ucked away in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, Camp Wandawega is the magical place where I spent last weekend reliving my childhood summer camp memories.
Wandawega is the adult sleep away camp version of The All American Getaway. It’s a feel good kind of place that welcomes you with big, open Midwestern arms and looks forward to seeing you again next summer.
At Camp Wandawaega, campers have communal access to all the traditional sleep away camp activities you’d expect-archery, ping pong, basketball, shuffleboard, tennis, hiking, horseshoes, fishing a swimming lake with a floating dock, rowboats and canoes.
Camp Wandawega also hosts invitation-only events tailored to the more discerning camper. They take up a sizeable chunk of the Summer schedule and range from workshops and culinary gatherings to creative retreats and philanthropic culture/music/arts programs.
When my boyfriend David and I rolled up to the campgrounds on a perfectly sunny Friday afternoon, a 1960s Jeep Wagoneer and two vintage motorcycles—one with a Ural sidecar and the other cleverly converted to a golf cart—were standing in position, ready to transport us back in time, which is exactly what happened.
First built in 1925, Wandawega has a backstory so one-of-a-kind that it compelled writer Austin Salisbury to write a book about its colorful history (American Getaway: 100 Years of Saints and Sinners at Camp Wandawega, Wisconsin). Wandawega has existed as a speakeasy hotel, brothel, lake resort, catholic retirement home and Latvian church camp.
Now, finally, the grounds have found peace as a private friends & family camp retreat thanks to its self described ‘current innkeepers’ Tereasa Surratt and David Hernandez. Preservationists to the core, they have lovingly restored every inch of the grounds to reflect the original 1920s character.
Our check-in was informal, and as we were casually escorted to our sleeping accommodation, we passed swinging hammocks, picnic benches, barbecue and bonfire pits and other familiar Summer staples.
The plumbingless cabin we booked is perfect for two, and even four. One small room with bunk beds opened to a larger one with a double bed facing fantastic, unobstructed view of the lake. The small but airy interior was outfitted with all the essentials an indoor camper would need: soap, lantern, clean towels, and a classic wool blanket.
We were aware the cabin’s modern amenities would be sparse, having read prior to confirming the reservation the camp’s cheeky “Manifesto of Low Expectations,” which explains Wandawega’s rustic, no frills approach to guest stays. We never used the small AC unit; the lake breeze and ceiling fan were enough. We even had a surprise luxury bonus: a vintage wood paneled mini fridge kept our case of Hamm’s beer ice cold.
Provisions aside, the most noticeable thing about the cabin, and the rest of the camp for that matter, was the interior and exterior styling—there were enough Instagram-able vignettes to supply a week’s worth of content.
I compulsively wanted to snap photos of everything-the eclectic art wall of paintings, sepia photographs and plaques, the taxidermy pheasant in flight, the vibrantly colored vintage lanterns neatly lined up on the roof beam, the stacked vintage suitcases, the faded tapestry of a forest scene hanging over the four post bed, even the crisscrossed canoe paddles, croquet set and original Wandawega Resort life float. The prop styling and attention to detail was nothing less than masterful.
Our first day we spent exploring the grounds, checking out the original boy scout platform tents and hand-built teepees perched on a hill slightly away from the main action. We then climbed up to a treehouse that looks like it was taken from the set of Moonrise Kingdom to get a bird’s eye map of the campgrounds and the outdoor cooking preparations being made for what was to be a giant feast that evening.
Save for the two of us, the camp was fully booked for a Culinary Retreats weekend takeover, as part of a series of epicure getaways with restaurant industry influencers. This particular 3-day “Cooking with Fire” inspired an eating adventure presented by popular Chicago restaurants The Winchester and La Sirena Clandestina, with menus prepared by respective chefs, Greg Bastien and John Manion.
The food fest continued on Saturday, with an ambitious menu of whole goat (which was hoisted onto crossbeams and slow roasted by the fire all day), merguez sausage, flank steak, chimichurri and tomatillo sauces and a spread of lightly charred vegetables, rounded off with a desert of peaches and vanilla ice cream. And, of course, s’mores.
Sunday was spent almost entirely in the lake, as it should have been, and as we waved our goodbyes, I was already daydreaming about my someday wedding at Camp Wandawega.