Southeast Wisconsin’s Geneva Lake has long been one of the Midwest’s favorite getaway spots, and no wonder: despite being less than two hours’ drive from the major burgs of Chicago and Milwaukee, the area has little time for the hurried pace of its citified neighbors.
Instead, the collection of three waterfront towns (Lake Geneva, Williams Bay, and Fontana-on-Geneva-Lake) that comprise Geneva Lake embrace Main Street USA charm and old world refinement, while the 8-square-mile namesake lake radiates a beauty that shifts with the seasons. Leisurely pursuits like lakeside strolling and backwoods snowshoeing rule the day here, and the cumulative effect is a restorative one.
Walk and gawk at Geneva Lake
Once far off the beaten path, Geneva Lake first gained notice as one of the region’s loveliest escapes in 1871, when a new passenger railway began delivering harried Chicagoans to its tranquil shores. Just months later, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed vast swathes of the Windy City. As the scorched metropolis rebuilt, those with the means boarded the northbound train for fresher air and greener pastures, and Geneva Lake tourism boomed.
While Chicago’s beer barons and manufacturing kings were in town, they took a look at Geneva Lake’s prime land and decided to stay a while. They built sprawling lakefront summer homes, granting the area an air of glamour and initiating one of its favorite pastimes: ogling magnificent real estate. Get in on the tradition (and burn some calories to boot) by hopping on the Geneva Lake Shore Path. Clocking in around 21 miles, the pedestrian-only walkway circumvents the lake just feet from the water, providing up-close eyefuls of the waterfront’s mega mansions. No need to worry about trespassing, though; an early-19th-century treaty between European colonists and the indigenous Potawatomi tribe permanently guarantees public access to the trail.
An overview of local history is on offer at the Geneva Lake Museum, a small and somewhat moth-eaten spot that nonetheless does a decent job of passing a rainy hour. For a much more immersive glimpse into the area’s gilded age, book an excursion to blufftop Black Point Estate, built as a summer getaway by brewer Conrad Seipp in 1887. Beginning with your arrival by boat – the only way to access the property – a time warp sensation permeates visits to this magnificent Queen Anne home (largely kitted out with original furnishings) and its impeccably-landscaped gardens.
Sunny fun and snowy splendor
Rivaling Geneva Lake’s spectacular architecture in the beauty department are the area’s natural assets, and whether it’s swimsuit season or sweater weather, opportunities for outdoor adventure abound. Come summer, local activity centers on the spring-fed lake. Ply its placid waters by stand up paddle board, kayak, or canoe; during the warmer months, Clear Water Outdoor provides gear rental and lessons from a pier situated along Lake Geneva’s waterfront.
If you prefer to let someone else do the steering, Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers a roster of tours to suit interests from absorbing local lore to saluting the sunset with a cocktail or three. The most unique option is the daily (in summer) US Mailboat tour. Passengers tag along on a craft that delivers post to the dockside mailboxes of Geneva Lake’s waterfront homes, as it has for over a century. It may sound dry until you witness the sprightly mail handlers making flying leaps from boat to shore, letters in hand.
It’s easy to win over weekenders when the water’s fine, but Geneva Lake retains its charms even during the region’s notoriously rugged winters. There’s perhaps no better way to survey the snow-blanketed landscape than by whizzing between treetops and clambering across 'sky bridges' on a Lake Geneva Canopy Tour. If tapping into your simian side 65 feet in the air isn’t your thing, rent a pair of snowshoes and explore the company’s nine miles of woodland trails on foot.
Each January, the area pulls out the stops for Winterfest, a nine-day celebration of the wintry elements. Among the festival’s highlights are its ethereal lakeside ice castles and the United States Snow Sculpting Championship, which transforms Lake Geneva’s Flatiron Park into an icy open-air gallery.
Bring your appetite and leave the tie at home; Geneva Lake’s dining options skew hearty and informal. Breakfast is a particular strong suit – all the better to set you up for a day out on the water. With its kitschy igloo-esque exterior and long weekend queues, Daddy Maxwell’s in Williams Bay is hard to miss. Swing by for colossal omelettes and Door County cherry pancakes dished out by no-nonsense waitstaff. For brunch with a local flavor, dig into cauliflower benedicts and Korean BBQ bowls at Lake Geneva’s Simple, where owners pride themselves on featuring southeast Wisconsin-based producers. When you’re ready for a post-meal digestive aid, pick up a cold brew – and a rental cruiser, if you’re so inclined – at nearby hybrid cafe/bike shop Avant Cycle Cafe.
Steakhouse classics (think lobster tails and prime filet) and an impressive range of wines are the order of the day at the Hunt Club. Set in a re-purposed Palladian-style house on the verdant grounds of resort (and Arnold Palmer-designed golf course) Geneva National, the restaurant scores big for atmosphere. Back in downtown Lake Geneva, Oakfire’s waterfront patio is a good spot to fill up on neapolitan pies, sangria, and sunset vistas.
You can hardly throw a rock in Wisconsin without hitting a brick of cheddar, but not all cheese is created equal. For a crash course in the Dairy State’s finest, head to the endearingly old school Cheese Box, where the resident cheese experts will slip you samples of crumbly 12-year cheddar and squeaky fresh curds.
Geneva Lake’s long on unpretentious resort hotels that trade in cozy firesides, wooded acreage and faintly rustic decor. Among the most memorable is the Grand Geneva. Built as a hedonist’s playground by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner in 1968, the property’s since traded swingers and bunny tails for a more family-friendly vibe. Today its extensive grounds feature riding stables and even downhill ski runs.
Just a short stroll from the action in downtown Lake Geneva is the charming Maxwell Mansion, an 1856 estate turned inn. The grand main house has a brocaded period flavor, while touches like exposed beams and sheepskin rugs lend an urban farmhouse aesthetic to rooms in the converted stables and carriage house. A quiet cocktail in the candlelit onsite speakeasy makes for a tranquil finish to a Geneva Lake getaway.
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