Where to Escape in Elkhart Lake
Head north of Milwaukee for a Wisconsin getaway less than three hours away in the Kettle Moraine.
Growing up in Glen Ellyn, I spent every summer as I do now, driving three hours north into Sheboygan County for life on the lake. For nearly 60 years my family — first my grandparents, then my parents and I — have called Elkhart Lake a second home.
Even though I’ve since traveled the world, some of the best sunsets I’ve seen have been here, in the land of clear starry nights and Sunday morning sailboat races.
Situated in the glacier-crafted Kettle Moraine, this area of Wisconsin is known for its rolling hills and scenic farm landscapes. The region’s unquestionable highlight is the 292-acre spring-fed, glacier-formed Elkhart Lake, so known because the native Potawatomi Indians thought its shape resembled an elk’s heart. They also thought the lake had restorative powers.
During the warmest days of summer, the quaint, lakeside resort community of a little less than 1,000 people swells to 10,000 or more, thanks to Elkhart Lake’s small town charm and race weekends at nearby Road America, which draws a variety of motorsports fans here.
There’s a reason Al Capone was said to have found respite here during his heyday, back when a train regularly transported visitors from Chicago to Wisconsin. Although Elkhart Lake has always been a resort destination — the first hotel was built here in 1867 — it wasn’t until the opening of the Osthoff Resort’s expansive waterfront complex in 1995 that the town began to develop into what it has become today. With the resort drawing visitors year-round, a cluster of shops and restaurants sprang up and the town has flourished ever since.
While Elkhart Lake is still too small to support its own grocery store — you have to go to Plymouth for the nearest one — there is a wine shop, organic juice bar and yoga studio. There is also the L’ecole de la Maison cooking school, the stunning Aspira spa and a variety of other offerings at the Osthoff, as well as other historic hotels and a sampling of bed-and-breakfast spots.
One of the best ways to get a true feel for Elkhart Lake and the surrounding area is to visit the open-air Farmer and Artisan Market, held near the train station every Saturday morning from June through mid-October. Local vendors from throughout Sheboygan County sell baked goods, jewelry, fresh flowers and a variety of produce that becomes more abundant as the growing season progresses.
Then walk down the street to Two Fish Gallery and Sculpture Garden which sells fair trade crafts and jewelry, and features a sculpture garden including a bamboo-lined bridge and Japanese-style teahouse. The gallery also offers stoneware classes using both hand building and wheel-throwing techniques as well as terra cotta and Japanese-style raku pottery classes. Artists will also appreciate the Abler Art Glass Gallery in nearby Kiel, which showcases a cross-section of artists across three galleries along with a garden gallery of metalwork.
For gift-type items, check out Gina’s Fine Gifts and Framing, which sells a variety of home furnishings and kitchen gadgets, and then walk next door to Elkhart Lake Outfitters which features outdoor gear and casual clothes for men and women. Nearby Nordic Accents offers a variety of Scandinavian specialties including Norwegian sweaters, clogs and specialty food items, while neighboring Indigo sells furniture made from reclaimed wood, home décor, pottery, paintings and other handmade items. LTD at the Depot, located inside the train depot, sells Elkhart Lake-themed merchandise and men’s and women’s apparel.
COOKING, WINE TASTING AND RELAXING
For home cooks and chefs, one of the highlights of a visit to Elkhart Lake is taking a cooking class at the Osthoff’s L’ecole de la Maison. Taught by the resort’s executive chef, classes range from two- to four-hour workshops to more intense two-day courses.
A must stop in town is Vintage Elkhart Lake, a wine shop located by the train depot. Try a tasting flight at the bar from a diverse collection of more than 200 wines from around the world while also enjoying the highly addictive white cheddar popcorn. There are also craft beers, olive oils, balsamic vinegars, chocolates, cheeses and other gift-type items. Grab a seat at the bar or attend one of the wine-and-painting parties or game nights.
