Imagine yourself back in the post-Civil War era. You’re an industrialist in a big Midwestern city. Summers can be brutal – pollution dirties the air, pavements hold the heat and office fans only move hot air around. You’re looking for an escape. That was the situation for moguls in Milwaukee and Chicago, and they found the perfect getaway on a lovely little lake in Wisconsin: Lake Geneva.
A small, pretty town on the lake provided necessities. The air was fresh and pure. The lake sparkled, crystal clear. With over 5,000 acres, it was large enough to hold showy yachts, but small enough for a challenging walk around. And it was full of fish – bass, northern pike, walleye, trout and panfish – for avid anglers. The lake became a destination for big-city big shots, who built large, often ostentatious, summer homes where entire families and servants would escape the stifling heat. Lake Geneva’s nickname was “The Newport of the West.”
Today, Lake Geneva still offers those same amenities – but you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy them. Don’t have a yacht? That’s okay, you can tour the lake with Lake Cruises. Cruise season starts in April or May, depending on the weather, with regularly scheduled trips until the end of October. Weekend trips are available through November – again, depending on weather – and Santa Cruises go from the Friday after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day.
From June 15 through September 15, the coolest cruise is the mail boat run. All the cruises are narrated and offer interesting information, but this one has an added attraction, as mail is delivered to individual dock mailboxes by agile carriers who jump off the bow, race to the box, then leap back onto the stern of the still-moving boat.
The town of Lake Geneva hugs the east shore of the lake. Cruises leave from the side of the old Riviera Ballroom, now a meeting venue, colorful boats tie up at the piers and a popular swimming beach offers summer fun.
• Downtown – Dining and Dreaming It’s a short walk to historic Main Street, lined with Italianate, Classical and Colonial Revival buildings dating back to the 1870s. Stroll downtown streets to find interesting shops, boutiques and restaurants.
If you’re looking for a great breakfast or lunch, the Egg Harbor Café is the stop for you. Not surprisingly, you’ll find lots of egg dishes on the menu – all from happy hens with good homes. Definitely worth a try.
Sprecher Brewery was the first post-Prohibition craft brewery opened in Wisconsin, and they brew both beers and sodas. The restaurants that share the brand name (there are five in Wisconsin) offer these products exclusively – plus great food. I’m not much of a drinker, but I liked what they did with the brews; I had a Reuben with corned beef slow-roasted in Sprecher Black Bavarian beer.
Another day I lunched at Oakfire, close to the beach, where the Neapolitan-style pizza cooks in 90 seconds in a handmade, brick-lined, wood-fired Italian oven. If there’s room after dinner, order the Pizza con Nutella – a stuffed pie with sliced bananas and Nutella, drizzled with chocolate syrup, dusted with powdered sugar and trimmed with strawberries and fresh basil.
Cap a day in downtown with a show at Tristan Crist Magic Theatre. The current theatre is intimate, about 50 seats, with lots of audience interaction. Crist will be moving to a larger venue in the next year or two, and I hope he doesn’t sacrifice that close connection with the audience. It was a fast-paced show with lots of surprises – great entertainment.
There are many choices of accommodations, but if you want unique, try one of the more historic properties. The Baker House, 1885, comes with an in-house butler and a great legacy. The stately Queen Anne beauty is elegant to its core, including afternoon toasts to the original occupants held on the front lawn during the season.
There are five luxury suites in the home – and I do mean luxury. In an earlier incarnation of the property, Hugh Hefner leased the home while he was overseeing the building of the Playboy Club Hotel.
The Maxwell Mansion, bearing the name of one of the town’s founders, is one of the oldest homes in the area. The Georgian/Italianate mansion was completed in 1856. Both it and the Baker House are decorated by a designer who had worked for HGTV – so expect interesting and unusual décor in both these properties.
• First Resort One of the oldest resorts in the area, if not the first, is Lake Lawn, my host for my stay. On Delavan Lake, a few miles northwest of Lake Geneva, Lake Lawn is a sprawling property with lots of amenities from lawn games to golf. Also included are indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis, a game room and activity center, children’s playground, fitness center, spa, several restaurants, fishing piers, a marina – the list just goes on. In other words, this is an all-in-one vacation.
