May 22, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Elkhart Lake, WI Offers Small-Town Charm and More

9 min read

A trio of time-honored lake resorts carries on the traditions of hospitality in this little Wisconsin town, an idyllic place made famous by fast cars

By Randy Mink, Senior Editor

Maneuvering our two-person off-road vehicles over massive roots and boulders, we were laughing, sighing and “oh-my-godding” every stretch of the way while trying to stay on the trail and avoid slamming into trees. As our group’s caravan of UTVs (utility task vehicles) splashed through muddy ruts and careened up and down hills like a roller coaster, I feared at least one of them would tip over and hoped it wouldn’t be mine. What a relief it was to switch drivers after 30 minutes. Strapped in helmets and seatbelts, we first-time UTVers found off-roading an exhilarating, if daunting, group activity indeed.

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Our adrenaline-pumping adventure, led by an expert guide, took place at Road America motorsports complex in northeast Wisconsin, an hour north of Milwaukee. One of America’s premier road racing courses, the 640-acre park offers a variety of experiences for those who feel the need for speed.

Off-roading adventure, Road America. (Photo credit: Road America)

Off-roading adventure, Road America. (Photo credit: Road America)

Cruising in the fast lane at Road America is just one of many pleasures awaiting vacationers at Elkhart Lake, a resort village where the pace is slow and relaxed. Shops and eateries in the quiet lakeside town (pop. 967) are just a short walk from three Victorian-style resort hotels that have welcomed travelers for generations.

The white-clapboard hotels, along with many vacation rentals, stand just steps from the private beaches of pristine Elkhart Lake, whose spring-fed, blue-green water provides the setting for swimming, fishing and boating. It is the fourth-deepest lake (119 feet) in Wisconsin. Watersport rentals include pontoons, pedal boats, kayaks, canoes, hydro-bikes and stand-up paddle boards.

The Osthoff: A Classic Elkhart Lake Resort

The Osthoff Resort, a AAA Four Diamond property, was originally opened in 1886 by German entrepreneur Otto Osthoff and his wife Pauline. A favorite destination of the affluent escaping big-city hustle and bustle, it was sold in the 1950s and for over 30 years operated as a drama and arts camp.

Rebuilt in the 1990s, The Osthoff comprises three buildings featuring steeply pitched roofs, gables, dormers, turrets and gingerbread trim. Expansive lawns sweep down to the paved lakefront path. Each of the 240 suites has a kitchen or kitchenette, a dining and living room, fireplace and private balcony.

The resort’s Aspira Spa offers a full menu of treatments and recently introduced a salt room. Other amenities include a cooking school, fitness center, game arcade, and indoor and outdoor pools. A children’s activity program operates during summer and holidays.

The Elk Room, an inviting spot for specialty coffees, cocktails, pastries, pizza and appetizers, has floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the lake and lawns, and a terrace with outdoor seating A mounted elk head looms over the fireplace.

When you’re ready to dine, choose from the Concourse Restaurant & Lounge or Otto’s Restaurant. A food option in summer is the Lake Deck at the beach.

The Osthoff Resort, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo credit: Elkhart Lake Visitor Center)

The Osthoff Resort, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo credit: Elkhart Lake Visitor Center)

The Ostfhoff’s Old World Christmas Market, one of the largest such markets in the Midwest, draws 75-80 vendors from across the U.S. and Europe. Under a big tent, guests feast on sauerbraten, potato pancakes and other German foods, plus roasted nuts and mulled wine.

Cocktail Bar, Siebkens Resort. (Photo credit: Elkhart Lake Visitor Center)

Cocktail Bar, Siebkens Resort. (Photo credit: Elkhart Lake Visitor Center)

Siebkens Resort Keeps Traditions Alive in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Siebkens Resort, established in 1916 by Laura and Herman Siebken, is the smallest of Elkhart Lake’s trio of traditional resorts. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is steeped in Old World atmosphere, with two buildings dating back to the late 1800s. Guests can stay in one of the 31 historic hotel rooms or in the newer condominium building.

The resort’s Stop-Inn Tavern, filled with road racing memorabilia, is a popular evening gathering spot that occupies a former opera house. The famous Siebkens Sandwich, an Elkhart Lake classic, consists of thinly sliced meat, cheese and tomato, along with onion and lettuce, on buttered, thinly sliced rye bread made especially for Siebkens by a Kiel, Wisconsin bakery using an old German recipe. The adjacent Sissy’s, an outdoor Biergarten, offers a selection of German beers, freshly made gelato and a bandstand with musical entertainment in summer.

An Old Europe atmosphere also permeates P.A.M.’s, the resort’s fine dining restaurant. Tucked away in P.A.M.’s (named for former owner/chef Patricia Anne Moeller) is a cozy, “secret” wood-paneled Cocktail Bar.

Shore Club Favorites Include a Speakeasy and Tiki Bar

Just up the hill from Siebkens resides another time-honored resort, The Shore Club. It opened as the Lakeview House in the 1800s and later became the Schwarz resort Hotel. Until six years ago, it was Victorian Village and now operates under the Ascend Hotel Collection/Choice Hotels banner.

The Social, a speakeasy-themed lounge/restaurant brimming with decor recalling the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, shares a 1910 building with a theater featuring bands, karaoke and comedy acts. The space was an actual speakeasy during Prohibition. Black-and-white photos of music icons Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole adorn its walls, and 1940s movies run continuously. Equipped with an outdoor patio, The Social, serving brunch and dinner, is the town’s closest restaurant to the lake. Nearby, overlooking the 600-foot beach, the Tiki Bar presents live music from Thursday-Sunday in summer.

