Located along Wisconsin’s state line, this quaint community makes for a cozy weekend
getaway that’s surprisingly close to home.
There’s a small community right on the Illinois/Wisconsin border that is gaining recognition as a place to play and dine – during the cold, winter months, no less.
Wilmot – a small “hamlet” of what is now the Village of Salem Lakes in Wisconsin – has always been a small, tight-knit community. Before its incorporation into Salem Lakes, U.S. Census data in 2010 marked its population as just 442.
“It’s kind of a little hidden gem,” says Marnie DeVries, manager of local steakhouse Wilmot Stage Stop. “When I first moved here years ago, the population was around 200. In grade school, there were 10 students in my graduating eighth-grade class. But more people are traveling through now because the Kenosha County area is populated a lot more. Wilmot has actually become a very popular town.”
Located about an hour from both Chicago and Milwaukee, and about a half-hour from Kenosha, the city’s popular summertime attractions, such as Hansen’s Ice Cream Parlor, Wilmot Raceway and the Wilmot Flea Market at the Kenosha County Fairgrounds, drive many visitors to the area.
But when it comes to winter, this little town provides both big excitement and a cozy setting for a casual weekend getaway. And residents and business owners are proud of that.
“We are Salem Lakes now, even though I think everybody here in Wilmot has the steadfast opinion that we are Wilmot,” says Richard Knox, owner and chef of Twin Oaks Country Inn. “We don’t want to be anybody but ourselves.”
Playing at Wilmot Mountain
Local history is important to Wilmot, and its greatest winter attraction is no exception.
Wilmot Mountain, now in its 82nd year of operation, is one of the oldest ski resorts still operating in the country, says Peter Disch, general manager.
“Between the town and us, there’s a lot of history,” says the Minnesota native. “We are certainly a weekend getaway: get away from the city, put your feet up and relax a little bit, get outside and enjoy some of the historic hometown community. It’s so welcoming.”
Though the resort is historic, its amenities are not. In 2016, Wilmot Mountain became part of Vail Resorts, which operates 37 ski resorts in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
With that merger came a $13 million renovation that effectively changed the way skiers and snowboarders enjoy the mountain.
The main lodge was completely reimagined, with a new layout allowing parents a full view of the mountain to watch their kids, Disch says. The food service was revamped, a new bar was installed, 400 seats were added, and Wi-Fi was upgraded throughout the facility.
The resort already had 120 skiable acres with 23 trails, but now three new four-person chair lifts allow skiers and snowboarders more time on the slopes and less time in line or on a lift. Plus, the terrain park was expanded and updated to include a double high-speed rope tow.
Not to be overlooked was the installation of a state-of-the-art snowmaking system, which has been enhanced each year, Disch says.
“Even if there’s not snow in your backyard, we’ve got snow,” he says.
Finally, the Vail merger brought with it the opportunity for patrons to purchase an Epic season pass, valid at all Vail resorts.
“It’s good at Wilmot all season long, as well as out west at Beaver Creek, Vail, Breckinridge, and more,” says Disch. “If you’re a passholder, you can get some days here at Wilmot to warm up and get ready for a big trip out west.”
Because Vail Resorts owns three resorts in Australia, an Epic pass holder can actually ski 12 months out of the year, Disch says.
“Another benefit of being part of Vail Resorts is the quality of service and level of training we do with our employees,” Disch says. “We have the same exact programming for lessons in Wisconsin as Whistler Blackcomb, or Vail or Beaver Creek.”
To utilize that training, Wilmot Mountain recently expanded its ski/snowboard school to include a Threes on Skis program geared specifically for 3-year-olds.
If you’re not a skier or snowboarder, winter excitement still is within your grasp. A half-mile down the road lies the Wilmot Mountain Tubing area, which has 22 lanes and two surface conveyor lifts so you don’t have to walk back up to the top of the hill. There’s virtually no age limit on this fun; patrons just have to be 42 inches tall to ride.
Wilmot Mountain often has plenty of special events to entertain guests, and the holidays are no exception. Visitors can “Ski and Dine with Santa and Mrs. Claus” on Dec. 19 and 20. A Kids New Year’s Eve Bash will take place throughout the day Dec. 31, with food, games, face painting, a DJ, party favors and more at Walt’s Tavern.
And on Feb. 9, the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, Wilmot Mountain offers Chairlift Speed Dating. Working with a dating service, patrons will be paired with another person to ride together on the lift.
“If it doesn’t work out, ski back down and find a new partner,” says Disch. “It’s a lot of fun and gives you 90 seconds to two minutes to find out if you like someone.”
Dining at Wilmot Stage Stop
After a long day on the slopes, you’re sure to be hungry. While there’s plenty to eat on-site, two historic road stops down the street offer a relaxed experience and a change of scenery.
The Wilmot Stage Stop is Wisconsin’s oldest tap and dining room, having opened in 1848 – the same year Wisconsin became a state. It was continually owned by seven generations of the Hackett family until 2016, when the restaurant closed briefly. In 2018, Chad Cantwell, who also owns nearby Twin Lakes Country Club, reopened the historical gem, and its popularity was quickly re-established; weekend diners who don’t have a reservation can expect to wait up to an hour, says Executive Chef Phillip Sherman.
