With 130-some years as a Heartland tourist destination you could hardly call Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, sedate.
Early resort owners loved to entertain and they built opera houses, dance halls and theaters as attractions. Speakeasies were a big attraction for Chicago’s infamous gangsters in the prohibition era, which actually lasted into the 1940s before the gambling halls were shut down. The community hosted three road races in the fifties attracting top Formula One drivers from around the world before state legislature banned racing on public roads. That didn’t deter locals who had a taste of success and created their own course on private land.
Road America, opened in 1955, is considered America’s top road racing course and one the world’s premier circuits. It’s hosted numerous Formula One and NASCAR events. Surrounded by the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest, the four-mile road course attracts nearly a million racing fans each year from all around the world. Famous drivers like Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Bobby Rahal, and actor Paul Newman cut their racing teeth on this track. Additional activities include a road racing go-kart track, ATV adventure trails with rentals available, and, opening later this month, the Midwest’s longest, fastest zipline; 1.400 feet, a 100-foot drop and speeds up to 60 mph. Road America is an adventure all its own. Click on the above link for a schedule of events.
Elkhart Lake, the centerpiece of this timeless lakeside resort village, is the Badger State’s third deepest lake at 120 feet. Forged by retreating glaciers 11,000 years ago, its beautiful blue crystalline waters sparkle in the sun. Native Americans considered the elk heart shaped lake sacred.
It was my first trip to this southeast part of the state, which is home to nearby ski areas Sunburst and Little Switzerland. In addition to Road America I found miles of trails for hiking and biking. The village is perched on the northern edge of the sprawling Kettle Moraine State Forest with its glacially formed hills and valleys, and the 1,000 mile Ice Age Trail, which traces the edge of the last glacier in Wisconsin, cuts through the region with two nearby trailheads. A five mile hiking trail circles the lake.
Discover the historic village on a self-guided walking tour; the vintage resorts, the Railroad Depot Museum & Caboose, follow portions of the original, historic race course through the village. Take a trip to nearby Wade House, a 1860s stagecoach stop that houses one of the most extensive collections of carriages, sleighs and work wagons in the state, and Henschel’s Indian Museum, an archeological dig that traces the Native American history of the area.
Kayak around the lake viewing beautiful homes and resorts up close as you glide by. Better yet, take a pontoon tour and enjoy a narrative of the lake’s colorful history with the cruise. Tour Hennings family-owned cheese factory to see how cheese is made and nibble on free samples. The fresh cheese curds actually squeak when you eat them.
Village lodging consists of three historic resorts right on the lake that trace their ancestry to the 1800s. All village restaurants and attractions are within walking distance. They offer a variety of condo and hotel rooms.
Victorian Village Resort has a large pool area and the Barefoot Tiki Bar overlooking the beach and lake. Next door is historic Siebkens Resort, now in its fifth generation. It houses the Stop-Inn Tavern considered one of the top bars on the racing circuit. Race weekends are definitely a must to visit. Wednesday night features live blues bands. Osthoff Resort, among Travel & Leisure magazine’s top 500 resorts worldwide, features the Aspira Spa, Lola on the Lake, one of the area’s top gourmet restaurants, and French cooking schools.
For dining I can recommend: Back Porch Bistro at Victorian Village, featuring great views of the lake and homemade, locally grown dishes; Paddock Club, a legendary gambling club in the 1920s, features both a turn-of-the-century bar and a separate fine dining room, best of both worlds; Lake Street Café has an award winning wine list and a wonderful tapas menu.
It’s quaint, fun, sun, sand and water and racing. Take your pick. The variety of attractions makes it the perfect family summer vacation.
Top Photo: Road racing at Road America in Wisconsin; Lower left: Elkhart Lake, Wisc.