Autumn in Elkhart Lake, WI
Fall is a beautiful time to visit Elkhart Lake in eastern Wisconsin. The region is known as the Kettle Moraine and owes its beautiful scenery to the passing of glaciers. As the home to the Road America Race Track, Elkhart Lake can be teeming with race fans during the summer, but in the fall it relaxes to a more leisurely pace, the spring-fed lake is encircled in a ‘ring of fire’ as the leaves change from green to orange to red. The same amenities greet the autumn and winter visitor, but the lines are shorter and there is more availability in accommodations, tee times and dining. Michael and I decided to take advantage of the slower pace and visited Elkhart Lake early this fall.
We stayed at the Osthoff Resort (http://www.osthoff.com) overlooking Elkhart Lake. The Osthoff Resort was originally founded by Otto Osthoff, a manager of Schiltz Park in Milwaukee in 1885. Legend has it that Otto’s wife suffered a nervous breakdown in Milwaukee and her doctor suggested she make the move to Elkhart Lake to recuperate. Her husband purchased a farm from Henry and Daniel Carver and opened Otto Osthoff’s Hotel in 1886. The original hotel had room for 120 guests and had a parlor and dining room in addition to the guest rooms. In 1955 Osthoff sold the property to Sulie and Pearl Harand who opened the Harand Camp of Theater Arts.
The Harands taught drama, song, and ballet to children who would stay at the camp in 4-to-8 week intervals during the summer. A performance concluded the summer camp season. In 1989, the Harands sold the camp to the Dairyland Investment Company who built the current accommodations and opened in 1995. The Osthoff is an AAA Four Diamond all-suite hotel. In addition, it has two restaurants, conference hall, a cooking school (L’ecole de la Maison) and Aspira Spa.
The first restaurant we visited was Lola’s (http://www.lolasonthelake.com/) located in the Osthoff Resort. It is an elegant restaurant that features fresh, local vegetables and meat. The Osthoff has its own garden and grows heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables that are used in food preparation. We started with caramelized scallops that were light, rich and had a subtle hint of citrus. Mike’s second course was the caramelized five-onion soup with gruyère cheese that was simply sinful in its richness. I opted for the roasted golden beet salad that included pistachio crusted chèvre cheese. The beets and greens were grown locally and were delicate and delicious.
Mike chose the peppercorn crusted filet mignon and I chose the crispy ricotta gnocchi. Mike’s filet was very tender and succulent. My gnocchi was melt-in-your mouth delicious. The dish has mushrooms, pancetta, peas, ricotta gnocchi and is finished with truffle oil and SarVecchio cheese—delicious but too rich to consume the entire portion.
Otto’s Restaurant (http://www.osthoff.com/restaurants.html) serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a more casual atmosphere. The breakfasts include Eggs Benedict, omelets, pancakes, yogurt parfaits and steel-cut Wisconsin oatmeal. All of the eggs are organic and locally produced.
We also visited the Paddock Club http://www.paddockclubelkhartlake.com/index.html) located in downtown Elkhart Lake. The restaurant is named after the original Paddock Club of the early 1900’s that was the home to gambling in the area. We visited on a Tuesday night, when the restaurant serves tappas. The menu changes every week so not all dishes are available at all times. They also serve dinners on Tuesdays in addition to the tappas.
Another fine restaurant is the Back Porch Bistro located within the Victorian Village Resort (http://www.vicvill.com/Home_Page.html). The resort is the oldest one in Elkhart Lake and was originally called Schwarz Hotel in the 1880s. Judy and Ken Salzwedel purchased the property in 1999 and renovated it. The Back Porch Bistro is located next to the resort. The ambience is relaxed. A large fireplace and leather couch are situated against one wall. A large bar and desert case flank two other walls. In the center is the dining area.
I chose the crab and asparagus soup for the first course. The soup was rich and flavorful-hints of crab and asparagus woven within the cream-based soup. Mike shared the soup with me. For my entrée, I ordered the shrimp scampi that was light, flavorful and delicious. I liked that the shrimp was satisfying but not over-filling.
Activities—“Start Your Engines”
Of course a trip to Elkhart Lake would not be complete without visiting Road America. The original racetrack consisted of the roads within and surrounding the town. Jim Kimberely, heir to the Kimberly Clark Corp. (think Kleenix) wanted to race his car and as a member of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) approached Jim Johnson, president of the Elkhart Lake Bank arranged the first car race in 1950 (along with Fred Wacker, Karl Brocken and C. Bayard Sheldon). The first race was 3.35 miles long and consisted of five events including a race for women. Jim Kimberly won the race that year in his Ferrari. His average speed was 71 miles per hour.
The road race continued for 2 more years—with races held in July 1951 and 1952. By then, however, racing was becoming faster and more dangerous so Cliff Tufte, a businessman in Elkhart Lake began constructing the current Road America, enclosed race track outside of town—the site of a former sand and gravel company. Road America opened in 1955 and continues today. The track is 4.048 miles and is not completely visible anywhere on the 648-acre property. However, spectators are free to move from place to place to view events.
