Elkhart Lake Wisconsin: A hidden gem of sandy beach, NASCAR and more
ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN – Towards the end of this past summer, I decided to participate in a press tour to the charming resort town of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. After enjoying what this small town – located 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee in the heart of the state’s Kettle Moraine State Forest – had to offer when it came to its breathtaking natural scenery and its wide range of attractions, activities and events that expands its year-round population of only 967 people to thousands of visitors and cottage dwellers every summer (not to mention autumn and Christmas time), one impression came to mind: Elkhart Lake is a hidden gem.
Elkhart Lake has attracted visitors on a regular basis since the mid-1800s, but before city folk came to this town as a means of a serene retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life, Native American tribes from the region were attracted to the Elkhart Lake area not only for its natural beauty, but for the curative effects of the lake’s crystal clear, blue-green water (which is still a major selling point for the town).
However, what really struck me was how this town, which is neatly tucked away in the forests of southeast Wisconsin, has become a magnet for certain types of tourists whom you would least likely expect to target as a vacation destination. For example, auto racing enthusiasts.
Because a group of World War II soldiers who visited the town shortly after the war – and were exposed to new makes and models of European cars that were built for speed – were attracted to the hills and curved streets of Elkhart Lake, it sparked the members of the town’s business community (in particular Jim Johnson, the president of the Elkhart Lake Bank), to establish a major auto race on a 3.35 mile circuit on the north side of the lake. From 1950 to 1952, the Elkhart Lake Road Races attracted a large number of racing fans (a total of 155,000 during those three years), not to mention internationally-renowned race car drivers and sports reporters from around the world.
The event was stopped after the 1952 race over growing safety concerns for the spectators; however, the high spirit and excitement that those three races brought to Elkhart Lake was not lost on the town fathers. In 1955, a 640-acre professional motor speedway called Road America (www.roadamerica.com) opened its doors; dubbed “America’s National Park of Speed”, Road America is regarded as one of the first and longest road racing circuits in all of North America.
Its more than four-mile long race track and its expansive facility holds over 600 annual events, as well as attracting over 800,000 racing fans throughout the entire year. Racing fans of all ages will certainly not be disappointed to the wide variety of national and international auto racing events that Road America hosts, such as the Verizon IndyCar Series, the NASCAR XFINITY Series, the Pirelli World Challenge Series, the MotoAmerica SuperBike Doubleheader, plus three highly-attended vintage car events.
That highly-charged, “need-for-speed” feeling that Road America promotes hit me the moment I arrived there, as I heard the high-powered roar of race car engines fill the air (which was courtesy of the local Porsche Club, in which its members were spending a couple of days taking their souped-up vehicles for a few spins around the track). I was impressed with the look and scope of the entire Road America facility, and it can be compared to some of the best international auto racing speedways, whether they be Daytona, Indy, Watkins Glen, Monte Carlo or even the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve.
After watching those Porsches zip by on the main circuit, the friendly Road America staff were more than happy to help us satisfy that need for speed fever that myself and my fellow journalists on the tour caught. This was done by getting the chance to don some pro racing gear and drive a few laps around its 1-mile paved go karting track (in which the karts can reach a speed of up to 40 mph – or about 65 km an hour – and many of us reached that speed). After that, we were tested on our race car driving skills with a challenge called the “Champagne Slalom”. We got behind the wheel of a sedan with a plate mounted on a small pedestal – and a ball on a string attached to it – that was fastened onto the hood. Our challenge was to drive the car at normal speeds along the short track in the briefest time possible (that included a downhill slalom course), while trying to prevent the ball from falling off the plate. I managed to keep the ball on the plate during my turn on the slalom course (the trick is to never look at the ball while you are driving).
By the way, if you want to take something home from your visit to Road America, check out its newly opened Paddock Shop, which sells a large variety of Road America and racing gear (I bought myself a Road America t-shirt with a map of its 4-mile main track – which includes the “Canada Corner” — on the back of the shirt).
