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(Above) The Osthoff Resort and Elkhart Lake in eastern Wisconsin. Photo obtained from The Osthoff Resort. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

You’ll relax, romp, and rejuvenate at this Wisconsin waterfront playground just three hours north of Chicago.

10-Jul-24 – According to truth or legend, Native Americans living along the banks of spring-fed Elkhart Lake believed it had curative powers. The conviction transcended generations and established the small Wisconsin namesake town as a resort community for tourists and wellness seekers more than 150 years ago.

Is Elkhart Lake really therapeutic? It depends on who you ask. In my view, a waterfront getaway just three hours north of Chicago is definitely rejuvenating. Add to that a glorious scenic backdrop, a charming and walkable downtown, delectable dining, and a history rich in bootleggers and auto racing. Let’s check it out:

Scooped out by ancient glaciers, the 300-acre Elkhart Lake is both placid and pristine. Lining its shores are lush woods, sandy beaches, and stately mansions, all of which are delightful to behold while embarking on a leisurely pontoon cruise. Aquatic recreation of all sorts is at hand, although wakes are forbidden on Sundays. Fireman’s Park & Beach is open to the public.

A trio of resorts

On a leafy hillside above the lake stands a trio of iconic resorts: The Osthoff Resort, Siebkens Resort, and The Shore Club. Each has a private beach, swimming pool, restaurants, bars, and a schedule of live entertainment and special events, but they have different personalities and lodging styles.

Osthoff, a AAA Four Diamond resort, is the largest and most traditionally appointed of the three, with 278 guest rooms and suites circling formal gardens and a freeform pond. The original hotel was built in 1886 by German entrepreneurs Otto and Paulina Osthoff, who chose the area so Paulina could recuperate after an illness. It was demolished, rebuilt, and reopened in 1995 as the present-day resort.

Among the dining options are Otto’s, a casual all-day restaurant with courtyard views, and the chef-driven Concourse Restaurant & Lounge, featuring steaks, seafood, and upscale pub fare.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Siebkens (left) is a turn-of-the-century resort with a dual personality, offering both heritage guest rooms and modern condominium units.

A total of 30 compact and eclectically decorated heritage rooms are available in a 1920s-era building named Elm Park Hotel and the circa 1890 Lake Cottage. Note that the heritage rooms have been updated but are not ADA accessible. The condo building, opened in 2008, has 22 spacious units designed with full kitchens, fireplaces, and private verandas.

At Siebkens, you’ll enjoy upscale weekend dining in an Old World setting at P.A.M.’s restaurant or popular pub fare at the rustic and lively Stop-Inn Tavern, housed in a former opera house from 1882. It’s a favorite on the international racing circuit frequenting nearby Road America, which I tell you more about as you read on. Paul Newman stayed at Siebkens while filming Winning, a 1969 movie about professional racing.

The Shore Club’s history dates to the late 1800s when both alcohol and gambling were out in the open. Today the original building (right) is home to The Social, a restaurant and lounge with lake views and a speakeasy vibe.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The dog-friendly resort is well-known for its open-air Tiki Bar, and a buzzing music and casual dining venue just footsteps from the beach. A separate hotel building, which underwent a recent renovation, has 27 contemporary guest rooms, some with private terraces. A handful of heritage rooms and condo units are also available. There’s also a century-old theater booked with live stage performances.

Fun times in Elkhart Lake

Whether the skies are sunny or gray, leisure activities are abundant. Here are my top picks:

Soothe at the spa. The award-winning Aspira Spa at Osthoff is a sanctuary of peace and relaxation, with a robust menu of massages, facials, and body treatments, plus spaces for quiet meditation. I highly recommend booking a 45-minute session in the new Salt Therapy Room. Halotherapy, as it is called, is a natural healing practice of inhaling dry microscopic salt particles said to relieve congestion and inflammation and to improve overall wellness. Lie back on an upholstered chaise in the amber-tiled room and breathe in mineral-rich air while soft music plays in the background.

