Photo and story by Patricia Alisau
Less than 2 miles square, Elkhart Lake, a village built around a lake of the same name, is filled with quaint galleries, restaurants, shops, lodging and plenty of down-home charm. Best of all, it is small enough for me to get to most places on foot, my favorite way of exploring a new town. It’s not only easy to navigate, but also, the main street is no more than a few blocks from the lake in case you need a quick detour to it.
It was the banks of this lake where Native American Indians lived in teepees centuries before the first hotel ever appeared. Attracted by its fresh water supply and what they believed were the healing powers of the water, Elkhart Lake soon became a site of pilgrimage. Because of its shape, they named it “heart of an elk,” which stuck to this day.
As the legend of the healing waters was passed down through the years, in the 1880s, a Milwaukee businessman named Otto Osthoff traveled here with his ailing wife hoping for a cure. She recovered and a few years later, they returned and built the first luxury hotel, the Osthoff Resort, in the gilded age style of the time. Railroad cars brought droves of affluent travelers escaping the cities for a summer of swimming, boating and the bath houses at the lake. Developers took notice and a few more swank Victorian hotels went up. Soon the lakeside was the toast of Wisconsin.
The next big surge in popularity occurred in the middle of last century. Any swing around town today will show you stone markers of the Road Race Circuit of the 1950s, which boosted the status of the village once more. Local promoters managed to attract big name auto racers to the first 3.3-mile competition while stock cars were still a novelty in this country. The craze caught on, drawing 15,000 tourists at a time who lined the streets to watch the roadsters zoom by.
After the state banned street racing, in 1955, the event was moved to the newly-built Road America compound with a four-mile track of European design, By then, celebrities such as Mario Andretti, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were showing up and the crowds reached 100,000. Open for international pro and amateur races, Road America also offers adventure options like geocaching, a motorcycle school and an ATV off-road trail ride for day trippers.
Hosting the international race car jockeys also set off a storm of fine dining where eating well is the rule rather than the exception. On Tuesdays you can order crab ravioli tapas at the Paddock Club and, on Wednesdays, a Big Plate of steak or smoked ham at the Back Porch Bistro that is so whopping huge that the owner will give it to you for free if you can finish it. On any night, Angus beef is paired with just the right wines at the Lake Street Café, a scruffy corner bar 100 years ago. For a celebration dinner, book a table at Lola’s on the Lake where the award-winning culinary team creates unique dishes such as seared rushing water trout with ricotta gnocchi and almond brown butter sauce.
For a hands-on experience, though, I signed up for the Osthoff‘s cooking school where Chef Scott insists on classic French bistro food. Each student gets different dishes of the final meal to prepare. After a morning of tossing salad and flipping crepes, I enjoyed the final meal, a lunch that started off with French onion soup au gratin. Then it was back to the village and another chance to show my hand, so to speak, at pottery. Master craftsman Pat Robison led the class at the Two Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden where I received a quick intro to pounding, kneading, rolling and cutting out clay figures. As Robison quipped, “I love teaching because I get to play [with clay] like a kid.” So I took him at his word and dug in, turning out a respectable-looking mug that will have pride of place in my kitchen.
Apart from pottery making, visitors can hike, bike, kayak and fish. In winter, there’s ice skating, sledding, snow shoeing, ice fishing and a full array of holiday activities. Harking back to the lake’s history, the full-service Aspira spa has water and cedar aromatherapy treatments inspired by Native American Indian rituals. For a more in-depth study, head to the overlooked Henchel Farm Indian Museum where owner Gary Henchel guides you through a collection of artifacts from an archeological dig uncovered by his great grandfather. Some pieces date back 2,500 years, he says, adding that it’s privately-owned and funded by his family and includes effigies and burial mounds throughout the property. There’s also a trout farm, which is included in the $6 museum fee and where adults and children can try their hand at fishing.
Small though it may be, Elkhart Lake has a wide range of things to do dating back to even its pre-Victorian era.
How to Get There: Several US airlines, including United, fly into the Milwaukee airport. From here, it’s an hour’s drive to Elkhart Lake.
Where to Stay:
For more information: www.elkhartlake.com
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