A Wisconsin Wellness Weekend

January 7, 2019

By Brandon Schultz

I grew up in the Philly suburbs where summer getaways were traditionally devoted to the beaches along the East coast from the Jersey shore south through Florida, and winters were reserved for Pocono mountain cabins. So, no one in my family had ever heard of the Midwest resort town of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Except my grandfather.  He’s been watching NASCAR for as long as I can remember, and Elkhart Lake is home to a legendary track. The town first entered the national spotlight in the 1950s when it briefly hosted annual automobile races on public roads, eschewing any semblance of tranquil lakeside living. The celebrated drivers of the day (male and female) tore through the tiny town and its surroundings on a challenging course. Despite the thrills, though, the course was quickly deemed too dangerous for both drivers and spectators, and a new track at Road America was built to accommodate the region’s deep love for its favorite sport.

Embracing the Speed

Today, Road America still hosts major races, including NASCAR and IndyCar events, on open grounds that accommodate up to 150,000 spectators, which draw massive crowds and offer a slew of recreational activities. I’ve never had much of an interest in racing, but after hearing that their pro-karts could reach speeds four times faster than traditional go-karts, I was pumped to get behind the wheel of one and see what I could do. At the end of my race, my times and speeds were handed to me, neatly charted against my competitors’. Despite having driven a go-kart only once before, I was surprised to see I ranked first, with both the highest speed and the fastest lap. My grandfather can now boast that his grandson won at Road America, if he doesn’t provide too many details, and I won’t pretend I’m not a lot more curious about fast cars than I was before.

The Wellness Experience

But speed, adrenaline, and impressing my grandfather weren’t the primary reasons I ventured to Elkhart Lake. Originally named by the Potawatomi Indians referring to the shape of the lake (yes, an elk’s heart, though nearby Crystal Lake is much more like that so there was likely a bit of a mix-up somewhere in history), it was believed the waters were sacred and imbued with healing powers. This idea persisted through the years, eventually bringing Otto and Paulina Osthoff to the area in 1885 after Paulina suffered a nervous breakdown and her doctor recommended a change in scenery from bustling, polluted Milwaukee. Paulina rebounded during her time here and built a resort empire that continues today as the premier accommodation in the region. Consistently awarded and currently celebrating its 19th consecutive year, The Osthoff is more than a fancy landing pad in a chic resort town; instead, it continually hones its focus on providing a superlative wellness experience. I wasn’t exactly suffering in any way when I headed out there, but everyone could use a little pick-me-up, so I checked in for a well-deserved escape.

The Culinary Side of Wellness

If wellness begins from within, then The Osthoff’s culinary program is a head start toward meaningful improvement. It’s not just that the food is delicious and artfully presented, but that much of it comes from the property’s multiple gardens, where more than 10,000 pounds of produce are harvested annually. Osthoff’s chefs work directly with the gardeners to determine what should be grown to support their repertoire of creations, and with selections that include rare garlics and shallots to more than 20 varieties of tomatoes, the output is limited only by its imagination.

Thinking about expanding your own culinary abilities? On the ground floor below the lobby, is the resort’s cooking school, L’Ecole de la Maison. Open to both guests and the public, classes range from learning basic techniques to mastering specialty cuisines. Classes span 2-5 hours and generally consist of preparing (and eating) a multi-course meal. I tackled a wellness course and peeled, chopped, sautéed, baked, blended, and tossed my way to five mouth-watering dishes. These ranged from a simple oat and yogurt parfait with berries to a shakshuka made from the brightest yellow, green, and red tomatoes (several of which bypassed the pot and went straight to my— well, tasting is an essential part of the cooking process, after all), with eggs poached directly in the light yet complex sauce. Tips like correctly salting a dish to bring out the ingredients’ best qualities, extracting pomegranate seeds easily without holding them under water, and basic knife skills were sprinkled throughout the workshop.

The Spa: Infused with Spirit

But the gardens at The Osthoff are not solely planted for the kitchen’s use but also for the Aspira Spa, the property’s exceptional facility that is sure to leave every first-time visitor scratching his head and thinking … “this is hiding in a lakeside town in Wisconsin?”  Total wellness is at the core of Aspira, meaning it’s “infused with spirit.” Presented in three concentric circles to improve feng shui, Aspira’s menu presents a dazzling array of services from deep tissue and hot oil massages to balneotherapy in a chromotub (the only one in North America), where 220 jets, light therapy, and aromatherapy combine for a unique holistic experience.

After resting in the spa’s transcendent meditation sanctuary, a dark, circular room lit only by a ring of candles around a copper pool with a trickling waterfall, I opted for the Cedars Massage. A signature service, this 80-minute treatment promised relaxation and balance through a tranquil massage that incorporates aromatherapy using Elkhart Lake’s native cedars, which were revered by the Potawatomi. In a cozy chamber next to a fireplace, I was to be wrapped with cedar under a heavy blanket after the massage, when light pressure would be applied to my head to complete my rebalancing. Wrapped in a kind of cocoon with my eyes closed and surrounded by serene silence, only the low rumble of the fire anchored me. As minutes passed without any touch or sound, I became convinced I was alone … until a tingling began. Slowly, my limbs awakened, and a somewhat electric sensation moved around my whole body. When the session ended, I learned that my therapist was trained in reiki, and had been administering it, one region at a time, without touching me. Rest assured that when I got up to leave the treatment room, I felt that I’d received benefits that not only incorporated Native American wisdom, but also Asian—an added influence that factors heavily into Aspira’s ethos.

Meditative Moments

A brief steam was followed by more meditative moments in both the indoor and secluded outdoor hot tubs then a light meal at the Spa Café, which features a tightly curated wellness menu. I confess I never made it to the yoga classes, but I felt so newly connected to my body through the insightful skills of a gifted therapist and didn’t regret my decision to pursue the rest of my efforts outdoors, on the lake itself. There I kayaked and hydro-biked my way to a perfectly restful wellness weekend surrounded by the tranquil beauty of Elkhart Lake.