A Few Days In

Discover the Quirky Charms of Wisconsin's Elkhart Lake

by Kerri Allen
Siebken's shoreline. Photo by Mike Brown.

Kerri Allen discovers the hidden gem of the Midwest.

ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin — The indigenous Potawatomi once referred to it as "the chosen spot," a serene crystalline lake surrounded by towering cedar trees. Today, Elkhart Lake is the name of not only a stunning body of water in central Wisconsin but also the quirky little town of 900 residents that surrounds it. Just 20 miles west of the shores of Lake Michigan, this village is chockablock with styles and experiences, from a sprawling Gilded Age promenade to a funky barefoot tiki bar. Anyone road-tripping across America should certainly consider this peculiar Midwestern town one of their chosen spots.

Lay of the Land

This Caribbean-blue lake was once a quiet home to the animals of the land and the Potawatomi. Then, in the late 19th century, waves of German immigrants began to move to the area, Otto and Paulina Ostoff among them. He made his fortune as a manager at Schlitz Park, a large brewery and community hub for German immigrants in Milwaukee. When Paulina fell ill, her doctor recommended she go to Elkhart Lake to bask in its healing waters. The prescription worked and, in true Gilded Age grandeur, Otto decided to open a grand hotel and move there along the water’s edge in 1886.

Today, The Ostoff Resort continues to dominate the shoreline with its 145 sleeping rooms, massive event spaces, oodles of watersports, and wide promenade. While it is the biggest game in town (so big that one of the older guests told me it took her a half hour to walk to reception), it’s not the only one.

Get out onto the water water. Photo by Mike Brown

What To Do

During the summer, you’ll want to be on or near the stunning blue lake as much as possible. Stand-up paddle boarding, fishing, tubing, and good ol’ fashioned swimming are just a few of the aquatic activities available via Elkhart Water Sports or booked through most of the hotels in town.

Landlubbers can head to the Ice Age Trail, which is fully 1,200 miles long and entirely in Wisconsin, offering a beginner four-mile loop called the LeBudde Creek Segment. The land was carved out by glaciers, hence the name, and is one of only eleven National Scenic Trails in the United States. Eco friendly bug spray, a hat, and knee socks are crucial, since ticks and poison ivy are also an active part of the great outdoors.

After a busy day, consider a Signature Massage at the Aspira Spa, where the entire operation pays homage to the area’s sacred nature. For this particular treatment, water and cedar are gathered down by the lake and each therapist performs a quick ceremony in gratitude for what they are taking from the earth. Deerskin pouches are filled with the fresh water and placed along the body’s energy centers as part of the massage. A weighted blanket is stuffed with cedar and wrapped around you to complete the service.

The Osthoff Resort. Photo courtesy of Elkhart Lake Tourism.
The Shore Club. Photo courtesy of The Shore Club.
The Shore Club. Photo by Mike Brown.

Where to Stay

The Ostoff is, of course, a go-to for many Elkhart Lake visitors, thanks to its local name-recognition and AAA Four Diamond rating. It’s the grande dame, with amenities including a cooking school, indoor and outdoor pools, saunas and whirlpools, fitness centers, and a game room. Through Labor Day, you can also hop on a horse-drawn wagon ride, join a beach bonfire, or take a pontoon ride around the lake.

Open since 1916, The Siebkens Resort offers both historic lodging in its 25 rooms at their Elm Park Hotel as well as a spate of spiffy new condos with modern amenities. Some have massive wraparound verandas providing unsurpassed views of the lake.

For a fresher and funkier option, try the new Shore Club Wisconsin. Opened in 2019 (and, of course, closed for 2020), this youthful lake-chic spot is vying for a younger crowd’s attention. What was once the old Victorian Village, complete with green carpeting and floral wallpaper in the guest rooms, is now a peculiar work-in-progress with 45 rooms redesigned with clean crisp lines and a fresh palette of white and tan and perky pops of orange. The building’s hallways, however, remain a dark blue with vending machines in the stairwells. The lovely indoor pool is next door to a small arcade with games like The Claw. Quintessential quirk.

Beet salad at Lake Street Cafe. Photo by Mike Brown.
An homage to the area's beer barons at Lake Street Cafe. Photo by Mike Brown.
Wisconsin Old Fashioned at The Cottonwood Social. Photo by Mike Brown.

Where to Eat

Start the day at the college-town-esque coffee shop Off the Rail by the old railway tracks in the heart of town. They exclusively brew Cedarburg Roastery coffee and serve thematically-named breakfast sandwiches such as the Commuter (scrambled eggs, bacon, and Vern’s sharp cheddar on sourdough bread).

Another endearingly offbeat spot is the Lake Street Café, with outdoor garden seating and two divergent dining rooms. One is more of a colorful bar with a massive mural of Wisconsin’s Beer Barons Frederick Miller, Frederick Pabst, Joseph Schlitz and Valentin Blatz. (What did you think the beers were named for?) Around the corner, a formal room is set with white linen tablecloths and candles. Try to get outdoor seating under a web of string lights on a summer’s evening. Wherever you sit, the seared yellowfin tuna and roasted beet and fennel salad are not to be missed. Lake Street Café is also a sure bet for excellent wines, with a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence imprimatur and a list of more than 500 selections.

The restaurant nearest to the lake is The Cottonwood Social, a property of The Shore Club, where fun menu items include elk sausage and smoked salmon candy, and the Wisconsin Old Fashioned is the perfect way to wind down from a day of paddling. Their sister restaurant, Tiki Bar & Lounge, offers pub food, free live music, and the best party scene on the lake.

The only brewery in town, SwitchGear Brewing Co., slings easy-drinking pints, including an American wheat called the Pontoon Pounder and a solid ale branded the Campfire American. Keep your eyes peeled for specials: Some half-pints go for a cool $2.50.

Shopping at Nordic Accents. Photo courtesy of Elkhart Lake Tourism.

Where to Shop

It’s fitting for an area with a strong German heritage to sprinkle a little European charm upon the modern American traveler. Nordic Accents has curated a neat collection of finds from Scandinavia, ranging from Troentorp clogs to bottles of glögg (a spicy aromatic wine).

A few blocks away is Two Fish Gallery, set inside a Mission-style bungalow. Despite the name, it’s far more than a gallery. It’s also an art school and the full-time home of Patrick and Karen Robison, the husband-and-wife team behind it all. They specialize in making high-fire stoneware and finding fair-trade items from around the world, like multi-colored woven baskets and hand-crafted board games.

Across the street, North Gate is a highly Instagrammable home décor and flower shop with a flagship location in Milwaukee. From hefty Phaidon coffee-table books to water bottles emblazoned with the edict “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” it’s a chic little wonderland. Travelers who don’t mind staying off-lake can rent the upstairs three-bedroom apartment via AirBnB.

There is something special about Elkhart Lake. It’s a different kind of place. And whether you believe it’s home to sacred healing powers, a quirky bunch of creative people, or just some really great fishing, it’s worth a visit for anyone setting out to (re)discover America.