Spa seekers will appreciate the Osthoff’s award-winning Aspira Spa, which offers a unique candle-lit meditation circle, and a variety of spa, salon and massage options. Many of the treatments incorporate the use of local cedar, which Native Americans prized for its cleansing and purifying properties. Yoga classes are also open to the general public and include access to the on-site whirlpool, indoor and outdoor pools, and relaxation rooms that are located in the spa area.
For a different form of relaxation, check out the nearby Anchor Lanes, which offers open bowling around league times.
Besides swimming in Elkhart Lake, there’s plenty to do on and around the water. The Elkhart Queen, a long wooden barge-like pontoon boat, is a fixture on the lake, in part because of its BYOB policy and Captain Tom’s ability to keep his tour narration as serious or party-like as the riders like. Skis, wakeboards, standup paddleboards, kayaks, bumper boats and more can be rented at Victorian Village Resort. The Osthoff also rents a variety of boats and water-related equipment, while Sheboygan-based Ecology Outfitters offers two-hour guided kayak tours.
Although all of the resorts have their own access points to the lake, anyone can gain public access via Fireman’s Park and Beach, which charges a nominal fee of $3 per adult and $1 per child.
At the edge of Kettle Moraine State Forest, hikers and birdwatchers can pick up the Ice Age National Scenic Trail that stretches 1,200 miles through Wisconsin.
There’s also 27 scenic holes to play at Quit Qui Oc Golf Club. Opened in 1927, the original 18 holes were built by architect Tom Bendelow followed by a new “Glacial Nine” added in 2000. The course’s name pays homage to the Menominee Indian phrase “land along the crooked river.”
Fishing is another popular outdoor option. Local angler, Gordy Martin of Tie 1 On offers fly fishing in Sheboygan County’s Onion River or the Kohler River Wildlife area. Or anglers can rely on the local expertise of Jay Brickner of Jay’s Guide Service to steer them to the best fishing spots on Elkhart and surrounding lakes.
Fishermen who prefer to strike out on their own can head to the campground-friendly 30-acre Broughton Sheboygan Marsh Park. The park features an 80-ft-tall wooden observation tower — the tallest of its kind in the state of Wisconsin — which provides a great view over the 13,000-acre Sheboygan Marsh Wildlife Area.
THE RACE TRACK
Auto racing fans are well aware of the Elkhart Lake area thanks to Road America, which has drawn the likes of actor/race car drivers Paul Newman and Patrick Dempsey as well as legions of other amateur and pro racers. Established in 1955, the 4-mile, 14-turn racetrack hosts a wide range of races, from NASCAR and Indy-style cars to sportbikes, motorcycles and vintage vehicles.
The track now draws more than 800,000 visitors a year and on big race weekends — like the Verizon IndyCar Road America Grand Prix this June 23 or the Johnsonville NASCAR Xfinity Series race August 25 — the area is inundated with motor sports enthusiasts.
For those who would rather try their own hand at the wheel, Road America offers Sunset Cruises on the main track, karting at its Motorplex track, and two-hour off-road trail rides. There’s also
a pair of 1,200-ft long zip-lines and several other group adventure activities are offered.
WHERE TO KICK BACK AND LISTEN TO LIVE MUSIC
If you want to go where the locals go, head to the Brown Baer. Even though Baer — pronounced bear — looks like a typo, it’s actually the last name of Michael Baer who owns the place. Sunday night is the best time to go for live music. A variety of performers, many from Chicago or Milwaukee, rotate through playing everything from bluegrass, to rock ‘n roll, to “honky-tonk surf.” Besides the typical pool table, dart boards and bar stools, there are a few swings hanging from the ceiling, a stuffed bear in the bar and other eclectic décor, plus highly addictive corn bread and Spotted Cow beer on tap.
Another local hot spot is the Barefoot Bay Tiki Bar at Victorian Village Resort, where you can listen to cover bands and get a mixed drink or beer at the long narrow bar that overlooks Elkhart Lake.
