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An Ecotourism Escape to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

The Osthoff Resort on Elkhart Lake

What a difference a few miles makes. Just 33 miles northeast of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR held in West Bend, awaits one of Wisconsin’s natural treasures: Elkhart Lake.

There’s no surprise why the community is named after its pristine 292-acre Elkhart Lake, first settled by the Potawatomi tribe, naming the lake after they found it resembled the shape of an elk’s heart. By the 1880s, vacationers from Chicago and St. Louis arrived by train to be entranced by the tranquil and spring-fed azure waters.

The popular Osthoff Resort opened in 1886, with travelers arriving with steamer trunks in tow. Thanks to the preservation of the area’s Old World charm over the years, the Osthoff Resort and many other establishments continue to thrive to this day. At times, I felt as if I was on Mackinac Island with the white facades of the buildings and tidy gardens.

Don’t be fooled by the internationally renowned motor racing also found here. The road races used to snake right through town before being moved to the Road America racetrack southeast of the village. Outside of race times, though, this place is every bit the refuge for generations of families escaping the summertime heat.

So come early or linger for a few days after the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in West Bend and cool off at Elkhart Lake. Explore some of the spectacular natural areas, savor farm-to-table meals or relax at an eco-spa at the Osthoff Resort.

Recreation and Restoration

Thanks to the beautiful glacier-sculpted countryside, there’s more than one way to take it all in. You might hike part of the Kettle Morraine State Park, bicycle the 17-mile Old Plank Road Trail, or ply the calm waters of the lake in a canoe, kayak or on a stand up paddleboard.

Start your exploration of the 30,000 acres of the Kettle Moraine State Park at the Ice Age Visitor's Center. Naturalists there can help you figure out which of the 100 trails might be best for you after you learn about how the glaciers transformed the area. A section of the Age Age Trail in the LaBudde Creek State Fishery Area is but few minutes drive from the village.

 Aspira Spa's meditation room

After exploring the outdoors, leave some time to restore yourself and become “infused with spirit.” That’s the name given to the Osthoff Resort’s acclaimed Aspira Spa. Aspira’s holistic approach to the spa experience — with massages that go by the names of Sacred Waters, Moroccan Hot Oil, Cedars and Chakra Balancing — is perfectly balanced by the soothing feng shui design of the facility itself.

Capturing the healing wisdom from indigenous peoples from around the world, many of the personalized massages and other treatments available also draw from local flora or the lake water.

Start or finish your spa experience in the Meditation Sanctuary, in one of the lounges or the shared lounge with whirlpool. Right down to the provided robes and slippers made with organic cotton, women’s and men’s relaxation rooms and yoga classes, every detail helps achieve inner peace, relaxation and bliss. My deep-tissue therapeutic massage session was just the beginning to my four-hour experience at Aspira. (Spa guests can stay as long as they wish prior to or after their massage or treatment.)

Lodging and Farm-to-Table Cuisine

Overlooking Elkhart Lake, the stunningly remodeled and Travel Green Wisconsin-certified Osthoff Resort provides luxurious all-suite rooms, complete with a kitchen. The resort has taken numerous steps to be energy efficient and reduce waste. Most noteworthy is the on-premise growing fields that supply the resort’s restaurants — and L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School — with fresh produce and herbs.

Besides swimming along the shoreline, kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and other watercraft are for rent. There’s even scheduled bonfires through the week, s’mores included.

Cooking School at The Osthoff Resort 

If learning a new skill in the kitchen while savoring the dishes you create sounds like fun, don’t miss Executive Chef Scott Baker’s 5-hour course on French Cuisine where you’ll be making a roux like never before. The lively course is both hands-on and delicious, where the attentive chef and assistants coach you through the preparation of a delicious meal you share together after the preparations are done.

Despite being a small town of just over 1,000 year-round residents, Elkhart Lake is a tour de force in culinary experiences, perhaps owing this honor to both the generations of families and auto race fans who return every year during the summertime months.

One farm-to-table restaurant not to miss is Chef Lynn Chisholm’s Paddock Club, featuring a seasonal menu seeped in European culinary traditions. Dishes include handmade spaghetti bolognese, Paddock burger sliders topped with short ribs braised in red wine and frizzled onions. Dessert might include a snickerdoodle crème brulee.

Paddock Club's signature burger 

“We buy local produce and stick to the seasons,” explains Chisholm, who has been operating the Paddock Club with some of her family members since 2007.  “We let the ingredients speak for themselves.” They sing, actually, thanks to Chisholm’s abilities as a “culinary translator.” With an open kitchen design for the restaurant, you can watch the action from the bar.

Another solid dining back-up is the lively Lake Street Café, offering creative and fresh California bistro-style fare all made from scratch. You can dine formal with white linen and candles or join the more casual bustle in the bar. John and Lynn Shovan pride themselves both on the quality of their cuisine and the depth and breadth of their wine selections. “Our focus is not on the chef, but the recipes and cooking from scratch,” says Lynn Shovan.

Getting around the historic village of Elkhart Lake can be easily done on foot, where you can browse the gift or antique shops, or pick up a bottle of wine.  Award-winning sommelier and Vintage Elkhart Lake owner, Jaclyn Stuart, can guide your selection of that perfect bottle of wine or some of the many other regionally-made products she sells.

For organic provisions for a picnic, head to SainRx Organic Juice Bar for made-to-order juices, fresh, seasonal vegetables, fruits and herbs for sandwiches, or grab-and-go salads.  Finally, the newly restored Gessert’s Ice Cream and Confectionary can help keep you cool with an old fashioned ice cream soda when you’re not splashing about in the lake, just as it has done for nearly a century of summer vacationers.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to MOTHER EART NEWS, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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