The happiest I remember being was in Eagle River, Wisconsin, when I was 11 years old. I was barefoot, unshaven, grass-stained, and awkward as hell. But, hey, it was camp. The only things that mattered were cabin songs, kayak strokes, and figuring out how to get the daddy longlegs out of the shower.
Eighteen years later, camp still elicits the same nostalgia and joy, so I didn’t think twice before nodding an enthusiastic YES when I was invited for a weekend getaway at Camp Wandawega in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. A storied past (mobsters, speakeasies, prostitutes, and, somewhat anticlimactically, Latvian resort-goers) gives this idyllic Midwest haunt its character; the charm comes from its current owners, Tereasa Surratt and David Hernandez, two creative directors with a hankering for flea markets, firewood, and plaid.
After purchasing the spot in 2004 (Hernandez, who is Latvian, used to summer there as a kid), the couple got busy revamping. Their vision: to restore Wandawega back to the way it was in the 1920s, maintaining as much of its history as possible. For Tereasa, this meant combing flea markets like a hoarder, collecting curiosities (taxidermy, religious art), necessities (blankets, silverware), and décor (antlers, vintage posters). Today, the place looks straight out of a Food & Wine photoshoot. It’s disarmingly perfect.
Wandawega even smells familiar. For me, it was dense forest, slick leaves, damp clothes, and rain. My May visit was cold and wet, and I couldn’t have been happier — Wandawega is built for all types of weather. Tereasa pointed me toward a pile of afghans, a row of Wellies, and a closetful of thick embroidered sweaters. In the morning, I’d wake up in my twin bed, layer up, and head to the main house for coffee and leftover pie. Then, mug in hand, I’d trek a mile through the woods, coming full circle just in time to catch a card game or a freshly lit fire. I spent hours reading in a rocking chair, more hours climbing creaky steps to explore the treehouse, and ample time in the lodge soaking in the scent of hot smoky wood. I was with a friend, but it wouldn't have been weird if I'd been alone, because you meet people easily. And Tereasa and David are so welcoming.
In warmer months, you’d be crazy not to try your hand at the rope swing, dig out a canoe from the shed and skate across the calm water, join a game of tennis (the rackets come straight from the ‘20s, too), archery, or volleyball, or borrow one of the bikes and gallivant through the property and beyond.
Sturratt and Hernandez originally intended to keep Wandawega as a summer hangout for family and friends, but have now opened it up to guests. Cabins, tents, even the whole place — lodge, hotel, treehouse, bonfire pit, and archery range — are available to rent for quick getaways or big events. I suggest gathering a few good friends, a book or two, and leaving your shoes at home.
Wandawega Lake Resort
Elkhorn, Wisconsin 53121