Casual Elegance & More in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

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Remember the days when summer camps were idyllic places on the lake; soda shops served real ice cream while you spun on the bar stool; racing cars was a normal pastime; and small town meant lots of friendly faces?

That place still exists at Elkhart Lake, in eastern Wisconsin, located in the beautiful, glacially formed heart of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, about an hour’s drive from Milwaukee. (Kettle Moraine refers to the geology formed by buried glacial ice that left depressions in water-filled “kettles” that dot the moraine.)

Elkhart Lake calls itself “a legendary getaway,” which isn’t something most small towns can truthfully get away with, but Elkhart has managed to build its reputation as a prime destination for those who flock to the region from Milwaukee, Chicago, Green Bay and other Midwest areas, as well as outside the region.

That’s because Elkhart Lake’s history and natural beauty are legendary. Once a gathering place for gamblers and gangsters, it was attracting renowned athletes and race car drivers by the 1950s, which in turn led to it become a popular tourist attraction that now brings people from all over the world.

I arrived on a crisp fall Sunday afternoon as the village of Elkhart Lake, population around 960, was still slumbering. I checked into one of the town’s three major resorts, the Siebkens, a towering, turn-of-the-century giant encased in white, wraparound balconies that overlooks beautiful Elkhart Lake, a spring-fed, crystal clear body of blue-green water 120 feet deep. Swimmers, boaters and picnickers were already out enjoying the mild weather. It’s no wonder Native Americans, who arrived first, called the lake “the chosen spot,” for its healing waters.  

My “room” at the Siebkens was actually a spacious two-bedroom condo with a full-sized kitchen. Purchased in 1916, the hotel is still family owned and has been renovated in the style of lake view condo units, each with an open floor plan, fireplace, granite countertops, built-in laundry and underground parking. For details, go to the resort’s website.

Strolling along the town’s paved sidewalks, the first thing I noticed was the pristine charm of the village, with each small business proud of its distinct look and flavor. An early influx of Scandinavian and German immigrants is evident in the village architecture and loving attention to detail.

Gesserts Ice Cream and Confectionery, left, and Aspira Spa, right.

I stopped in at Gesserts Ice Cream and Confectionery simply because it looked interesting, and met two young women, Megan Waage and Eliza Myers, who explained the old-fashioned soda shop was owned by a family whose surviving member still lives across the street. Current owners are Ryan and Michelle Moeller.

Featuring more than 20 different flavors of hand-packed ice cream with the highest butter fat content the law allows, Gesserts has been luring customers in since the 1920s.  

Today, the shop retains its retro charm by making its own its own fudge and waffle cones on site from a special family recipe, and offering up everything from Caramel Collision and Malted Mountain ice cream to traditional banana splits. Step to the back of the shop for a brief journey through time as you view the artifacts on display that made soda shops so popular in their prime.

I took a moment to stop in next door at Nordic Accents, full of Scandinavian imported items owned by Pirkko Jarvensivu, who like nearly everyone in Elkhart, was more than happy to chat. She offers Norwegian goods that run the gamut from Nordic sweaters to Danish iron. It’s also Christmas year round in her place of business (you’ll see Santa and decorations galore).  

On one scenic street corner sits a barn red Depot Station (trains once stopped in Elkhart to and from Milwaukee) with a cozy café nearby called Off the Rail, the original Elkhart Depot. Locals say it’s a great spot for breakfast and lunch, with a family friendly atmosphere. But it was closed, so instead, I ventured on to the Vintage Wine Shop and Tasting Bar, a wine and fine foods shop that carries more than 250 wines from around the world, in addition to olive oils, cigars, local cheeses, craft beer, gifts, candies and locally made gelato.

There are more than a dozen different places to eat in the little town (and a surprising number of businesses owned by women) so I went to Lola’s on the Lake at The Osthoff Resort. I chose to sit by the window so I could gaze at the sparkling glacial waters while dining on fresh chicken salad and fresh baked bread from the restaurant’s award-winning culinary team.  

The Osthoff Resort, built in 1885 by an industrialist who wanted his wife to heal near the Elkhart waters, was beautifully rebuilt in 1995 following a fire. It is the second of the three large resorts at Elkhart Lake I was able to visit.

Travel & Leisure named it among the 500 World’s Best Hotels in 2014, and it is managed by Lola Roeh, who says, “Our mission is to deliver the best resort experience in the Midwest, with a casual, friendly elegance. The world is no longer stiff and formal as it used to be. People can come here in their jeans and casual attire; yet still find an elegant atmosphere, along with an authentic friendliness. We can’t teach our employees how to be friendly to guests – that’s just how they are. We consider ourselves real people serving real people.”

Click hereto learn more about the Osthoff Resort.

