakfasts such as homemade German potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce along with farm-fresh Benedicts including the Florentine with spinach, tomatoes, and Wisconsin cheese. Lunch brings the Wisconsin burger flight with four sliders with four different local cheeses and for dinner, the tipsy oinkie—pork ribeye with bourbon cherry jus.
Off-property the strong draft beer and craft cocktail list at the Elkhart Inn restaurant prompted tough decision-making between the “Gin Gin Mule” and “Caipiroska” with vodka instead of cachaça. The eclectic wine list pairs well with the many small plate options such as a sausage tasting and pobalno pork cupcake, cornbread stuffed with beer-braised pork and poblano cream. The beer cheese soup is a must-try, and the shared courses of beef short rib and wiener schnitzel satisfied our appetites.
Near the Ostroff Resort is the Victorian Village. Called the “Grand Victorian Lady” for its distinctive period architecture, the grand building offers luxurious one-to-three bedroom condos with grand lake vistas. The Victorian Inn rooms with private decks are charming. The Lakeside Suites one-to-three bedroom condos are indeed on the lake. A popular draw of the resort is the summer musical shows at the site’s Theatre.
The complex has several distinctive dining options. At the Back Door Bistro, I wanted all the appetizers from the excellent cheese selection to the bruschetta duo with house-made tomato jam, Korean BBQ pork belly with Asian slaw, wings, calamari, and short ribs. Fortunately we saved room for thin crust pizza, pan-seared walleye, creamed spinach spaetzle, and homemade desserts.
Next visit calls for popping into the “come as you are” Barefoot Tiki Bar, with no shoes required or shirts for the guy for fun lakeside eating. Expect tropical drinks and hand-packed ice cream selections at this summertime venue.
With so many options year-round, Elkart Lake is an ideal place to visit for gourmet dining, craft shopping, outdoor sports, and special spa experiences. Lakeside fun times bring special memories and new experiences to travelers—especially in Wisconsin.