* * *
What also struck me about Elkhart Lake is that for a town of barely 1000 year-round residents, there is certainly no shortage of fine dining establishments of all cuisines and tastes, whether you like your meals simple or extravagant. Whether they are located within the three main resort hotels that anchor the town – the Osthoff Resort, Siebkins Resort and the Victorian Village – or along the town’s main street or immediate vicinity, visitors are in for a culinary treat, not only because of the unique flavour of these unique local restaurants (21 in all), but how many of them use local ingredients, of which a good deal of them are grown in gardens that are part of their respective establishments. I highly recommend the following restaurants for its respective signature cuisine and atmosphere: the Paddock Club, the Back Porch Bistro, the Stop Inn Tavern, Lola’s Restaurant and Lounge, and the Lake Street Café; and for some good old fashioned locally-produced ice cream for dessert, check out Sissy’s Coffee & Ice Cream Shoppe outside the Sibkins Resort, and Gosserts, which nostalgically takes you back to those ice cream parlours and soda fountains from about a century ago.
Another attraction for the foodie visitor to Elkhart Lake are the culinary experiences that the town offers, and gives residents and visitors a hands-on approach to the recipes, produce, beers and wines that are exclusively created in this area.
I decided to partake in a cooking class that was held in the Osthoff Resort’s own L’Ecole de la Maison (www.cookingschoolatosthoff.com). Led by Benjamin Sommerfeldt, the hotel’s master chef (who is also the executive chef at Lola’s Restaurant, which also makes its home at the Osthoff), the school offers guests one- and two-day courses, as well as workshops, with the aim to further enhance, or develop, a passion for good food and the art of cooking it. The recipes that are taught have a traditional angle to them (and are easy for the home chef to follow), and can range from making breads, to pasta and sauces, to soups and stocks, to dishes that are exclusive to Wisconsin, or are familiar dishes that use made-in-Wisconsin ingredients. And the school’s visually stunning kitchen/classroom, complete with state-of-the-art cooking appliances and every type of cookware imaginable, certainly encourages that passion for cooking and fine dining.
The morning-long class that myself and seven other journalists took part in was called “Wisconsin Roots”, in which we were paired off to create a dish that was made in Wisconsin, reflected the state’s German heritage, or were popular with many of Wisconsin’s supper club restaurants. The ingredients were all laid out before us (along with each respective recipe), and our task was to prepare and cook the dish in question so that we could enjoy them for our lunch. The menu included French Onion Soup, Potato Crusted Walleye fish, bread, salad, and a new twist to Black Forest Cake.
As for myself, I was tasked with the delectable job of preparing two dishes: roasted tenderloin with natural jus lie, and twice baked potatoes, complete with a stuffing made with a combination of aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese and Wisconsin bacon. At first, it was a bit intimidating (especially the fact of how was I going to incorporate all those ingredients into an edible dish within a couple of hours’ time); however, thanks to the skills, patience and tireless flexibility of Chef Benjamin and his sous-chef, all of us managed to prepare our recipes on time, so that we could savour them course-by-course a couple of hours later. The verdict: a memorable meal that was dee-licious.
As well, we were given three mini lessons throughout that morning at the cooking school: how to properly slice an onion; how to identify and sample some of Wisconsin’s internationally-renowned, award-winning cheeses; and how to mix Wisconsin’s most-requested drink, the Brandy Old Fashioned Cocktail, complete with brandy, bitters, mashed up oranges and cherries and a spray of Sierra Mist lemon-lime soft drink.
* * *
Another class I took part in during my stay at Elkhart Lake dealt with pottery. To be honest, I haven’t worked with clay and used a pottery spinning wheel since my days as a camper at Green Acres Day Camp over 45 years ago. Somehow, those messy clay days came back to me during that morning pottery class I took at the Two Fish Gallery (www.twofishgallery.net).