I was treated to two of The Osthoff’s unique amenities firsthand: Aspira The Spa, a premier onsite spa that specializes in holistic and organic treatments, many related to Native American traditions (photo above), and the French cooking school in which even borderline cooks like me can learn a few trade secrets from a world class chef.

First, The Spa: “Aspira” means “infused with spirit,” meant to enhance physical, mental and spiritual well-being. I was pampered with a one-hour “Biodynamic Facial” that provided anti-aging treatments and included a luxurious face, neck, shoulder, hands, arms and foot massage. While you wait for the ultimate in a spa experience, reflect in the quiet of the Meditation Sanctuary, or get refreshed at the Spa Café. There are also a Yoga Room, a Finnish sauna, a whirlpool, relaxation rooms and the Spa Boutique where I purchased a travel-sized lotion called “Morning Mint” that brings compliments every time I wear it. Visit the spa online to see its menu of services.

At the L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School (no, I couldn’t pronounce it either), located inside The Osthoff Resort, Chef Scott Baker – his real name – exudes utmost patience with his cooking students, many of whom, myself included, can’t tell the difference between a crepe suzette and a crepe fabric.

We began the class at 9:30 a.m. a group of six, each assigned a specific task, with the ultimate goal to have a six-course, delectable French meal prepared and ready to eat 3 1/2 hours later.

Pat Robison, left, owns the Two Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden with his wife, Karen; I get started with my tasks at the L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School.

My job – I soon realized considered a punishment in the military – was to peel the spuds, wash and slice them into thin layers. Nonetheless, I ended up making raspberry vinaigrette dressing from scratch, learned how to select and cut a thick beef tenderloin, how placing a casserole dish in a pan of water more evenly distributes the heat, and how NOT to slice off your finger when using super sharp cutting instruments.

After our sumptuous meal – including French baguettes, fresh creamery butter, melt-in-your-mouth Wisconsin cheese puffs, French onion soup, fresh vegetables from the Resort’s garden, tossed salad with poached egg, and beef tenderloin, we were invited to the Lake Street Café two blocks away for another sumptuous meal.

An eclectic café serving California Bistro style fare, the Café serves homemade soups and desserts made from scratch. I was so stuffed I could barely enjoy the delicious menu items. But owner Lynn Shovan insisted I try the Roasted Brussels Sprouts, above, and I’m glad she did. They are prepared with lemon, Parmesan and capers for a light, tasty blend even non-veggie lovers like. Dessert was Jack Daniels Chocolate Pecan Pie, a local favorite. Check out the menu for the Café.

After dinner, I toured the last of the three resorts – the Victorian Village – which is owned and operated by Judy Salzwedel, a vivacious woman whose enthusiasm for hospitality is contagious. The resort features 12 luxury condos, among other accommodations that vary from quaint to charming. Judy loves, among other things on her property, the Barefoot Tiki Bar set near the water’s edge at Elkhart Lake, and the century-old theatre open for family reunions, weddings or retreats. Judy also owns the nearby Back Porch Bistro, offering breakfast, dinner and lunch daily. Visit the website for more on the Victorian Village Resort and Bistro.

Don’t be fooled by all the eating, cooking, spa pampering and general lifestyle at the Elkhart Lake Resorts. Just 3 miles from the village’s center is one of the country’s largest and most popular racing venues. Set on 640 acres, Road America – think National Park for speed buffs – brings some of the nation’s best known race car drivers to train on its 4-mile, 14-turn track, as well as thousands of visitors and speed freaks every year to road race, ride go karts and ATVs, set up camp, watch professional races, or participate in corporate team-building events. Though families love it, it’s not just for children.

Opened in 1955, Road America was born as an open road race circuit after Elkhart Lake Village banned street racing for safety reasons. (You’ll still the signs in the village where public roads were used during the 1950s for organized races.) Visit Road America for details and a full list of year round events or call 1-800-365-7223.

Back in the Elkhart Lake village, stop in at Two Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden, where owners Pat (photo above) and Karen Robison will kindly teach you how to sculpt with clay, as well as provide garden tours, workshops and a showcase of their Fair Trade handmade products from around the world. Open year round, you can visit the gallery online.

Think Elkhart Lake with its Wisconsin winters is strictly a summer resort? Think again. Holidays are among the best and busiest times of year in the village, especially at The Osthoff Resort, with festivities that begin around Thanksgiving, and carry through Christmas (don’t miss the European Christmas Market with vendors specializing in Old World tradition, ice skating, sledding, brunch with St. Nick’s reindeer and Breakfast with Santa, plus more). For a full list of holiday activities, click here.

Finally, learn more about the year round “legendary getaway” of Elkhart Lake by contacting Tourism at 1-877-355-4278 or going online.