The white structure, which resembles a southern colonial mansion with its pillars and second-floor porch, originally was a hotel that fed and housed stagecoach travelers traversing between Galena and Kenosha. In its early years, it served as a hub for communication, an enlistment station for the Union Army during the Civil War and even an occasional stop for the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus, whose trainers and animals would spend an occasional night here while passing through town.
Since 1961, when the hotel became a full-time restaurant, the menu has been short, sweet and full of starch, with steak, lobster and baked potatoes – complete with a quarter stick of butter on the potatoes – as the main fare.
And you can watch Sherman prepare your steak on the open-faced grill, which has only been touched by three other cooks – a testament to the restaurant’s familial atmosphere.
“They can see me cook all night long,” Sherman says of his patrons. “We’re very hands on. I actually cook your steak.”
Other favorites include the Wilmot Stage Stop’s homemade pineapple cheesecake and grasshopper pie, plus its cream of lobster soup, a staple for nearly 25 years that is more reminiscent of an old Wisconsin supper club soup, not a lobster bisque.
The Wilmot Stage Stop is a 95% scratch kitchen, Sherman says.
“The only thing we don’t make is our bread,” he says. “We are a nostalgic restaurant. You’re walking back to the 1800s – this is what we could get at that time.”
If you’re looking for a vegetarian or vegan plate, a salad topped with housemade dressing will have to do, says Sherman. The restaurant doesn’t offer vegetables.
Nor does it have TVs. In keeping with its legacy, it remains a place where patrons can actually talk with each other, whether it’s at a table or the original U-shaped bar.
That’s part of what makes the Wilmot Stage Stop so unique, says DeVries.
While you may be there to eat and enjoy your company, a trip to Wilmot Stage Stop wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the upstairs museum.
It’s here that patrons can see the actual hotel rooms preserved from the 1800s, complete with original Brunswick pool tables, cash registers, furniture and other antiques. Employee Dawn Golden answers questions and provides short tours.
“It’s a really unique place to go to because it’s a historical building,” says DeVries. “People like to go to there to eat, but they also like to go upstairs and look and see what that place was like in the 1800s.”
Dining at Twin Oaks Country Inn
History also is embedded at Twin Oaks Country Inn, a restaurant and banquet facility nestled in a residential area just around the corner from Wilmot’s only gas station.
Owned by Chef Richard Knox and his wife, Gina, the 1891 Victorian building that houses the restaurant still exudes its charm on the outside.
But the warmth and intimate appeal of the Victorian period extend to the dining room, too, says Knox.
“It certainly is authentic in its period – the woodwork, the colors that are used, the fabrics on the chairs, the way the rooms look and the way my wife has decorated,” he says. “There are original clawfoot mirrors, oak paneling; the staircase, that’s original, as well as the carvings and all the interior attributes of the building.”
What drew the former chef at Le Francais Restaurant in Wheeling and executive chef at La Tour at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Chicago was the tranquility of this little hamlet.
“Having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, there was a certain appeal to a quieter, simpler type of surroundings,” Knox says. “Wilmot was very tranquil, very serene, very calm, kind of what I think I imagined raising a family in.”
For his menu, Knox has chosen to stick with classic comfort dishes.
The Portobello Beef Wellington is a popular menu item. It’s baked in a pastry crust and served with mashed potatoes and a vegetable.
So is the Svíčková, a Bohemian-style stroganoff.
“It’s something my mother and my grandmother used to make,” Knox says. “Every Eastern European country has a version of it: Germany with sauerbraten; the Russians, stroganoff.”
Twin Oaks Country Inn also offers a wide variety of seafood: Norwegian salmon, grouper, snapper, prongs, lobster, shrimp and scallops.
But be sure to leave room for the bread.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is we’ve made our own bread every day for the past 29 years,” Knox says. “We present it to each customer, fresh, every day.”
A cinder block building attached to the Victorian house was added in the 1950s for use as a school run by a group of nuns. Eventually, a larger school was built down the road on Highway C, and the building became a series of restaurants, notably The Gilead House in the late 1960s and Dylan’s thereafter.
Today, it houses the banquet facility run by the Knoxes, which can accommodate 220 guests.
Skiers and snowboarders often pop by for dinner after a day on the slopes, and with a “casually nice” dress code, they feel right at home, Knox says.
“Twenty-nine years ago, the goal was to have people come in and feel at home and feel comfortable,” Knox says. “And the building certainly has a personality about it. It’s more of the way I wanted to present my business to the customers who came in, and I wanted them to feel like they were coming into my own house.”
And on a visit to Wilmot, it’s hard not to feel like you’re home.
Places to Stay
There aren’t any hotels or bed-and-breakfasts directly in Wilmot, but accommodations aren’t far. On the Illinois side, Antioch – with a quaint downtown shopping district – is less than 15 minutes away. Across the state line, Lake Geneva, Twin Lakes and Kenosha offer a large variety of shopping and dining experiences, as well as their own local attractions. The following is a small sample of area accommodations. Some hotels have special rates for Wilmot Mountain guests.
Best Western Plus Antioch Hotel and Suites, Antioch
Dragonfly Bed and Breakfast, Antioch
Hampton Inn and Suites, Kenosha
Candlewood Suites Kenosha
The Cove of Lake Geneva, Lake Geneva*
Lake Geneva Comfort Suites
Inns of Geneva National, Lake Geneva*
The Abbey Resort, Fontana
*Seasonal Wilmot Mountain special available