Race to Road America. After the state legislature put a stop to car racing on public streets, a group of speed-happy visionaries in 1955 built their own permanent track. Road America has achieved international acclaim with celebrity drivers and amateurs alike.

Photo by Les Tension

The four-mile, 14-turn racecourse (left) winds along 640 acres of natural glacier-formed topography.

Photo by Les Tension

More than a dozen major events and many smaller ones are held each year, spotlighting vintage sports car and motorcycle racing. View the action from stadium seating or the faux beach or hit the road yourself by renting an ATV or go-kart or taking a motorcycle driving class. For certain special events, you can drive your own car.

Hike the Ice Age Trail. Some of the best examples of glacial landforms are found in Wisconsin. These kettles, kames, and erratics (translation: holes, hills, and rocks) mark the 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail through the state. About 31 miles of the trail traverse the length of Kettle Moraine State Forest Northern Unit.

We hopped on at the Greenbush Recreation Area (right), where the trail leads through both prairie and woodland. If you prefer, there’s also a Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Tee off. Quit Qui Oc Golf Course is a public family-run golf course celebrating its 100th anniversary. Its 27 holes are set among the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine, which makes for some challenging moves. The 15th hole is the course signature, a dogleg that changes in elevation and is partially obscured by mature trees. Perhaps the PGA-certified and LPGA-certified pros on staff can offer some pointers.

Create classic cuisine. Sign up for a class at Osthoff’s cooking school, L'école à la maison (“The Home School”), and sharpen your skills. Chef Rodney Schultz caters to all levels, from seasoned cooks to kitchen klutzes. Classes are themed around cuisines such as sauces, pasta, pizza, baking, and the like. Best yet, at the end of the class, you sit down to a beautifully dressed communal table and dine on your creations accompanied by the appropriate beverage.

Stroll the sidewalks. Downtown Elkhart Lake, just a couple of blocks from the resorts, is dotted with locally owned shops and boutiques. The historic feed mill building is a revamped mini mall with SwitchGear Brewery sharing space with Elkhart Lake Outfitters for active living apparel and Gina’s Fine Gifts & Framing for rustically elegant home furnishings.

Nordic Accents purveys Scandinavian imported home decor, apparel, and Christmas crafts. Vintage Elkhart Lake offers 300 wines from around the world plus gourmet fare to accompany them.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Two Fish Gallery (left) showcases fine craft, fine art, and fair-trade works in a 20th century arts-and-crafts-style bungalow.

Walk along the side and back of the home to view rich gardens interspersed with eclectic sculptures by owners and ceramicists Patrick and Karen Robison.

Buy real Wisconsin cheese. Stock up locally produced cheese at Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese Store, Museum & Factory. A fourth-generation, family-owned-and-operated enterprise, Henning’s was in business before the days of refrigeration. Dairy farmers back then, driving horses and buggies, could only hoof three or four miles before their milk spoiled.

Today the fully automated factory (right) produces award-winning cheddars, Colbys, and Monterey Jacks.

Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese

Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese

The museum gallery relates the Henning’s story with displays of old-timey tools and equipment alongside large glass windows where you can watch cheese production in real time.

Dining out

Lake Street Cafe is a town mainstay with a scratch kitchen and extensive wine selection recognized with a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. An eclectic menu of upscale American classics favors casually formal dining while also pleasing the burger-and-pizza crowd. Save room for the memorable brownie sundae – its creation was a happy accident resulting from a failed attempt at a flourless chocolate cake.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The cheery decor is a stew of vintage and kitschy memorabilia themed around car racing and beer.

Quit Qui Oc Restaurant. Whether you golf or not, the Quit Qui Oc clubhouse and bar is open year-round for lunch and Friday fish fries for casual dines. The robust menu of sandwiches, burgers, and salads is popular with visitors and locals alike. Try the Twisted Turkey Club layered atop grilled Parmesan basil focaccia.

Order the cheese curds, of course. You’re in Wisconsin.

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.