A Gilded-Age Getaway within Easy Reach
It was the water that first drew people to Geneva Lake. When the Potawatomi settled the shoreline in the 16th century they named the lake “Kishwauketoe,” after its clear water.
But it was fire that drove Chicagoans to the lake — in October of 1871, the Chicago Fire destroyed a great swath of the city. Those residents lucky enough to have summer homes on Geneva Lake stayed here while their primary residences were rebuilt. The convergence of these elements — water and fire — resulted in a unique history. Geneva Lake’s legacy includes burial mounds and boathouses, Native American chiefs and chief executives. Today, the city lives somewhere between the past and the present, inviting visitors to enjoy the best of both.
Just as Victorian-era families headed north for summer getaways that included lakeside recreation, lavish meals and leisurely browsing through shops, Lake Geneva weekenders these days can relax and recharge at one of the Midwest’s premier destinations. Located less than two hours drive from the western suburbs, the city is still small by most standards, but the offerings are expanding all the time.
During its Victorian heydays and into the 1920s, Geneva Lake’s steam yachts were a class unto themselves — wealthy Chicagoans used custom-designed boats to pick up visitors, transport household goods and one-up their neighbors. These elaborately decked-out yachts — some had crystal and brass fixtures, imported carpets and oil paintings — were the main form of transportation for lakeshore estate families until a road system was established — and their distinctive whistles can still be heard today. The Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s fleet includes restored and modern versions of local steam yachts along with larger steamboats. Narrated tours take passengers back to the glory days of the lakeshore estates owned by the likes of Philip K. Wrigley, Edward Swift and R. T. Crane. Themed cruises include the nationally recognized mailboat delivery tour, showcasing mail jumpers as they leap from the moving boat onto piers to deliver packages and then jump back aboard, all while the boat keeps moving.
To enjoy the lake under your own steam, stop by Clear Water Outdoor, where you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and canoes — they’ll even portage them down to the lake for you. Lessons are available and rental periods range from two hours up to a week.
For a faster-paced adventure on the water, look to Leatherlips and Marina Bay for boat and jet ski rentals, or head west to Fontana to rent from Gordy’s.
If your preference is to soak in the sun, the Riviera Beach is the place to be. All-day and season passes give you unlimited access.
A public right-of-way in perpetuity, Geneva Lake’s shore path is a good way to get up close to the sometimes-sprawling, always-picturesque mansions along the water’s edge. The easiest points of shore path access are the public lakeside parks in Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana. If you want to walk the entire circumference of the lake, plan on eight hours or more, especially if you’ll be stopping for lunch along the way. You can also reserve a spot on the Cruise Line’s Lake Walk tour, which allows you to walk the eight miles from Lake Geneva to Williams Bay, and then catch a boat ride back.
Bicycles aren’t allowed on the shore path, but you can pedal around the city’s historic neighborhoods, including Maple Park, which is home to a number of significant residences. Many were built at the height of the Victorian Queen Anne era and have been lovingly maintained.
Bicycles built for four and six are offered for rent just north of downtown at the Auto Clinic. Avant Bicycle and Cafe, 234 Broad St., also provides rentals — and coffee, too, if you’re in need of a pick-me-up before you pedal off. If you’re more interested in motoring than pedaling, you can rent scooters from Scoot Jockeys. They’ll even provide you with suggestion on the best routes.
To really get the lay of the land, you can take to the skies at Lake Geneva Canopy Tours or Lake Geneva Balloon Company. At the former, you’ll whiz along strategically designed zip line routes to get a bird’s eye view of the landscape, and at the latter you can enjoy a sunrise or sunset ride in a hot air balloon, capped off with a post-flight champagne toast.
If you’d like a break from sun and sand, there are new and old-made-new entertainment options nestled amongst the shops and restaurants. Recently reopened, Geneva Theatre offers an old-school movie house atmosphere with modern sound and seating. Two more newcomers are the Lake Geneva Clue Room, an escape room with local flavor, and Tristan Crist Magic Theatre, bringing big-time Vegas illusions to this small town.
A short boat ride away and a step back in time, Black Point Estate and Gardens transports visitors to Victorian-era Lake Geneva. This grand and uniquely preserved family getaway of Chicago mogul Conrad Seipp is a state historical site, accessible via Lake Geneva Cruise Line from Riviera Dock.
To go further back in time, stop by the Geneva Lake Museum off Main Street. Once inside, you’ll find yourself on Main Street again, only this time you’ll be strolling along shops and homes of the city’s bygone age . . . not a bad way to wrap up a visit to such a historic destination.
Swing a Club or Two
Lake Geneva offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to nationally recognized golf courses. Grand Geneva Resort (a former Playboy Club) features the Brute, a 7,000-yard course that lives up to its name. If its 68 bunkers and greens averaging 8,000-sq-ft sound like more than you care to bite off, the Highlands at Grand Geneva may be more your style. Its Scotland-inspired links were first designed by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, then reworked by Bob Cupp in the 1990s.
