Fun without water slides

Getaways - September 2005


Tom Bradley

Think Wisconsin family getaway and chances are you (or at least your children) are thinking wet and wild water parks. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In less time than it takes to drive to the Wisconsin Dells, you can take the family to a AAA Four-Diamond resort: The Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake.

The Osthoff is 149 miles north of downtown Chicago and a world away from the Dells. This refined and romantic resort offers one-, two- and three-bedroom suites–nothing else. For my wife and me, that meant a refreshing change from vacationing with children sleeping next to us on cots and foldout couches.

Every suite has a recessed entryway, which afforded us a feeling of privacy even before we entered the suite. Although the resort was nearly full when we visited in late July, there was no discernible noise from the outside world once we were inside our rooms.

For a Wisconsin resort, the suites are positively upscale. Ours included a kitchen with a modern stove, oven, microwave, refrigerator and built-in dishwasher, positioned opposite a four-stool bar that gives the space an open, airy feel. Nice as all this is, we left it largely unused. My wife was on vacation, too.

Our two-bedroom suite also included a dining table with seating for four, a living room space with couch and chairs, cable TV, a gas fireplace and a nicely sized balcony overlooking The Osthoff’s beautifully maintained pools, manicured grass areas and lakefront.

The master bedroom had a king-size bed, TV, attached private bath with a whirlpool and ample dressing area. The fact that we were able, at the end of the day, to close a bedroom door was an added perk. Our children loved having their own room, bathroom and TV.

Originally opened in 1886, The Osthoff was completely redeveloped in 1995 and a new wing was added this year. They didn’t miss a trick. For example, as soon as I turned on my laptop, I immediately had wireless access to the Internet.

Elkhart Lake fun

The town of Elkhart Lake, where the resort is located, is home to golf, auto racing, restaurants and tourist shops. Gesserts, an authentic ice cream parlor, is a must-see. First opened in 1922, Gesserts has an original, old-time soda fountain where you can linger over homemade ice cream concoctions. Think young George Bailey from "It’s a Wonderful Life."

The resort is built on the shores of Elkhart Lake, which plays a key role in the activities. You can swim in the lake, play along 500 feet of sandy beach and rent a variety of boats, ranging from sailboats, small- to large-size motorized boats (except on Sunday, when there is no wake on the lake) and human-powered devices. Our children took off onto the lake on hydro-bikes, which are a cross between a bicycle and a pontoon. Boat tours are also available, including a morning cruise with coffee and juice and an evening cruise with a view of the sunset.

The lake also provides a backdrop for pick-up volleyball games, picnics and all manner of old-fashioned relaxation. Play tennis, rent a bike, read a book or magazine, strike up a conversation or just watch the constant parade of sailboats from under the shade of one of the tall trees, which should be out in full fall color by the end of September.

The Osthoff also offers organized activities for families and children. You can learn how to fish, take a cooking class or make a craft, all for a fee. Some of these are supervised activities just for children to allow parents some getaway moments together.

Although there are indoor and outdoor pools at The Osthoff, the water slides that have taken over other Wisconsin locations cannot be found here, thankfully.

As much fun as water slides can be, my children have a higher tolerance level for these amusement-park type attractions than I do. According to an informal and completely unscientific survey of my friends, that’s true of other parents as well. With their boundless energy, children can keep water-sliding many hours after their parents are fed up, hungry, tired and bored—which can cause parent and child to become (and remain) unhappily out of sync.

What a resort should be

Indoors, The Osthoff offers whirlpools, massage rooms, saunas and a fitness center. A game area with pool tables, air hockey, and arcade games provides fun for kids of all ages. A cart with old-time candy dispensers was a hit with my 10-year-old, Olivia.

Hungry? We liked Lola’s, The Osthoff’s new fine dining restaurant and bar that overlooks the lake. Lola’s offers a full menu of steaks and seafood, an impressive wine list and first-rate service, along with a children’s menu. Sunday brunch at Otto’s, a more casual restaurant, did not offer the same high-quality food we enjoyed elsewhere at the resort.

With its suite-style room rates and a-la-carte pricing for many lake activities, The Osthoff costs more than many Wisconsin resorts. Room rates alone range from $210 for a one-bedroom suite to $620 for a three-bedroom suite during the peak season (Memorial Day weekend through Sept. 30), and from $165 to $385 off peak.

The resort is offering an "Autumn Getaway Package," which includes a $20-per-day dining certificate. Prices range from $169 for one night in a one-room suite to $609 for two nights in a three-room suite from Sept. 5-30; and from $149 to $393 Oct. 1-Nov. 30.

The design of The Osthoff enables families to have a shared experience. And isn’t that the point of getting away?

"The Osthoff was wonderful," says Amanda, 12, who has visited many Wisconsin destinations. "It was what a resort should be."


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