Small-town charm and auto racetrack add to winning ways of Elkhart Lake, Wis.

NASCAR driver Boris Said headed up the hill out of Turn 5  during a test session at Road America in  preparation for the track's first Nationwide Series race in June 2010.
NASCAR driver Boris Said headed up the hill out of Turn 5 during a test session at Road America in preparation for the track's first Nationwide Series race in June 2010. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Trendiness is a strong force in fashion, but it's also manifests itself in travel. National magazines trumpet their annual "hot lists," where this year's hipster heaven will be next year's déclassé has-been.

It often seems that the more outré a destination is, the better these trendsetters like it.

Who would have guessed that the Asian desert Balochistan was the new Bali? Llama trekking in Peru; bicycling up Mount Kilimanjaro or down Mount Haleakala; dune surfing in Namibia; tenting safaris in Mongolia — it can be a bit mind-boggling.

Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned family vacation?

Meet Elkhart Lake, Wis. In the heart of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, about an hour north of Milwaukee, this burg with a population of just less than 1,000 could have sprung from a Hallmark card. Andy Hardy meets Leave It to Beaver meets One Tree Hill. This is summer vacation as we remember it, or at least, as we would like to remember it.

Gessert's, ice cream parlor, a fixture since the 1920s, is the place to go for frothy, heat-beating concoctions.

Laid-back spots with names like Back Porch Bistro and Barefoot Bay Tiki Bar put one in an island frame of mind, even in Wisconsin. Pontoons lazily circle the lake, and in an uncommonly generous gesture, residents allow walkers on the 5-mile Lakeshore Trail access across their properties.

The 347-acre glacial lake is, of course, the town's raison d'etre. The first lakeside dwellers were the native Potawatomi, Menominee and Ojibwe tribes that put aside their differences to live in harmony along its cedar-lined shores. They knew a good thing when they found it, referring to the lake as "the chosen spot."

The town first gained fame as a resort in the 19th century, when German families, believing the lake to have curative powers, began arriving. One couple, Otto and Paulina Osthoff, opened a hotel on the north side of the lake in 1886, the first of the three current lakeside resorts.

Shortly afterward, with the arrival of the Milwaukee & Northern Railroad, Elkhart Lake became a summer getaway for residents of Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis.

A checkered past

Lest one think the history of Elkhart Lake has been all sweetness and light, consider this: The town also has been a haven for those with a penchant for gambling and a love of open-road racing.

During the 1920s, the resort became a gambling capital, and casinos, although illegal locally, popped up around the lake. Area law enforcement turned a blind eye, and raids on the establishments were rare. John Dillinger and other Prohibition-era gangsters could be seen around town, and the sheer audacity of the gamblers was the subject of editorials in area newspapers.

A 1928 story in the Milwaukee Journal referred to Elkhart Lake as "a gambler's paradise," adding that "men, women and even children crowd about roulette wheels, chuck a luck games, crap tables and other gaming devices as nonchalantly as residents of less exciting communities patronize a drug store soda counter."

Although the Wisconsin legislature outlawed gambling statewide in 1945, another form of gambling arose to take its place: wagering on the maximum speed that pricey foreign cars could reach on the town's open roads.

Today, 14 historic markers dot the 6.5-mile course where for three years (1950 to 1952), thousands of spectators lined the hay-bale barricades to watch in delight as daredevils in Jaguars, Ferraris and other pedigreed roadsters came careening around the curves.

These open-road car races saw novice drivers, experienced drivers and female drivers compete in separate categories. The course — which can be driven today, although only at legal speed limits — bears such colorfully and alliteratively named sites as Wacker's Wend, Dickens' Ditch, Hamill's Hollow and Ted's Turn.

In 1955, open-road racing was outlawed, much the way gambling had been a decade earlier, but the need for speed remained, leading to creation of Road America, one of the nation's premier racing venues. Dubbed "America's National Park of Speed," it covers 640 acres and has a 4-mile track with 14 hair-raising turns.

Known as one of the world's fastest permanent road racing tracks, it hosts — in addition to pro and amateur racing — corporate adventure programs, go-karting, ATV tours, geocaching, and motorcycle and driving schools.

Indeed, NASCAR name-dropping is a pastime of locals in Elkhart Lake. One of the best places to hobnob with drivers and their entourages is at Stop Inn Tavern at Siebkens Resort.

At the Stop Inn, they still tell of the time Mario Andretti, who owns a winery in California, became an impromptu sommelier, personally pouring for a customer who had ordered his wine. Then there was the time Ashley Judd, during her marriage to driver Dario Franchitti, danced on a tavern table to celebrate his victory in a race.

Even when the NASCAR names are no-shows, Elkhart Lake has plenty to offer. Sample wines at the Vintage Elkhart Lake Wine Shop and Tasting Room with an award-winning sommelier who picks each of the 150 wines she carries.

Tour the Wade House Historic Site, a complex that includes a 27-room stagecoach inn, sawmill, blacksmith shop and a carriage museum, home to Wisconsin's largest collection of carriages, wagons and sleighs.

At Osthoff Resort, you may sign up for a cooking class with chef Scott Baker at L'Ecole de la Maison Cooking School. Be prepared for a challenge; this is not a class for the gastronomically faint of heart. The menu for my class featured French onion soup, Lyonnaise salad with poached egg, coquille St. Jacques, tournedos of beef au poivre, green beans with walnut-shallot butter, herb potatoes Dauphinoise, French baguette and crepes Suzette.


Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Where to stay: The town has a number of bed-and-breakfast inns and three major lakeside resorts: Victorian Village Resort (, Siebkens Resort ( and Osthoff Resort (, where I stayed. With 245 accommodations and plentiful activities, the Osthoff was ranked the Midwest's No. 1 resort by readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine.

Where to eat:

■ Lake Street Café serves California-inspired bistro dishes and received a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its cellar.

■ The Paddock Club, another Wine Spectator award winner, had a previous incarnation as a gambling club. There's no gamble involved in its innovative cuisine, particularly the array of small plates.

■ Lola's on the Lake, the fine dining restaurant at Osthoff Resort, combines sophisticated cuisine and a lovely lakefront location.

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