Elkhart LakeElkhart Lake, Wisconsin is a small village of less than 1,000 people, but don’t be fooled by the size. This town proves the maxim that good things come in small packages.  Taking a deep breath in Elkhart Lake recently, I found myself transported back to an era when life was a little less stressful.

A resort destination since the late 19th century, the oldest  resort, Victorian Village, was founded in 1872 as the Rustic House. Then Siebkens Resort was created by William Schwartz in 1883 with three-story Belleview House.

The village of Elkhart Lake is blessed with beautiful scenery, centered around the lake formed by an ancient glacier surrounded by numerous old growth trees. The Potawatomi Indians called the lake Great Elk Heart Lake because its shape resembled the elk’s heart, and believed the lake’s waters had healing powers.Osthoff Resort grounds

Elkhart Lake also has fine restaurants, great people, and such lovely resorts as the Osthoff, first started in 1885 by German entrepreneur Otto Osthoff who had originally brought his wife to the lake to recover from a nervous breakdown.  Obviously it worked!  Osthoff Resort is now a beautiful property which boasts numerous ballrooms and restaurants, landscaped gardens, a spa, and even a cooking school.

My visit to Elkhart Lake started off right, with a Sacred Waters massage at the Osthoff’s Aspira Spa the first morning.  Weather delays back in Dallas had pushed my arrival into the wee hours that morning, but this soothing massage renewed my spirits and also provided an unexpected burst of energy.  Aspira means “infused with spirit,” and they offer unique treatments using the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

Osthoff Resort beachThe scenic walk past the lake to lunch at Siebkens further lifted my spirits, and a delicious turkey sandwich on rye bread propelled me through an afternoon of browsing and shopping at some of the vintage shops in downtown Elkhart Lake.

These included unique galleries and boutiques such as Enchanted Florals, Nordic Accents, Gina’s Specialty Gifts, Two Fish Gallery & Sculpture Garden, Nicola’s Gift Garden, CottageWood, Three Gables, McGinley & Baker, and Vintage Elkhart Lake Wine Shop and Tasting Bar.  A favorite stop was Off the Rail, a coffee shop and restaurant located in the historic train depot.

Walking around the Village of Elkhart Lake, I found numerous road markers showing where race cars once zoomed through town (in 1951-’52 and ’53).

The Governor of Wisconsin and state legislators became alarmed at the huge potential for liability as crowds of onlookers packed the streets to watch the races, and road racing was quickly banned.ElkhartLake historic race circuit

But Elkhart Lake wasn’t without racing long, as members of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) came to the rescue, planning for an officially sanctioned racetrack on 525 acres of farmland just outside Elkhart Lake.  Road America opened the challenging 4.048 mile track in the spring of 1955.

Taking advantage of the glacial Kettle Moraine area, race car drivers encountered rolling hills, twisty turns and deep ravines while onlookers could watch their progress from the safety of bleachers set at the most promising turns. Road America race

The legendary Road America track is known for its pastoral setting, popular with local families for additional activities such as picnics, camping, or hiking as well as snow and ice driving, motorcycle and Go-Kart lessons.  Road America is Big Business now, bringing 800,000 visitors to Elkhart Lake each year and generating over $100 M with 425 annual events.  The corporation’s shareholders include many local residents, with shares being passed from one generation to the next.

September 18-20 will bring nearly 250 vintage and historic race cars for a Road America event that includes a historic road course reenactment tour.

Elkhart Lake vintage race photo by Les TensionThe vintage cars leave Road America’s track that Saturday to follow a route almost identical to the street course that ran through Elkhart Lake in the early 1950’s.

Village restaurant Lake Street Cafe offers a juxtaposition of modern family-friendly dining (pizzas, etc.) with a return to a more formal era and lavish dishes served with wine in their elegant dining room.

wade-house-exterior-rightAnother chance to step back in time to the 1860’s is offered by the Wade House Historic Site & Carriage Museum.

A highlight of the trip came on a Pontoon boat ride with Captain Jim Benson, who’s been navigating the lake for 50 years.  His stories provided historic footnotes to the origins of the lake along with tidbits about various owners and tenants of the homes that overlooked Elkhart Lake, some now worth millions of dollars.  Like the shares in Road America, these homes are often passed down from one generation to the next.

Cooking ClassAnother highlight was the French Cuisine cooking class taught by Chef Scott Baker at the Osthoff Resort.  Thanks to his instructions and in spite of our inexperience, we enjoyed a splendid luncheon of Classic French Onion soup, Gougeres, Coquilles St. Jacques au Gratin, Tenderloin of Beef au Poivre, Haricots Verts with Walnut Butter, and Gratin Dauphinoise with French Baguette, followed by Crepes Suzettes with Raspberries.   As another of Chef Scott’s students noted, we learned to cook dishes we couldn’t pronounce with utensils we couldn’t afford in a kitchen as large and more spotless than most of our homes.

The Osthoff Resort also features special kid’s programs in the summer, along with swimming pools and a private beach at the lake.  Their Christmas Market Dec. 4-13 sounds like a great excuse for a return trip to Elkhart Lake. Seeing this storybook village covered by snow should be a unique retro experience, especially for those of us who live “down south” where we don’t see much snow.  Frankly, any excuse to return to Elkhart Lake is good enough for me!