Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin is Christmas mecca


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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- It's like being at the North Pole, except it probably smells better.

I'm wandering through the brightly lit aisles of the Old World Christmas Market, where dozens of vendors -- many from halfway across the world -- are showing off hand-carved German nutcrackers, Russian nesting dolls, Czech blown-glass ornaments, Estonian woolen products, Christmas kissing balls, wreaths, centerpieces, toys, jewelry, chocolates, and more.

A white-bearded Father Christmas, in a berry-red suit and wearing a crown of holly, roams beneath the giant tent that houses the market, pausing now and then to greet a child or lean down and share a secret or two.

Depending on which aisle I'm in, the scents are a fragrant amalgam of evergreen boughs, roasted almonds, mulled wine, gingerbread and grilled Nuremberg bratwurst.

The Christmas Market, modeled after the centuries-old German Christkindlesmerkt ("Christ child's market") and held for 10 days in early December, is one of several annual holiday traditions sponsored by the Osthoff Resort, an AAA Four Diamond property and the largest lakefront hotel in the area. The concept also has been embraced by cities across the United States, including in Pittsburgh, which this season is hosting its first Holiday Market, Downtown, in Market Square (It's open through Dec. 23.)

Other seasonal offerings at Elkhart Lake include breakfast with Santa, reindeer brunches (with live reindeer), cookie and cupcake-decorating and ornament-making classes with Mrs. Claus, and family hayrides.

The Osthoff's history is linked to that of this tiny resort community of about 1,000 people, located 60 miles north of Milwaukee. In the late 1800s, as passenger rail service made its way to lower Wisconsin, Elkhart Lake became a popular vacation spot for residents of Milwaukee, Chicago and even St. Louis. Anglers claimed it was easy to catch big fish here because they could actually see them deep below the surface of the crystal clear lake.

Over the years the town became a gambling haven and a Prohibition-era hideaway for big-city gangsters and their speakeasies.

The Osthoff, which changed hands a few times over the years, was completely rebuilt in the mid-1990s and has since become one of the region's top resort hotels. This year it was ranked the No. 1 resort in the Midwest by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine, beating out, among others, the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island.

A racing town

Among many Midwesterners, as well as racing fans around the world, Elkhart Lake is probably best known for its Road America auto racing course, one of the longest and fastest natural road-racing tracks in the country. The four-mile course wends through 640 acres of rolling hills, with 14 turns and countless elevation changes.

The town's racing history dates back to the early 1950s, when open-road sports car races were held on the public streets. Spectators watched from behind hay bales and attendance grew each year, topping out at around 100,000 people. But worries about public safety prompted the state to ban racing on public roads.

To keep the much-needed tourist dollars flowing, local businessmen built Road America, a closed-circuit road race course, opening it in 1955. Today the facility hosts more than 400 events a year, with sports cars, motorcycles, NASCAR and open-wheel Indy Car vehicles in competition. Driving schools and corporate events also are held there.

Visitors to Road America's administration building are greeted by an amazing sight: just inside the front door, suspended from a high wall behind the receptionist's desk, is a gleaming black 17-foot-long Lola Ford that was driven by Michael Andretti to victory in a 1996 Indy Car race at Road America.

"Why have a picture when you can have the real thing?" said Mike Kertscher, Road America's programs manager.

French cooking classes

A newer attraction in town, and one that is becoming increasingly popular, is the L'ecole de la Maison culinary school at the Osterhoff. There, Chef Scott Baker and his assistants run two- to five-hour workshops and full two-day courses, each of which are all but guaranteed to turn kitchen klutzes into at least passably proficient culinary artists.

During the three-hour class I attended, we created a five-course French dinner that included tenderloin of beef au Poivre, Coquilles St. Jacques au Gratin, Gougeres, and a bunch of other stuff I couldn't pronounce if you paid me. Chef Scott was happy to put out fires -- literally and figuratively -- for the 10 people in the class, and we managed to produce a meal that was downright delicious.

Of course, a couple glasses of wine with dinner didn't hurt.

Another big draw at the Osterhoff is the Aspira spa, which features a typical array of massages, reflexology, facials, manicures and other services. Signature treatments include the Sacred Waters Massage -- using waters from the nearby lake, which Native Americans once considered sacred -- and the Elderberry Facial, which uses berries picked from the surrounding countryside.

Downtown Elkhart Lake is filled with little boutiques, art galleries, coffee shops, and restaurants. Some are summer-only places, but most are open year-round to accommodate the growing winter tourist trade.

Information: 1-877-ELKHART (355-4278) or www.elkhartlake.com.

travel

Mike Kelly, a former Toledo Blade reporter, is a travel writer and editor (kelly.writer@yahoo.com).


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