In the small Wisconsin town of Elkhart Lake, I discovered an ambition I never knew I had: to be a racecar driver. Not of the NASCAR breed—the thought of driving in endless ovals makes me queasy—but circuit racing: navigating the sharp turns and topographical challenges of a miles-long track. Before visiting Elkhart Lake, this too was a foreign concept to me. But after an afternoon of threshold braking, skid control, and racing through a slalom course at Road America, I was hooked.
Elkhart Lake is a village of some 950 residents located exactly between Milwaukee and Green Bay. It’s popular with Chicagoans, for whom the two-and-a-half-hour drive is akin to Twin Citians heading up to the North Shore. Within the town’s 1.3 square miles, beside a dazzling blue lake, they unwind at three luxury resorts and in restaurants boasting some of the best food and wine in the state.
It wasn’t always this way. But the stylish amenities haven’t changed the town’s anything-goes attitude, which can be attributed to Road America: a 14-turn, 4.048-mile road-racing course, considered one of the finest in the world. This wasn’t always the case, either. The sport that first drew visitors to Elkhart Lake was open-road racing, an international sensation during the 1940s and ’50s. It had a three-year run in Elkhart Lake from 1950 to 1952, after which the Wisconsin State Legislature put the kibosh on racing on public roads. You can still drive the original circuit, which weaves through town and along country roads, by following markers that point out the course’s trickiest spots.
By the time it was outlawed, road racing had become so much a part of Elkhart Lake’s identity—and economic vitality—that the idea of abandoning it seemed absurd. Enter Cliff Tufte. With the help of the Chicago Region of the Sports Car Club of America and influential Sheboygan County folks, Tufte transformed 640 acres of farmland into Road America, opening the course in 1955. Today it attracts more than 700,000 visitors a year to experience races, classes (like the one I took), and a range of related activities.
But you could easily come here and never go near the track. The town’s namesake lake is as turquoise as the Mediterranean, and the resorts around it—Victorian Village, Siebkens, Osthoff—are as idyllic as those peppering the North Shore. The Osthoff is the most luxurious of the trio. The AAA Four Diamond destination opened in 1995 and was deemed the “best resort in the Midwest” by Traveler magazine last year. Along with its 245 suites, the resort includes Aspira Spa, L’ecole de la Maison cooking school (where head chef Scott Baker makes even the least kitchen-capable students feel like a pro), indoor and outdoor pools, and three restaurants. There’s also the Elk Room Bar, its dark wood and deep armchairs making it the ideal place for waxing poetic over a nightcap
What the Osthoff offers in amenities, Siebkens Resort provides in history. Often described as having a Dirty Dancing vibe (a reference to the movie’s charming locale, not the dancing), the resort has been a family-owned and family-friendly Elkhart Lake mainstay since 1916. Its second owner, Ollie Siebken Moeller, helped bring racing to town, and the resort’s Stop-Inn Tavern is the place to be on race day.
The food at Paddock Club and Lake Street Café rivals that of even the most foodie-centric big city. Paddock Club’s executive chef Lynn Chisholm is a Wisconsin native and puts the state’s produce to use in a seasonally focused, ever-rotating menu.
Lake Street Café disguises its fine-dining fare behind a cheeky pizza-joint-meets-corner-diner façade. But what’s most surprising here is the incredible wine list. Co-owner John Shovan is a big-time wine aficionado and stocks some 600 bottles—the largest selection in Wisconsin, for which the restaurant has won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 10 years running.
That a village with a single main drag manages to pack all this into its résumé, without losing its laidback appeal, is impressive. That there is nothing commercialized or predictable about this place—originality being prized over tourist traps and, well, cheesiness—makes it something of an oasis. You can rev up or down, depending on your mood. And it doesn’t take long to get here, I discovered, if you channel your inner racecar driver. Just don’t tell the trooper I said so.
Guide to Elkhart Lake, WI
Where To Stay: Relax in the lap of luxury at the Osthoff Resort (101 Osthoff Ave., 920-876-3366, osthoff.com). Partake in the town’s racing history and rent one of the well-appointed condos at Siebkens Resort (284 Lake St., 920-876-2600, siebkens.com).
What To Eat: Dine at one of the excellent restaurants at the Osthoff and Siebkens resorts. Treat yourself to the locally sourced and creatively paired dishes at the Paddock Club (61 S. Lake St., 920-876-3288, paddockclubelkhartlake.com). Find a new favorite wine at Lake Street Café (21 Lake St., 920-876-2142, lakestreetcafe.com).
What To Do: Catch a race or test your driving skills at Road America (7390 N. Hwy. 67, Plymouth, Wisconsin; 920-892-4576; roadamerica.com). Browse pottery (made by owner Patrick Robison), jewelry, and fair-trade art at Two Fish Gallery (224 E. Rhine St., 920-876-3192, twofishgallery.net). Climb aboard Captain Tom’s pontoon boat for a guided tour of the town’s namesake lake (212 S. Turtle Bay Rd., 920-876-2903).