Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin: Wellness and Water

Finding Wellness in Wisconsin

By Donnie Sexton
GoNOMAD Travel Writer

The village of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin feels like a slice of Americana that has stood the test of time.

A light breeze can bring the locals out to test the waters at Elkhart Lake. (photo courtesy Elkhart Lake Tourism)
A light breeze can bring the locals out to test the waters at Elkhart Lake. (photo courtesy Elkhart Lake Tourism)

  I’m reminded of my early childhood where all the neighborhood kids played endless games of hide and seek until it turned dark and our moms would yell for us to come home. 

I sensed that contentment with life ran strong with the locals in this community.

Shaped Like An Elk’s Heart

The original inhabitants of the area, the Potawatomi Indians, called the lake Great Elk Heart Lake due to its shape resembling an elk’s heart. They believed the waters had healing powers and to bath in it would rejuvenate and restore their beauty. 

Today, these same waters provide the whole gamut of water-related activities that lure visitors in during the summer months, although any season is perfect for a visit.

The commercial district of Elkhart Lake is quite small, with a just a few shops, bars and restaurants. Locals do most of their shopping in Milwaukee, an hour's drive to the south.
The commercial district of Elkhart Lake is quite small, with just a few shops, bars, and restaurants. Locals do most of their shopping in Milwaukee, an hour’s drive to the south.

Hugging the shoreline of Elkhart Lake is the sprawling Osthoff Resort, one of three distinguished resorts in this central Wisconsin community.  

The property has a significant focus on “wellness,” which is a popular buzzword today with travel destinations. 

I was curious as to how Osthoff defined “wellness”.  In my mind, it was a combo of eating healthy, exercising and restaining from alcohol and cigs. But I was going to withhold judgment until my visit to Elkhart Lake and this property, in particular, was over. 

Osthoff’s Colorful History

Elkhart Lake’s ties with healing and wellness date back to 1885 when Otto and Paulina Osthoff, originally from Germany but living in Milwaukee, came to the area. Paulina was in the throes of a nervous breakdown, and her physician prescribed a visit to Elkhart Lake to recover. 

They would end up purchasing land and building Otto Osthoff’s Hotel, which opened in 1886 with room for 120 guests.

The Osthoff Resort is one of three classic resorts in the town of Elkhart Lake, along with a handful of bed and breakfast accommodations.
The Osthoff Resort is one of three classic resorts in the town of Elkhart Lake, along with a handful of bed and breakfast accommodations.


The Hotel was sold to the Sulie and Pearl Harand in 1955 who established one of the first co-ed theatre camps in the US focused on singing, dancing and acting.  The property changed hands again in 1989, the camp was torn down and in its place was built the current Osthoff Resort which opened in 1995.    

The Joy of Cooking

It's all hands on deck as students tackle the job of removing pomegranate seeds to be used in the Wellness Salad.
It’s all hands on deck as students tackle the job of removing pomegranate seeds to be used in the Wellness Salad.

My visit to Osthoff included a morning at L’ecole de la Maison Cooking School, which sounded exotic and romantic. Who wouldn’t want to learn French cooking?     I had never taken a cooking class, so this was a first for me.  

Our instructors, Executive Chef Patrick O’Toole and his wife, Ronna, the pastry chef at the Resort, made it clear from the start that we would be preparing food promoting wellness. 

We used fruits and vegetables fresh from the earth, as well as ingredients that by all accounts are known to be good for the body.  I’m talking rolled oats, nuts, yogurt, quinoa, almond milk and chia seeds. 

The class started with a tip from Chef Patrick that by adding a tiny bit of grated orange peel to freshly squeezed juice, the flavor was greatly enhanced.  

Chef Ronna then had us taste the difference between basic table salt and La Baleine Sea Salt, pointing out the benefits of using top-notch ingredients in the kitchen.

Savoring the Results

The Wellness salad at the Osthoff Resort.
The Wellness salad at the Osthoff Resort.

