It’s a crisp 60 degrees on a September afternoon, and I’m pedaling a hydrobike — basically, a bike-pontoon hybrid — through the crystal-clear blue-green water of Elkhart Lake. At the moment, I have the expansive body of water all to myself, blissfully gliding past picturesque homes adorned with boxes of brightly colored flowers and fragrant cedar trees that are native to the area. Free of Miami’s oppressive humidity and scorching temps, I literally keep sucking in the fresh air through my nose and then deeply exhaling as if I’m meditating. As I move past a woman reading on her dock, I’m hit with the giddiness of uncovering a jewel of a vacation spot that’s managed to stay under the radar for those living outside the Midwest.
Located about an hour-and-change north of Milwaukee, the history-rich Village of Elkhart Lake is that quintessential summer getaway that you see as a backdrop in bygone-era family movies. Like its name suggests, the lake is the main attraction during the summer when hordes of locals and visitors spend long, sun-drenched days splashing around in the spring-fed water, or leisurely cruising around on oversized swan paddle boats, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. The pristine lake is 120 feet at its deepest and free of the all the things I worry about when swimming in Florida, like gators and sharks—only a few friendly sunfish that might tickle your toes. Evenings are passed sipping a cold drink on a neighboring deck or patio or basking in a sunset ride on a pontoon boat.
Indulge in the Need for Speed—or Relaxation
Elkhart Lake’s rolling hills are a reminder of the town’s epic open-road racing past, where top sports car drivers would come barreling around the area’s sharp curves until it eventually became illegal. Now, visitors with a heavy foot can head to Road America (roadamerica.com), one of the top closed-circuit road race courses in the world, to hop on go-karts that can reach speeds of up to 60 mph. Even more famous than racing? Cheese. Spend an hour at nearby Henning’s Cheese, where fourth-generation cheese makers churn out award-winning Colby, cheddar and mozzarella. Visitors can watch the process, tour the facility stacked with mammoth wheels, and sample seasonal and specialty cheeses, some of which have been aged for 12 years. (Fridays are fresh cheddar days and it’s not uncommon to see people lined up outside the door.)
When it comes to where to stay, the village is dotted with bed-and-breakfasts, vacation home rentals and three lakeside resorts, among them the Osthoff Resort (osthoff.com), a sprawling property swathed in white that boasts 245 suites fitted with a kitchen, dining room and living room, and 500 feet of shoreline for playing on the lake. Choose to swim laps in indoor or outdoor pools or spend the day at Aspira Spa for a locally inspired treatment using aromatherapy from the native cedar trees or warm water from the lake (the water was once considered sacred by the Native Americans who once lived on its shores).
Another standout experience can be had at the resort’s French-inspired cooking school, L’ecole de la Maison, where husband-and-wife team Patrick and Ronna O’Toole teach guests how to make good use of the fresh herbs and veggies from the resort’s on-property garden. The duo has done what many resorts in the Midwest haven’t: They’ve geared their cooking toward wellness. During morning cooking classes, everyone is assigned a task—peeling, chopping, blending or stirring—and you’ll learn to make easy-breezy breakfast items like raspberry chia pudding, fluffy rainbow quinoa, a wellness salad stacked with bright beets and cabbage, and eggs cooked in a bubbling heirloom tomato sauce.
More Than Just Beer and Cheese
You’re in Wisconsin, so, of course, there are indulgent Johnsonville Brats and squeaky cheese curds to devour (the fresher they are, the louder they squeak) and only-in-Wisconsin Spotted Cow beer to guzzle, but the best surprise in this lake town is the other-level food. Really. When we dined on a Tuesday evening during the off-season at the Paddock Club (paddockclubelkhartlake.com), a restaurant owned by four siblings, it was surprisingly jam-packed, with more than 200 covers that night. In-the-know locals come for the “small-plate special,” which is often revealed in an email to guests on Mondays dependent on what the farmers have available that day. Think cheesy smoked brisket cannelloni in a spicy sweet bell pepper sauce; fresh arugula salad with slivers of apples and grapes; and butternut squash ravioli. A few doors down at Lake Street Café (lakestreetcafe.com), another family-run restaurant that’s been around for 20 years, choose from two dining rooms—a casual-style pizzeria perfect for families, or a more formal space for a special night out. Everything is homemade, from the stocks to the bread, and they’ve won awards for their extensive wine list. Open old classic books to peruse a menu of standout dishes that include roasted Brussels sprouts topped with Parmesan, from-scratch soups and entrées like organic Duroc pork in a savory pork jus. At Lola’s on the Lake (lolasonthelake.com), revel in fine dining overlooking the lake; start with a sampler of Wisconsin’s best cheeses, slather creamy foie gras and blackberry jam on French bread, and share entrées like pan-roasted duck breast, or a rich pork and lamb pappardelle pasta topped with a duck egg.
Tea lovers should spend an afternoon at the historic Jay Lee Inn (jayleeinn.com), where the innkeeper treats guests to a lovely candlelit lunch of salad or fruit, sandwiches such as a tart with creamy local cheese and heirloom tomatoes, and decadent pastries, along with a variety of teas—the owner has collected more than 75 teapots over the years. Sit back and stay awhile … you’re in Wisconsin.