The class was run by Patrick Robinson, a retired ceramics and design teacher, who runs 30 weeks worth of clay classes throughout the year (except in December and July) that run for a length of six weeks each, in which each class can accommodate a maximum of eight people. Needless to say, all 48 available spots fill up quickly, in which his students come from a 30-mile radius of the town. I can readily understand why these pottery classes are so popular; Robinson’s laid-back teaching style and how he utilizes a simplified process can make anyone a master pottery maker, especially how he advocates using a “form”, a pre-fabricated mold that can be used instead of a pottery wheel, which can accelerate the making of any object, whether it be a plate, vase or coffee mug (I opted for the latter). We then got to choose the colored glaze that we wanted for our specific object, which Robinson then applied, fired in his kiln, and shipped out to us when it was all completed (he explained the entire process can take 30 days or more, and I am anticipating the arrival of the finished coffee mug that I can call my own).
As well, we checked out Robinson’s gallery boutique, which he runs with his wife Karen, which is housed in an early 1900s Mission-style bungalow. It is filled with many of the hand-crafted pottery items that he makes by hand every day, as well as a wide assortment of sculptures, paintings, jewellery, wood, glass and forged iron crafts that are done by local, regional and national artisans; there is also a large selection of handmade fair trade products and gifts available at the boutique.
* * *
Another aspect of Elkhart Lake’s claim to fame that I decided to experience harkens back to the area’s original reason that has attracted so many residents and visitors: the curative powers of the lake’s waters.
This was so well exemplified at the Aspira Spa (www.aspiraspa.com), which is located at the Osthoff Resort. Besides offering typical spa style services as massages, facials, manicures and pedicures and hydrotherapy, the Aspira Spa integrates principles of Feng Shui, along with elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, as well as influences of the indigenous peoples who originally inhabited the region, to offer a more holistic and organic spa experience for its customers, which is why Aspira is one of the premier spas in the American Midwest.
Case in point, we were offered an Aspira Spa treatment of our choice so that we can find out for ourselves how unique their spa experience was all about. I chose the Sacred Waters Massage, which was an 80-minute session in one of their amenities-full SpaSuites, in which they used waters taken directly from the lake as part of the treatment, as well as aromatherapy courtesy of oils that were scented from the pine trees of the area. I also highly recommend to spend a few minutes following your chosen treatment to unwind in the spa’s meditation room, in which the design is influenced by the Native American tribes that made Elkhart Lake their home and their firm belief in the healing powers of its waters.
* * *
Of course, what press tour is complete without a bit of history thrown in. I got my history lesson during a visit to the Wade House Historic Site (www.wadehouse.org). Originally built in 1850, the Wade House was run as a combination roadside restaurant, rest stop and hotel for travellers who used the stagecoach as a means of long distance transportation before the railroads took over at the end of the 1860s. Our guide, wearing typical 1860s garb, showed us through the house, which is remarkably preserved to give visitors an authentic feeling of what it was like to travel from city to city before hotel and motel chains, roadside fast food restaurants and interstate highways became the norm.
As well, the Wesley Jung Carriage Museum is one part of the Wade House Historic Site that tourists must make a point to visit. More than 100 horse- and hand-drawn vehicles are beautifully displayed, and acts as a vivid reminder of how the carriage played such an important role in the everyday life of people across North America before the “horseless carriage” (aka the automobile) was introduced. And by the way, don’t forget to take a picture of yourself in front of (or inside) the restored Sheboygan-Bord du Lac stagecoach, which is located in the upstairs foyer of the museum; I did, and I couldn’t help but recreate a scene from John Ford’s epic 1939 western “Stagecoach” while sitting inside the coach, with myself as John Wayne’s character the Ringo Kid on my mind.
* * *
For more information about visiting Elkhart Lake and what it has to offer tourists, check out the Elkhart Lake Tourism Commission website at www.elkhartlake.com