Since the late 19th century, sophisticated Chicagoans and North Shore residents have been retreating to the pristine, Mediterranean-blue waters of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for much-needed fresh air, breathtaking natural beauty, fine dining, and lavish luxury resorts. For those who know and love the iconic beach town, it’s long been one of Wisconsin’s best-kept secrets.
But according to Kathleen Eickhoff, Executive Director of Elkhart Lake Tourism, that’s about to change.
“What we’re seeing in Wisconsin is there is a lot of pent-up demand for travel and people are looking for destinations that are closer to home,” explains Eickhoff, who says the village’s resorts are already ahead of pace for bookings. “A lot of people who put off their vacations during the pandemic are looking forward to getting away this summer, so we are expecting things to be very busy in Elkhart Lake.
” One visit is usually all it takes to convert even the most discriminating traveler to the magic of this area.
Legend has it that the Potawatomi Indians called Elkhart Lake “Me-shay-way-o-dehni-bis” (or Great Heart Lake) because of its unique elk’s heart shape and believed its waters to have curative healing powers. Literally carved from ancient glaciers in the heart of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, the 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.
Eickhoff states, “The jewel of our destination is our lake and its beautiful, blue-green Mediterranean color. It’s a very deep lake—a clean, crystal-clear body of water. We’ve been hosting journalists from all over the country, and they are in awe of what we have here.
We are so fortunate to have such a clean and beautiful lake.”
“Resorters,” as Elkhart Lake business owners have dubbed their legions of faithful visitors, have myriad options for watersports and other lakefront activities. From swimming and paddle boarding to canoeing, fishing and even renting a pontoon boat, most Elkhart Lake expeditions include at least one outing on the big blue lake. However, the exploration of the area’s natural splendor need not end there.
Hiking trails abound, whether you opt for a shorter Ice Age Trail or a longer, more challenging loop in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Also popular is the 30-acre Sheboygan Broughton Marsh Park and Tower, which boasts the state’s largest wooden observation tower and the Sheboygan Marsh Wildlife Area. For more nearby exploration of the village, bike rentals are available through the Osthoff Resort and The Shore Club.
“Hiking and biking and outdoor recreation is a wonderful aspect of travel, as well as watersports, and Elkhart Lake has it all,” says Eickhoff. “The mission of our lakeside resort village is to help people slow down and reconnect with family and friends. In addition to the lakefront activities and exploring nature, you can go to the races, you can dine, and you can listen to live music. We encourage you to get a bottle of wine, turn off your phone, and be present with your people—to really take that time and dial down.”
A common phenomenon of a first-time “resorter” is the transformation that takes place from their first day in the village to the next day, and the rest of the trip.
“When people come to Elkhart Lake, they’re so conditioned to be moving and doing everything so fast. The pace of Elkhart Lake is slower on purpose. After people are there for a day or so, they get into the groove of slowing down and putting away their phone. We know how important that is, physically and psychologically, and we want to welcome people to do that in our beautiful space.”
Long-time “resorters” (and there are generations of them) might say that one of the best ways to unwind on a Saturday morning is with a cup of coffee and a stroll through the Elkhart Lake’s Farmers & Artisans Market in the Village Square. It is the perfect place to pick up fresh seasonal vegetables, flowers, cheeses, local arts, and specialty products from approximately 50 vendors. Every item sold is produced locally in the state of Wisconsin by the person right behind the stand.
As evening falls, shift into dinner attire for a night out in Elkhart Lake. While most resorts have their own, well-established fine and casual dining options, the “downtown” dining and nightlife scene never ceases to charm with its historic ambiance, live music, and locally sourced cuisine.
“Dining is an important part of our destination’s appeal. Our restaurants work with local farmers and purveyors and make our food from scratch,” says Eickhoff. “They utilize our farmer’s market and are changing their menus on a seasonal basis to give customers a variety of dining experiences. They have their favorites that will never be taken off the menu but are always introducing new flavors.”
One of the unexpected silver linings of last year’s pandemic, she explains, was how restaurant owners improvised and found new ways (think blankets and fire pits) to continue to serve diners—even in the chill of a Wisconsin winter. Those al fresco innovations are expected to continue this year, even though indoor dining has resumed and capacity limits have waned.
“I was so proud of the ingenuity and how our businesses kept trying to find ways to engage with people and adapt to unprecedented conditions,” adds Eickhoff, noting that in addition to the restaurants, Elkhart Lake’s popular family-owned, 27-hole Quit Qui Oc Golf Course also came up with creative solutions to keep people active during a pandemic. “Golf is one of those things you can do with multiple generations and just really enjoy yourself. Last winter, during COVID, Quit Qui Oc started a walking a snowshoe club and you could join the club for a nominal fee with a membership that included dining credits to come back and eat at their restaurant. They offered two or three moonlit snowshoe events, which attracted as many as 150 people each night.”
Another famous Elkhart Lake institution, the legendary, closed circuit racecourses of Road America (often referred to as the “National Park of Speed”) also managed to keep its proverbial “doors” open throughout the pandemic.
“Last year, events over the region were canceled except for Road America racing,” she explains. “They worked with their sanctioning bodies and their sponsors to figure out how to adapt the racing experience safely with COVID. They made their ticket sales touchless, took temperatures, had hand sanitizing areas, and because you could view races from all different vantage points, they ran their entire season.”
This summer, the rolling 640-acre, four mile track that became famous in the early 1950s as the Monte Carlo of the Midwest—attracting gentlemen race-car drivers with exotic European automobiles— will host the NASCAR cup series.
“It’s going to be phenomenal. Road America was over the moon and the ticket sales for this year are huge,” says Eickhoff. “They introduced so many new people to Road America and that was an important piece of the puzzle last year for us.”
Something else to mark your calendars for is July 4th weekend. Both the fireworks and parade are back, along with all the other traditional Independence Day weekend revelry.
“We feel like we are in a really good place and are very excited about welcoming people back. People have been coming to Elkhart Lake since they were kids and now, they are bringing their kids and parents. We are definitely seeing more of those families coming back and really looking forward to reconnecting and spending that time together again,” she says. “It’s going to be a fantastic comeback summer.”
For more information, including maps and other resources, visit elkhartlake.com.