My room was lovely and I had a covered porch with rocking chairs and a lake view, but I also found time to read some of the interesting history of the property. Before becoming a tourist accommodation in 1878, the land was home to Mound Builders (600 – 1200 A.D.), Potawatomi Indians in the late 1700s and early 1800s and even a circus (mid-1800s). Panels near the Frontier restaurant provide a fascinating set of stories – including the invention of pink lemonade.
Lake Geneva and the surrounding area provide a wide selection of sights, eats and treats. Just 50 miles from Madison, 40 miles from Milwaukee, and 70 miles from Chicago, it’s no wonder it still holds special attraction for these city dwellers. A mere 100 miles further from OKC than a drive to Padre Island, it’s interstates almost all the way and takes less than 13 hours by car – a long day if you’re a bear for punishment, or a comfortable two-day jaunt.
• Other Area Attractions East Troy: The East Troy Electric Railroad offers trips on the last remnant of Wisconsin’s interurban network. Take a vintage trolley to Mukwonago and back.
Mukwonago: The Elegant Farmer, a combo farm, kitchen, bakery, deli and market, is located in a large, cream-colored barn decorated with a giant happy face. Lots of good stuff here, but you have to try the Apple Pie Baked in a Paper Bag. It beat Bobby Flay’s fried apple hand pies in a Food Network face-off. This is a trolley stop.
Palmyra: Rushing Waters & the Trout House is a triple-threat – or triple treat – spot where you can trout fish year-round, buy wonderful fresh fish or, several days a week, enjoy great cuisine. And yes, you can catch your own meal!
Lake Geneva: Lake Geneva Country Meats is more than your usual butcher shop; they hand-craft internationally awarded sausages and brats. Check their website for any scheduled public events, because the beer and brat pairing I attended was super.
Williams Bay: This is a do-not-miss; the Yerkes Observatory is home to the world’s largest refracting telescope, which sits atop the world’s largest indoor elevator. Its status as part of the University of Chicago is currently in transition. Hopefully, it will remain open to the public, because it’s a historic, astrophysical treasure.
For more information, check out visitlakegeneva.com and visitwalworthcounty.com.
Labeled “Walk, Talk and Gawk,” the Lake Geneva Shore Path is more for walkers (or mosey-ers) than hard-core hikers. If you’re one of those, the challenge is in the length: 26 miles around the lake. However, the path is divided into segments between access points, and most people choose one or two segments.
The path itself is inconsistently surfaced. Parts are paved, while other parts have flagstones or bricks, wood or crushed gravel. The path actually goes through the yards of a number of great estates. Maps and apps are available to give you information about what you’re seeing. Read up before you go and plan for water or restroom stops.
To get a taste of the trail – or for families – the best place to start is at the Lake Geneva Public Library access. Walk up to a mile in either direction on a paved path … but remember, you’ll have to walk back the same way. Most people walk with buddies and pick several adjacent sections of the trail, leaving an automobile at the end of the route then driving to the starting point with a second vehicle.
The official route starts at Wrigley Drive and the beach, near the Lake Geneva Library. Some of the most impressive historic homes are along this section, and while hikers are admonished to stay strictly on the path, you can look all you want. Among the impressive estates are the 1881 Blacktoft estate, 1905 Edgewood, built for the son of the Swift meat-packing mogul, and Bonnie Brae. This house, built in 1881, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was once visited by artist Claude Monet.
More elegant homes can be seen on segment two of the Shore Path. Segment one and this section are each about three and a half miles long. Segment three starts in Williams Bay; cafes and bathrooms are handy here. The Abbey Resort and Spa is a highlight in the next section. The fifth portion is about six miles long with a pick-up or drop-off point midway, but no parking at that spot. This part of the walk offers some challenges with narrow and steep dirt paths in places. Towards the end of this part is the Geneva Inn with beautiful accommodations and great dining. This segment ends at Big Foot Beach State Park (no guarantee you’ll see a swimming sasquatch). The last section of the walk takes you back to the town of Lake Geneva.
A complete circuit of the lake would take a hiker in average physical condition eight to 10 hours to complete. Each area of the trail offers great scenery and interesting architecture, and each season brings its own beauty to this unique walk.