From there we chopped, pulverized, stirred, mixed, blended and listened to both Chef Patrick and Ronna as they talked about the health benefits of what we were preparing. More importantly, they schooled us on how eating well doesn’t require a labor-intensive process in the kitchen.  

Throughout the morning, our class would prepare overnight oats, a wellness salad, baked eggs with feta cheese, heirloom tomatoes and cilantro, and finally, lemon raspberry chia seed pudding.   The finale was sitting down to savor the fruits of our labor. 

All of the food scraps from our preparation went back into compost that was spread over the garden.  Nothing here at Osthoff is wasted as Chef Patrick would say. 

I left with good intentions on caring a bit more about what I put in my body for nourishment. Score one for wellness thinking!

Among the services offered at Aspira Spa are massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, yoga and mediation classes. There is a small cafe available to guests of the spa. (photo courtesy of Aspira Spa)
Among the services offered at Aspira Spa are massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, yoga and meditation classes. There is a small cafe available to guests of the spa. (photo courtesy of Aspira Spa)

Heaven on Earth at Aspira Spa

Next, it was off for a massage at Aspira Spa, a beautiful, peaceful facility within the Resort. I’ve made a point of trying to have a massage in every country I visit.

I’ve been in massage rooms that look like a doctor’s exam room, some with just a simple mattress on the floor, and some with tables lined up in assembly-line fashion with only a thin curtain separating them. 

Early morning yoga is part of the Osthoff regimen in Elkhart Lake.
Early morning yoga is part of the Osthoff regimen in Elkhart Lake.

This treatment room had a fireplace glowing, soft music in the background under dim lights, a shower in the corner and a massage table covered in a warm cotton sheet. 

If there is heaven on earth, I had arrived!  I chose the Cedars Massage, which ended with my body being draped in a blanket with native cedar branches placed in the folds.   

Elkhart Lake is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, especially for those who relish spending time on the water.
Elkhart Lake is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, especially for those who relish spending time on the water.

Within the Spa, there was a circular meditation room, a whirlpool and a café, along with rooms for pedicures, manicures, and facial treatments.  Aspira was a destination unto itself!  

By the end of this day, between filling my belly with decent food and a massage to ease some of my tension, the word “wellness” had started to define itself for me.

Bye-bye Cell Phone

This community of Elkhart Lake exudes wholesomeness and a sense of peace.   It has long been a destination for city folks from Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis to escape the hectic city life and soak up some blissful solitude. 

The nicely manicured grounds at Osthoff Resort lead down to the lake, where rentals of kayaks, pontoons, fishing boats and paddleboards are available.
The nicely manicured grounds at Osthoff Resort lead down to the lake, where rentals of kayaks, pontoons, fishing boats and paddleboards are available.

In this spirit, I made a conscious effort for the next two days to put my cell phone down and focus on the relaxed vibe both at the Resort and in the community.

Easily walkable, I explored the quiet downtown with a few restaurants and stores, then purchased some original art at the marvelous Two Fish Gallery.  I took a stroll on the walking path around the lake, breathing in the freshest of air while detoxing my mind and trying to be “in the moment.”

Back Home and Energized

I returned home feeling cleansed from a few days of “wellness,” a bit like a thorough spring cleaning of one’s house.  I’m not going to give up a gooey cinnamon roll now and then, but I’ve made an effort to be more conscious of what I eat. 


I’m determined to detach myself from cell phone every day, if only for a few minutes, and set more time aside to be outdoors. 

Travel enlightens us about a destination, and sometimes about ourselves. I have the delightful community of Elkhart Lake to thank for giving me a few days of “wellness” that infused new energy into my everyday life.  

It was my first visit but it won’t be my last.

Donnie Sexton has moved on from a very long stint as staff photographer and media relations manager for the Montana Office of Tourism. Her path is now focused on feeding her addiction to travel and sharing her journeys in both words and photography. www.donniesexton.com

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