A modern two-story building and several condo buildings provide accommodations for Shore Club guests. The 1905 lobby building, once the owner’s home, serves a continental breakfast in the parlor and has four historic guest rooms upstairs. Besides an outdoor pool, there’s an indoor pool by the fitness room and arcade.

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Exploring the Village of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

From your lakeside resort hotel, stroll a block or two into town and check out the shops. In the lounge at Vintage Wine Shop and Fine Foods, you can sample wines dispensed from two Wine-O-Matic machines, each offering eight varieties. Hand-written notes from owner Jacklyn Stuart, a certified sommelier and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine & Food Pairing, describe each wine in the machines and others for sale in the shop, which carries 250 wines from around the world, plus beers, spirits, craft sodas, olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

SwitchGear Brewing Company, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Randy Mink Photo)

SwitchGear Brewing Company, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Randy Mink Photo)

In an old feed mill by the railroad tracks, SwitchGear Brewing, with nearly 20 brews on tap, delights craft beer fans with varieties like the best-selling Pontoon Pounder, a wheat beer; Snub Nosed Monkey, an IPA with juniper berries; Orange Krushable, similar to orange pop or a Dreamsicle; Cherry Springer, a cherry marshmallow sour; and Resorter Red, which is used in the Red Ale Cheddar spread for the delicious soft pretzels. SwitchGear makes root beer as well.

Beer aficionados will appreciate the beer barons mural, vintage signs and other beer memorabilia inside Lake Street Cafe, which partners with Amasa’s Mexican food truck in back and serves Mexican dishes inside during the off-season.

Off the Rail Cafe, housed in Elkhart Lake’s original railroad depot, is a train-themed breakfast and lunch place. Rail buffs also will like The Depot Shoppe, a gift shop with local history exhibits in the old 1897 station. Trains no longer serve Elkhart Lake, though the tracks and crossing signals are still there.

More nostalgia pops up at Gessert’s Ice Cream & Confectionery, an old-fashioned soda fountain and chocolate shop dating from 1922. Its museum room is full of ice cream artifacts and gambling equipment from Prohibition times. On the same block of Lake Street are the Paddock Club restaurant, named after a gambling club that thrived during Prohibition, and Nordic Accents, which purveys Scandinavian imports.

Elkhart Lake Takes Pride in Its Car Culture

Historical signposts around town pay homage to the open-road sports car racing meets that put Elkhart Lake on the map as a hub of car culture and led to the establishment of Road America in 1955. The signs recall the Elkhart Lake Road Race Circuits, when, from 1950-1952, drivers from around the world competed annually on a 6.5-mile course through village streets and country roads, drawing crowds of up to 130,000. Sponsored by the Chicago Region of the Sports Car Club of America, the event, after three successful years, ended after the state legislature banned racing on public roads. Only hay bales and snow fencing had provided protection for spectators. One sign, outside of SwitchGear Brewing, marks the start-finish line.

The business that exemplifies Elkhart Lake’s connection to cars is Throttlestop, which sells, repairs and displays vintage and late-model high-end collector cars and motorcycles. Known by collectors across the United States and Europe (95 percent of its sales are from out of state), the three-building facility includes an expansive, free-admission museum that showcases pieces of automotive eye candy shined to perfection. You might see a 1954 Chevrolet Corvette, a 1957 Ford Thunderbird or a 2005 Porsche Carrera GT racecar. Some of the 100-plus motorcycles on display date back to the early 1900s.

Rev Up for Fun at Road America

Road America’s four-mile, 14-turn track, renowned as one of the world’s most challenging road courses, sweeps around the rolling hills and ravines of Wisconsin’s highly glaciated Kettle Moraine area.

Road America, just outside of Elkhart Lake, is a stop for most major North American race series, including the prestigious NTT INDYCAR Series Grand Prix. The season’s 500-plus events attract more than 800,000 spectators. A campground offers more than 1,000 sites, of which 125 are electrical.

Besides off-roading through the woods, half-day group adventure programs at the self-proclaimed “America’s National Park of Speed” include go-karting (up to 40 mph) and racecar driving on the world-famous track. The circuit is open to bikers, walkers and runners for “4 Miles of Fitness” on Monday and Wednesday evenings from May to September. An 18-hole disc golf course is entirely surrounded by the track.

WeatherTech Chicago Region SCCA June Sprints at Road America. (Photo credit: Elkhart Lake Visitor Center)

WeatherTech Chicago Region SCCA June Sprints at Road America. (Photo credit: Elkhart Lake Visitor Center)

The “Pace Car Hot Laps” experience straps a passenger into an official pace car for two white-knuckle laps around the track with a Road America driver. On select dates you can take your own car on a leisurely, low-speed spin for three laps. The track also offers motorcycle and winter driving schools.

Excursions from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

On weekday mornings at Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese in nearby Kiel, groups can see cheesemakers work their magic over massive stainless steel vats. A short video in the little museum covers the whole process, from the time milk is received from 20 small dairy farms to the finished product.

Founded by Otto Henning in 1914, Henning’s is a fourth-generation family enterprise that daily produces between 12,000 and 20,000 pounds of cheese—cheddar, colby, mozzarella, farmers and gouda. Specialty cheddars in the store range from blueberry cobbler and pumpkin spice to apple, bacon, chipotle and tequila lime. A wedge of cheddar in the shape of a cow or Wisconsin map makes the perfect gift.

In Greenbush, groups get a guided tour of the Wade House, a Wisconsin Historical Society site centered on a restored inn that served 19th century stagecoach travelers. The campus also includes reconstructions of a working blacksmith shop and sawmill. In the modern visitor center, the Wesley W. Jung Carriage Museum displays a magnificent collection of horse-drawn carriages and wagons used by merchants and wealthy individuals in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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Lead photo: Shore Club Beach. (Photo credit: Elkhart Lake Visitor Center)

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