The original 1950 3.3 mile circuit and the 1951-52 6.5 mile circuit are still in existence and protected by the Historic Circuit Preservation Society (www.HistoricRaceCircuits.com). The road is marked by signs such as The Hard Right, The Hard Left, Wacker’s Wend and Schoolhouse Straight. You can drive the route, walk it or bike it. However you decide to travel, it is a must-see for any who visit Elkhart Lake. The only place where the original race circuit is interrupted is in front of the Osthoff Resort where a pedestrian walkway has replaced the previous roadway.
Road America (http://www.roadamerica.com/) is a vital component to the town. It provides approximately $70 million in revenue with its more than 400 events per year. The Vintage Car Race, held every July, is viewed by more than 100,000 spectators lining the town streets as the cars make their way to Road America. In addition to car racing the track holds corporate events, training, go-karting and other activities.
Mike and I were fortunate enough to view the track via a pace car. There are both right and left turns, which is similar to circuits in Europe. Road America programs emanager, Mike Kerscher who was our guide told us of a crash on one turn where the car flipped over the fence and broke apart. The driver, Katherine Legge walked away from the crash, shaken, but not hurt. (YouTube video of the crash can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8h2iqmliVMk).
A trip would not be complete if we were not able to chase that little white sphere around a golf course. We went to Quit Qui Oc golf course a 27–hole golf course that has been family–owned for the past 60 years (http://www.quitquioc.com/index.htm). We met with Todd Montaba, the head professional and PGA professional since 1996 at Quit Qui Oc for a brief lesson before we attempted to play the course.
Todd, and his wife Rachel currently run the golf club. Rachel is a member of the LPGA and along with her husband teaches golf at the club. Montaba took us to the driving range to analyze our swings. He started with our grip—mine was okay, Mike’s was a little skewed to the left side. Next he asked us to swing our clubs. After we tried to hit a few balls, Montaba stopped us and began to tell us how to feel the club in our hands. He told us that golf is about opposites—you hit down to make the ball go up, you hit the ball gently to make the stroke strong. We practiced for a time, trying to simply feel the club and the clubface. Within 20 minutes, I felt as if I was definitely improving. My shots were straight, long and powerful. I tried less and achieved more—sort of a Taois wu wei kind of thing—hitting naturally.
After we felt that we had a good idea of what Montaba was talking about, we decided to play the back nine. Quit Qui Oc originally consisted of an 18-hole course. Nine holes were added later, but the unique approach to the course is that the terrain was not drastically changed in the course’s creation. The rolling hills, typical of the glacier passing through were left intact. Consequently, the course is quite hilly—especially the back nine.
At first we were swinging quite well—indicative of mastering Montaba’s lesson, but around the 13th hole, I started to top the ball again. It would bounce a few feet and I became frustrated. I tried to remember what Montaba had told us, but my shots were getting worse. Finally, I stared at the ball, closed my eyes and swung. It was the best shot of the day, arching high in the air and traveling 150 yards and landing gently on the green. Before we left the course, we stopped at the clubhouse restaurant where Rachel greeted me with a steaming cup of coffee—a welcome relief from the brisk fall weather we were experiencing on the course. Todd and Rachel also gave us a taste of their two Wisconsin signature dishes—an authentic perch fish fry (complete with rye bread and cole slaw) and Sheboygan bratwurst (with German potato salad). Simply delicious.
A trip to Elkhart Lake and Osthoff Resort would not be complete without a treatment at Aspira Spa (http://www.aspiraspa.com/) located on the ground floor of the Osthoff Resort. The spa offers massages, facials, haircuts, yoga, meditation, ‘the art of bathing’ and a variety of services such as haircuts, pedicures and manicures. Reviewing the menu of services, I chose a biodynamic facial and Mike enjoyed the sacred waters massage.
The biodynamic facial is a one-hour treatment that includes exfoliation, masks, and massage of the face, hands, arms, shoulders and neck. The therapist gently worked her magic and left me is a state of complete calm. Mike’s sacred waters massage consisted of water from Elkhart Lake that is heated and used to penetrate the tissues of the body releasing all muscle tension. The Sacred Waters Massage is considered a signature treatment at Aspira and is available as a 50 minute or 80 minute treatment.
One Aspira treatment that intrigue both Mike and I was the Chakra Balancing bath that uses light and sound vibrations in conjunction with massage from air jets within the tub. Although we didn’t have the time to experience the bath, we’re thinking of going back to Aspira.
And speaking of returning to Elkhart Lake, although Fall is a wonderful time of year to experience all the resort area has to offer, Winter holds its own attractions—cooking classes at L’ecole de la Masion, hiking and snow shoeing along miles of trails, spa treatments, fine dining…we may just have to return to one of Wisconsin’s best kept vacation secrets.