You know how sometimes you travel somewhere you’ve never been and you just feel immediately comfortable there? At home even though it’s far from home? That’s how I felt when I visited Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. It’s the kind of place that, within a few days, you find yourself thinking maybe you’d buy yourself a little property there. With a cozy, friendly community and a long, interesting history and posh, modern amenities, the destination is a big draw.
An easy drive from Milwaukee, the history of Elkhart Lake surrounds visitors and is treasured by its less than 1000 residents. It’s said that the elk’s-heart-shaped lake was named “Me-shay-way-odeh-ni-bis” or “Elk Heart Lake” by the Potawatomi Indians, the original tribe to the area. There’s also the story of a love triangle between neighboring Indian tribes that ended tragically, in the Lake. The Lake was formed by a glacier more than 10,000 years ago and is fed by tens of thousands of springs. It is said to have curative powers! We don’t doubt it.
As time went on and word began to spread about Elkhart Lake, resorts were built, as were lake’s-edge cottages (and some grand homes), bought up by people longing for a weekend and summer getaway on the water. Here, a flag-flying boat tour takes us by one of the many swimming “cottages” with their larger, beautiful homes just up the hill, overlooking the lake. Years ago, this was where people changed out of their heavy, waterlogged swimming costumes, just in time for tea.
Elkhart Lake was especially popular with Chicagoans. Women and children would come up and stay for the summer, taking advantage of simple summertime pleasures, including acting camps for the kids followed by performances for the community, which still occurs. The men would take the train or drive up for the weekend before returning to work in the city come Monday morning. That pattern remains a tradition to this day. It’s not uncommon to run into families who will tell you they’ve been coming up to Wisconsin since they were children. Yes, it is a little reminiscent of “Dirty Dancing” minus the drama, probably.
The Lake, along with the beauty of the area, was a big draw for city folk first by horse and carriage and then by railroad when it was added to the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad route in 1872. The charming train depot is still there, in the “Village Square” of the small town with boutiques and a small museum inside.
The Lake itself wasn’t the only draw to the area. In 1950, it was decided that a road race through the streets of Elkhart Lake would be great fun. Racing enthusiasts arrived, loving both the long stretches of roadway for gaining speed but also the tight turns and curves that added to the thrill. Things got a little too thrilling at times, when the only thing between a race car and the crowd of eager observers was a wooden snow fence. Something more permanent (and safer) needed to be built and in 1955, Road America was created.
A 4-mile road course, Road America is still a year-round focal point of Elkhart Lake and is considered one of the best circuits in the U.S. and internationally, attracting more than 800,000 visitors per year. Surrounded by Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine Forest, the lush grounds make it as beautiful a place to camp as it is an exciting place to experience a race.
Historical markers placed around Elkhart Lake’s historic open-road race circuits are a fun way to get a sense of the history of the race, now available for driving (at a moderate speed, thank you), walking, running or biking around. The original races and those of Road America have drawn some of the biggest names in racing and even celebrity racers such as Paul Newman and, a frequent visitor, Patrick Dempsey, two pretty dreamy fellows.
One of the best things about Elkhart Lake is that the majority of it is walkable. From my home-base at the Victorian Village Resort, in minutes I could take a cooking class at L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School followed by a relaxing spa experience at the Aspira Spa, (making the perfect baguette is hard work) both located within the grand Osthoff Resort. Or, passing a block or two of quaint homes with friendly residents greeting me from their front porches, I was suddenly in The Village Square with shopping and excellent restaurants.
There are casual spots to stop into for a quick bite such as Off the Rail (located, well, just off the railroad tracks) for large sandwiches. Or there are places to languish over a meal including Lake Street Café or the Paddock Club, just doors down from each other on Lake Street. There’s a wonderfully supportive and cooperative relationship between the various restaurants. On the restaurants on Lake Street, for instance, an alleyway behind their businesses makes for easy sharing ingredients: “Do you have some basil I can use? Sure, we’re low on scotch, can you spare some?” Besides serving delicious food, it’s all part of the warm, welcoming vibe of Elkhart Lake as a whole.
More great dining can be found at the resorts themselves including Lola’s on the Lake at The Osthoff and the Stop Inn Tavern and Restaurant at Siebkens Resort (between the casual dining and after-hours music venue, the place has been a favorite of the racing circuit as well as vacationers). At Victorian Village, the Back Porch Bistro serves food all day including an elegant dinner with unreal desserts and a porch overlooking the lake. It also serves food at the Barefoot Bay Tiki Bar at water’s edge for a hopping atmosphere and live music.
From the dawn of Spring to the relaxing days of Summer to the colors of Fall and the wonderland of Winter, Elkhart Lake has plenty to offer. Take advantage of reduced lodging rates in the Fall and Winter too! The feeling that comes from spending time in Elkhart Lake is really hard to describe. For me, it was a mix of giddiness, calm and belonging all at once. The feeling has stayed with me, calling to me to return soon. I guess it really comes down to what the Potawatomi Indians realized so long ago – it’s something in the water.
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