Life is indeed better on the lake. You don’t have to tell that to those of us who live on the North Shore, but there’s something different about the “lake” that’s attached to that particular marketing slogan. And if you have yet to discover the magic of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin—a bucolic resort hideaway about two hours to our north—there has never been a better time.
No offense to our border neighbors in Lake Geneva (also lovely), but Elkhart Lake is special in a way that you won’t truly understand until your car is parked in the middle of its historical downtown (likely next to a gleaming vintage sportscar from the Road America entourage) and you gaze up at majestic boutique resorts like The Osthoff Hotel, Siebkens, and The Shore Club.
They say the Potawatomi Indians called Elkhart Lake “Me-shay-way-o-deh-ni-bis” (or Great Heart Lake) after its distinct shape, which resembles an elk’s heart. Scooped out by ancient glaciers in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, the resort town’s 292- acre spring-fed lake stretches four miles around, with natural springs and a sandy bottom that turn its waters to an intense level of blue reminiscent of the French Riviera.
“This makes our lake one of the prized possessions of our community,” explains Kathleen Eickhoff, Executive Director of Elkhart Lake Tourism, adding that the village is in the second phase of its reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic. “You can spend the day relaxing on the sandy beach fronts of our lakeside resorts or rent watersports equipment and paddle the area for a great day of exploration.”
Since the Gilded Age of 1886, fashionable Chicagoans (and a few mobsters, we are told) have been packing their steamer trunks and taking the railways north (the old train depot is still there) to this little respite away from the heat of the city. One of the first resorts to serve this affluent clientele, the Osthoff Hotel remains a cornerstone of the resort village today and an iconic part of a culture that says visitors are not “tourists,” but “resorters.”
Siebkens Resort followed in 1916 and is also going strong and evolving to meet the discriminating tastes of its guests. Another popular mainstay, Victorian Village, was recently purchased and renovated to become The Shore Club.
Those three resorts, along with luxury bed and breakfast hotels and multiple vacation rentals, creating a stately ambiance around the lake that’s evocative of another time. On weekends, the village is filled with a variety of outdoor markets and other events that bring locals and “resorters” together. While most resorts have their own fine and casual dining options, the downtown restaurant scene never disappoints with locally-sourced cuisine that will satisfy even the most devoted foodie—especially this time of year when al fresco dining is not only at its peak but is considered by experts to be the safest way to enjoy a night out.
Eickhoff says restaurants are currently open for indoor dining at 50 percent capacity with social distancing, but that the abundance of outdoor dining options makes Elkhart Lake even more attractive for those who want to get away from it all.
“Thankfully many of our restaurants offer outdoor dining which allows for a very comfortable open-air dining experience, many of which have lake views,” she explains. “Our businesses also have capacity limits for shopping, offer social distancing directions upon entering, encourage mask wearing, and ask for patience as we work through these challenging times.”
Also open for business is Elkhart Lake’s legendary Road America, a rolling four-mile track that became famous in the early 1950s as the Monte Carlo of the Midwest—attracting gentlemen racecar drivers with exotic European automobiles.
“Referred to as the ‘National Park of Speed’ Road America’s 640 acres of beautiful park-like setting provides ample space for social distancing,” says Eickhoff, explaining that the 2020 season is already off to a fabulous start. “The Road America Team is taking great care to provide a safe atmosphere for drivers, crews, media, and fans. They are using contactless ticketing and protective shields where customer contact is needed. Extra sanitation measures are also being taken with mask wearing and social distancing encouraged.”
She also encourages “resorters” to venture out to the spectacular forests and natural wonders that are part of the quintessential Elkhart Lake experience.
“Hiking is a great way to experience the outdoors in and around Elkhart Lake. There are a number of shorter Ice Age Trail heads in Elkhart Lake as well as longer more challenging loops in the Kettle Moraine State Forest,” Eickhoff adds. “If fishing is your passion, Jay’s Guide Service has experience and gear you’ll need to enjoy a day on the lake. Jay knows the hot spots on Elkhart Lake and will assist you in reeling in bluegill, muskie, small and largemouth bass, and walleye.”
While the village is very walkable, bike rentals are available through the Osthoff Resort and The Shore Club. Eickhoff also recommends that you check out the live music scene in Elkhart Lake, always vibrant and also reopening for the summer.
“Check out the Tiki Bar or the Lake Deck for live outdoor music every weekend Memorial Day through Labor Day,” she suggests.
Whatever it is that you decide to add to your Elkhart Lake itinerary, the most important thing is to take a deep breath and look around. Not only is this resort village a short drive away, but it’s open and ready to provide all the post-pandemic pampering you and your family require.
There’s a reason that travelers have been making the trek up there for more than a century, but you won’t really “get it” until you arrive. Let’s just say those impossibly blue waters aren’t the only thing there that’s magical.
WHEN YOU GO:
Nestled in the picturesque glacial hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, the resort town of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin has been charming visitors since the Gilded Age with its pristine waters, fine dining, hiking trails and luxury accommodations. For more information, including maps and other resources, visit elkhartlake.com.
Here are some other links to some of our favorite Elkhart Lake gems that will get you outside:
ROAD AMERICA: Explore Elkhart Lake’s road racing history with a visit to Road America, one of the premier closed-circuit racing courses in the world. Open for the 2020 season, learn more about summer events at the “National Park of Speed” by visiting roadamerica.com.
SHEBOYGAN BROUGHTON MARSH PARK AND TOWER: This 30-acre yearround park boasts the “Marsh Lodge,” a fullservice restaurant and tavern, as well as a 228- mile trail system and the Sheboygan Marsh Wildlife Area. The park now also boasts the State’s tallest wooden observation tower (at 80 feet) and an 18-hole disc course. Visit sheboygancounty.com for more information.
QUIT QUI OC GOLF COURSE: Family owned for more than 60 years, this 27-hole course caters to golfers of all skill levels. It also features a full-service restaurant and bar, currently open for dining or takeout. There is even a Friday night fish fry special. Visit quitquiocgolf. com.