Race, relax and explore nature in pristine getaway Elkhart Lake.
Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is by no means a household name in Oklahoma, but it ought to be. The small village nestled along the edge of the eponymous lake is home to fewer than 1,000 people year-round, but it sees tens of thousands of visitors annually. This former playground for Chicago’s wealthy in the age of railroads now welcomes guests from all over the world, many in town for a race weekend at Road America, a professional track just outside of town.
For Okies who head up there, it takes less than a day to feel a sense of comfort and familiarity with Elkhart Lake — and indeed, Wisconsin in general. The emphases on agriculture, fishing, hunting and sports, combined with incredibly friendly locals and the presence of so many Native nations (Menominee, Oneida, Ojibwe, etc.), create a resonance that reminds us of home.
Granted, the trees are different and much denser, but this is outdoorsman country with some of the nation’s best hunting and fishing: white-tailed deer, elk, bear, duck, pheasant and dove, as well as northern pike, perch, largemouth bass, walleye and muskies. There is golf at Quit Qui Oc, hiking along the Kettle Moraine on rolling Ice Age trails, swimming, boating and stand-up paddleboards on the lake, even go-carts and UTVs at Road America. This is where you go to play, especially if you want to play outside.
Where to Stay
The Osthoff Resort on the shore of the lake is a AAA Four Diamond destination. The 245 suites are large and well-appointed, including jacuzzis, balconies, kitchenettes, fireplaces, etc. Many are privately owned, and made available in the rental pool when owners are not using them. They’re literally homes away from home, not just hotel rooms. The Osthoff is also home to Aspira Spa, one of the nation’s best, with massages, mani-pedis, facials and a sacred waters massage. You can also find delicious food in the Concourse Restaurant (get the walleye!) and nightcaps in the Elk Room. The service is top-notch, and the staff friendly and helpful.
Where to Eat
If you’re eating off the Osthoff property, the Paddock Club is Elkhart Lake’s premier destination. Chef-owner Lynn Chisholm oversees the kitchen, while her sister, co-owner Cheri Hau, takes care of front of house, including sommelier duties. The food at Paddock Club is as good as you’ll find in any major city, and Chisholm’s skill set includes baking and desserts. Her panna cotta is the best I’ve experienced. The menu is seasonal and focused, and on our trip, the baharat chicken was the star of the table.
Next door to Paddock Club is Lake Street Cafe, a very popular cafe and wine pub that is now a sister concept to the new Amasa Eatery, a Mexico City-style cantina with traditional Mexican cuisine made by a chef and pastry chef both from Mexico City. The preview meal was stunning, and it’s unbelievable to find this quality of Mexican food so far north.
Where to Play
The lake is right at your doorstep, and there are plenty of water-based activities in the spring-fed Elkhart Lake. Two of the resorts have bars on the beach, including the Osthoff’s tiki bar, if you want to stay dry and floaty. We fished for bass and walleye with XXXX, who has been a guide on the lake for 26 years. Our group caught 16 fish, including 20- and 28-inch walleye.
Road America is the primary destination for many travelers, and its popularity is increasing. A community-owned operation, the track has hosted thousands of races since its beginnings, including a NASCAR event in 2021. The track is used for filming, test cars, car club races, vintage car races and professional racing. The Formula One-style go-carts are incredibly fun and very safe.
For more gustatory play, Jaclyn Stuart, a certified sommelier with a stellar resume, moved to Elkhart Lake to marry a local boy, and she opened Vintage Elkhart Lake as an outlet for her love of wine, fine foods and spirits. The retail store has a small tasting area, and Stuart’s brilliant palate means excellent wines to sip while you shop. Finally, Siebkens Resort has a 4-seat, secret bar on its property that’s popular with the race car drivers, but finding it is half the fun, so enjoy.