It’s easy to relax on the balcony of a historic resort hotel in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, gazing out at the signature lake.
“Dial down with intention,” is how Lola Roeh, general manager of the Osthoff Resort describes it.
Many people believe you need to take a big city vacation to dive into fine dining, interesting conversations and distinctive lodging, but you can find all that in Elkhart Lake, a town with a population touching 1,000.
Since the village is little, much is walkable. Dining in Elkhart Lake involves a stroll before and after meals. Include time for chats with restaurateurs since they love their village, too. Here are a few faves:
Lake Street Café: “We take our time and use our patience,” says owner Lynn Shovan. “Everything’s fresh and starts from scratch.” My lobster bisque called for a two-day process; breads are baked daily, stocks stirred from scratch. The 600-plus wine selections earn Wine Spectator attention. Ask for menus; they’re tucked in old books of many subjects. It’s at 21 S. Lake St., (920) 876-2142 or lakestreetcafe.com/.
Off The Rail: Choose breakfast and lunch, and pack a rhubarb bar and a granola square to go. Train-themed, intimate and packed with local folks, the mood here is casual art and oh-so-friendly. My baked oatmeal with almonds, dried cranberries and warm milk rocked. It’s at 44A Gottfried St., (920) 876-3655 or offtherailelkhartlake.com/.
Paddock Club: Sisters delight in creating memorable meal experiences in the Paddock Club. Go on Tuesdays for the always-all-new small plates menu. That’s the way to taste lots of concoctions by chef Lynn Chisholm. Hope the parsnip and apple agnolotti is on your menu. Stroll the intimate two-room restaurant between courses because the art and bricks and seating spaces are handsome. It’s at 61 S. Lake St., (920) 876-3288 or paddockclubelkhartlake.com/.
High Tea at Jay Lee Inn: Turmeric/ginger tea indicates the distinctive nature of this seven-bedroom 1902 Victorian Federal home, also an inn. Proprietor Monica Lettow even holds sewing retreats here. Multiple courses arrive with high tea, and charming furnishings distinguish each room. Check out the quilts. It’s at 444 S. Lake St., (920) 876-2910 or jayleeinn.com/
Lola’s on the Lake: Dining at the Osthoff Resort. Walk out the front door toward the gardens, and you’ll likely see the chef selecting the day’s ingredients. “We drill down to the best and most unusual varieties,” says General Manager Lola Roeh. “Investing in the value of food for our guests is of great importance.”
Lola’s overlooks the lake. My evening included a bit of cilantro and lime in the buerre blanc, memorable corn relish and Norwegian salmon wrapped in cedar. Otto’s Restaurant is named for the 1886 founder, Mr. Osthoff himself, and the Elk Room provides soft sofas-and-chairs seating areas, opening to a balcony overlooking the grounds and the lake. Lola’s is at 101 Osthoff Ave., (888) 330-5664 or lolasonthelake.com/.
Stroll on The Ice Age Trail
Woolly mammoth and dinosaurs can join you on a hike near Elkhart Lake — at least in your mind’s eye. Why not, since this is an official Ice Age Trail?
Nicely groomed, clearly marked with colorful blazes (yellow denotes Ice Age Trail) and loaded with unusual geological traits, this trail offers options of milelong hikes or longer. The map at the trailhead is clear.
I encountered eskers and kames, drumlins and moraines, and of course kettles since the formal name is Kettle Moraine State Forest, northern unit. Moraine means where the glacier stops, and that’s a jumbly ridge of hills.
Glaciers advancing and retreating created these formations, and scientists explaining what happened speak knowingly in terms of 10,000 years ago when the last glacier touched northwest Wisconsin. They also acknowledge two million years past.
National Park Service rangers can point out puzzle plants and horsetail along this Ice Age Trail, growing since the time of dinosaurs, they say.
Road America, the four-mile, 14-turn racetrack located in Elkhart Lake, is one of the world’s fastest permanent road racing circuits. Claim a bleacher seat, park your camper or spread a blanket on a grassy knoll to watch.
If there’s no race, climb in a vehicle yourself. Ten off-road vehicles bounce and jounce and feel like they might topple over (but don’t) on 12 miles of terrain. Remember the Ice Age kettles and moraines? They’re here, too.
Go-karting, motorcycle skills safety classes and driving schools are some of the choices within these 640 acres.
Where to Stay
Three resorts within walking distance of each other and the village downtown offer individual charms. Each one has a unique history and personality, including Victorian Village Resort, The Osthoff Resort and Siebkens Resort, which abounds with art evoking the racing circuits and plenty of creature comforts in the condo suites.
Victorian Village Resort is at 276 Victorian Village Drive, (920) 876-3323 or vicvill.com/.
The Osthoff Resort is at 101 Osthoff Ave., (888) 330-5664 or osthoff.com/.
Siebkens Resort is at 284 S. Lake St., (920) 876-2600 or siebkens.com/.