A LONG WEEKEND IN ELKHART LAKE
by Andrew Chalk
Fancy getting away from it all? In winter or summer the town of Elkhart Lake, deep in the heart of Wisconsin, offers something for everyone. Getting there is just a drive or shuttle ride of under 90 minutes from Milwaukee’s passenger-friendly General Mitchell International Airport. Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland, producing more cheese than any other state, so stop at the Henning’s store on the way at Kiel.It features over 25 varieties of cheese, most available to taste, including an intense aged cheddar that goes back a full 12 years.
The place to stay in Elkhart Lake is the Osthoff Resort. It is a sprawling baronial style property set on the bank of Elkhart Lake. Named after founder and German entrepreneur Otto Osthoff its public areas carry a style befitting such a legacy. Panelled wood and extravagant chandeliers give the aura of the upscale respite from city heat that it was when it was opened in the late nineteenth century. From the main lounge, floor to ceiling windows look out over the beckoning waters of the lake.
Your accommodation here can range from a large guest room up to a three bedroom corner lakeview superior suite. I had a one-bedroom suite which not only gave me the bedroom separate from the main living area but also a fireplace, fully-equipped kitchen with a large refrigerator, stove with oven, microwave, cutlery and crockery, and bar (drinks extra!).
The signature restaurant at the Osthoff resort is Lola’s on the Lake, located on a promontory so as to give lake views out of two sides of the restaurant. In luxurious surroundings (the seats are deep banquettes and the table settings elaborate designs to be placed on the white tablecloths) guests can choose from a menu that is part country mansion dining and part upscale Italian (things like agnolotti and bucatini). I really enjoyed the Selection of Wisconsin Cheese and the ribeye steak. Dining on the patio is available seasonally and Lola’s offers all three main meals, but you prefer breakfast at the more casual Otto’s.
Otto’s is a ground-level pubbish restaurant that is open all day but offers classic cooked breakfast dishes like Benedict’s, omelettes, avocado toast and German potato pancake. If a hearty breakfast is in your plans then this menu is particularly welcome.
For something lighter, the main public room (The Elk Room), the Lake Deck, and poolside offer appetizers, and there is always room service, which has an extensive menu largely drawing on Otto’s and Lola’s.
The Osthoff Resort has a full range of catering facilities and on weekends near Christmas a popular event is Sunday breakfasts with Santa. Children even get their own child height serving tables, Montessori style.
The ultimate eating experience might be ‘cook your own’ with a five-hour cooking class (including ‘eating your own’) at L’Ecole de la Manson cooking school. This was, frankly, the single most fun thing that I did on my visit! Director of Culinary, Chef Patrick O’Toole is the perfect teacher, mixing clear explanation with fun and encouragement. Unbelievably, we put together a meal of Quinoa Pomegranate Salad, Spiced Date Truffles, Butternut Squash Curry and Chia Seed Pudding under the watchful eye of he and his wife. We even added gourmet touches like saving and roasting the butternut squash seeds to sprinkle on top of the soup (we declined, in advance, the anticipated Michelin star). All this while sipping matching wines.
A SUPERIOR SPA
Being a professional chef was exhausting so we had no alternative but to head down to the Aspira Spa for an hour of deep massage and restoration time. There are also the usual steam rooms and saunas if you are so inclined. Reassuringly, the Aspira Spa was voted one of the top 100 spas in America, although I was most thankful for all the strain and stress it released from my muscles.
ON THE OUTSIDE
The Cottonwood Social at the adjacent Shore Club is a great restaurant for specializing in local Wisconsin ingredients. Seasonally, it offers indoor or outdoor dining.
Do try the Elkhart Inn, a few hundred yards from the Osthoff Resort. It offers an eclectic range of hearty dishes such as irresistible gnocchi stuffed with sweet potato, authentic Wiener schnitzel, and local specialties like elk, an inviting alternative to steak.
Where you go and what you do on the outside depends on the season you visit. In the summer the Road America track is only a few minutes drive from the resort. It is nationally famous for hosting NASCAR, IMSA, and IndyCar races along with other race series all summer. However, its most remarkable activity is a class -- teen safe driving! A gashead’s dream nearby is Throttlestop classic car and motorcycle dealer, consignee, and detailing.I couldn’t believe the number of classics on show here, including all the motorcycles from the 1970s that I grew up with. The firm’s motto is driven by passion and indeed it is. For self-powered action there are hiking and biking trails all around. In the winter they double as skiing and snowshoe trails.
OLD WORLD CHRISTMAS MARKET
Perhaps the most special event of the winter is the European Christmas market running roughly from the beginning to the middle of December (exact dates vary yearly). The Elkhart Lake market is in its 22nd year. In a heated tent on the grounds of the Osthoff Resort 200 vendors, some regulars who come over all the way from Europe each year, sell their wares or cook traditional food for visitors whose numbers swell up during this time. The idea is based on the German Christmas markets that began in Nüremberg in the seventeenth century, and still go on today, but all over Germany. The authenticity extends all the way to the food vendors, who can supply a hot, delicious German lunch at a moment’s notice. I picked up an Estonian hand-knitted heavy wool jacket for my girlfriend that is distinctively stylish in its own different way.
Just a scant half mile from the resort is Elkhart Lake village. In the crossed two streets are outfitters, specialty wine and food store, a gallery, and Switchgear Brewing Company, a craft brewer. It is easy to get lost in an afternoon’s browsing around town.
Elkhart Lake, the little village in Wisconsin, has so much to offer in just getting away from it all, just as it did when the Osthoff Resort first opened. Plan your visit now!
To Wisconsin's Elkhart Lake, The Osthoff Resort, Cottonwood Social, Elkhart Inn, and Old World Christmas Market.