While there isn’t really any type of dance club, per se, in Elkhart, the live music at Osthoff’s Lake Deck bar does sometimes inspire folks to kick up their heels a bit. And the lakeside deck and patio area offers an ideal atmosphere for enjoying the music, which is offered Thursdays through Sundays throughout the summer.
Especially popular with the motorsports crowd is the Stop-Inn Tavern at the family- owned Siebkens Resort, which offers live music and dancing on Wednesday nights. A word of warning, this late-night hangout can sometimes get a bit wild after races, especially if the bar’s old ship bell is ringing. When the bell is rung, the last person to salute is supposed to buy shots for everyone else.
WHERE TO DINE
If you’re a coffee addict or just want a quick grab-and-go breakfast or lunch spot, head to Off the Rail. It’s a small red building with a few outdoor patio spots and a bank of tables inside that offers good coffee, breakfast burritos and baked goods, along with homemade soups and sandwiches.
During the busy summer season, it can be up to a two hour wait to get into the popular Lake Street Café, which features an extensive selection of wine, beer and a blend of gastropub and California bistro-style dining. Daily specials range from rabbit, pheasant and venison to menu stalwarts like wood-fired pizza and wagyu flatiron steak. There’s a bar area with tables, a photo booth and a massive vintage Milwaukee billboard that depicts the four original Wisconsin beer barons — Joseph Schlitz, Frederick Miller, Valentin Blatz, Captain Frederick Pabst and the infamous madam, Kitty Williams.
If you’re looking for a Friday night fish fry, the Quit Qui Oc golf course clubhouse restaurant is a local favorite and serves up breaded or pan-fried perch, all-you-can-eat beer battered cod and walleye along with a fresh catch of the day. The main dining room at Siebkens Resort also offers a Wisconsin Perch Fry along with its acclaimed Siebkens rye bread.
For those looking for more upscale cuisine, one of the best spots in Sheboygan County is the Paddock Club. This swanky hangout with its ornate wooden bar is known for its seasonal farm-to-table style menu offerings. Another great option is Lola’s on the Lake at the Osthoff, which offers elegant fine dining featuring dishes like beer-braised short ribs and king crab and salmon wellington, as well as an extensive wine list and a lounge with small plates. Also at the Osthoff is Otto’s Restaurant, which offers a Sunday brunch buffet and more casual dining.
For a Wisconsin-style supper club, head to Schwarz’s Supper Club in nearby New Holstein. Best known for serving up a variety of great steaks, the restaurant also offers chicken, pork and seafood options. Order and then wait in the bar to be seated when your food is ready.
One of the best places to take kids is the 1920s-themed Gesserts Ice Cream and Confectionary. With a history that dates back more than 90 years, it features a pair of long counters showcasing handpacked ice cream, fudge and a large selection of candy. Vintage black and white photos of Elkhart Lake line the booths that look like they belong in the movie “The Music Man.” A small room off the back serves as a mini display room showcasing the original ice cream counter and gambling equipment that was confiscated during the Prohibition Era.
WHERE TO STAY
There are plenty of great places to stay in and around town. Options include the Osthoff Resort, which has 245 suites that boast fireplaces and either a kitchen or kitchenette. At both Siebkens and Victorian Village resorts, guests can choose to stay in either modern condos or eclectic vintage hotel rooms.
There are also a variety of bed and breakfast spots including the antique-filled Jay Lee Inn. Rooms here have private bathrooms on the second floor, but share a bathroom on the third level. The five-bedroom Christi’s Inn has a more modern boutique feel and also offers a range of apartment and house rentals.
Located on the border of Elkhart Lake and Plymouth, Tauschek’s Bed & Breakfast offers a modernized log cabin-style home featuring an interior that exudes a rustic country charm tastefully blended with modern comforts.
For more information on Elkhart Lake and the surrounding Sheboygan County area, go to www.elkhartlake.com, www.visitsheboygan.com and www.travelwisconsin.com.Edit Module