It’s a short drive west to get to Geneva National, a semi-private golf club that rotates public and private usage of its three courses. Designed by a trio of greats — Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino — the 54 holes of golf take full advantage of Wisconsin’s rolling, glacier-carved topography and make for stunning panoramas and challenging play.
Seeking a getaway within your getaway? Check out the menu of services at Clear Waters Salon & Day Spa in downtown Lake Geneva, where some of the area’s top aestheticians make up the staff.
Even if you’re not a guest at Grand Geneva Resort, you’ll be welcome at the WELL Spa and Salon. Offering services that change with the seasons, the WELL also features a state-of-the-art fitness center that even boasts an indoor climbing wall.
Browse or Buy
Lake Geneva is home to an eclectic variety of retailers. From South Broad Street’s classic souvenir and treat shops —just try to pass up the fudge at Geneva Gifts or the popcorn at Constant Cravings — to Main and Center’s upscale home, gift and apparel boutiques, the shopping district has grown and evolved over the years.
New shops crop up each season among stalwarts like Cornerstone Shop & Gallery (home décor and gifts) and ChinaWest Jewelers (custom designs include the “Charm of Lake Geneva” pendant). Shop Paws for Treats for your furry family members, check out Brick & Mortar’s two locations for interior and exterior home décor and see what’s new (relatively speaking) in the antiques scene at the Lake Geneva Antique Mall.
As the seasons change, you can reap the harvest of local farms at stands like Pearce’s (located between Williams Bay and Fontana and open mid-July into the fall). On Thursdays, May through October, local producers set up shop at Lake Geneva’s Horticultural Hall for the city’s farmers market. You’ll find everything from fresh fruit, produce, plants and flowers to mushrooms and preserves.
Eat, Drink and Be Happy
Those in the know about Medusa Grill & Bistro will first and foremost advise making reservations, and then recommend ordering the Chef’s Choice at this small, casual fine-dining eatery. Once you’ve selected meat, seafood or a combination, Chef Greg will custom-create your meal. Otherwise, patrons may opt for entrées that range from hand-cut steaks to lobster alfredo. Either way, the emphasis is on thoughtful preparation of fresh ingredients. Greek accents show up in the appetizer and entrée selections; try the saganaki and skordalia. Medusa is located a few blocks north of the lake on Broad Street.
A little further along the same street is another find for foodies, Simple Cafe. Locally sourced ingredients are used to create classic-with-a-twist dishes at this trendy but down-to-earth restaurant. The Korean barbeque breakfast bowl alone is worth the trip. Open for breakfast and lunch, Simple also does a brisk business at its next-door bakery if you’re not in the mood for a sit-down meal.
History is always within reach in Lake Geneva, and in some cases you can immerse yourself in it. The Baker House offers patrons the chance to partake in Gilded Age living and dining. The 1885 Queen Anne mansion sits lakeside and features small plates dining and cocktails served throughout the first floor. Guests can don vintage hats while they soak up the atmosphere. Special events include Victorian tea and tours, and the sister property, Maxwell Mansion, features a Speakeasy and the Apothecary Bar.
Located a short drive outside of town, Geneva Inn’s Grandview Restaurant is one of the only true lakeshore dining establishments. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner both inside and on the lake-view patio, the restaurant sources locally and offers a broad wine selection.
No visit to Lake Geneva would be complete without a stop at Popeye’s, an iconic restaurant across the way from the Riviera Ballroom and Beach. If you’re traveling with small kids or a group, you’ll fit right into the casual, upbeat atmosphere.
Wine and Beer
Lake Geneva’s proximity to Chicago brought it into Prohibition’s bootleg scene — Bugsy Moran and Al Capone used to hole up in the area. Now the town offers more palatable libations than bathtub gin, including some regionally produced wines and beers. At Studio Winery, the Bottle Shop and Barrique, you can take part in tastings, order wine flights or pick up a bottle or two for later. Geneva Lake Brewing Company offers a selection of microbrews and craft beers, and Sprecher’s in the heart of downtown features seasonal and year-round beers.
Good food for a cause is the theme of the city’s annual Restaurant Week, slated for June 2 – 11 this year. Patrons at participating restaurants (check www.VisitLakeGeneva.com for details) vote on the five competing charities each time they eat. The winner receives $5,000.
For the annual Paint In on June 10, local artists stake their claims with white umbrellas and create art in the great outdoors. You can watch the art unfold before your eyes, ask questions and purchase from the artists’ collections.
Locals know to arrive early at Flatiron Park (along Wrigley Drive) on Thursday evenings in the summer. Blankets and lawn chairs are welcome as the audience settles in to enjoy free musical entertainment. Concerts in the Park are slated for Thursday evenings starting July 6 and run through August, except the week of Venetian Fest.
A fine-arts juried fair, Art in the Park (Aug 12 and 13 in Flatiron Park) showcases artists from all over the country.
Culminating in a lighted boat parade, Venetian Fest (Aug 16 to 20) celebrates the life aquatic — hence its watery name. Since its inception, the five-day festival has outgrown one downtown park and now extends into a second. Look for carnival rides and games, food and a beer tent with a band lineup that features crowd-pleasing classic rock and regional favorites. On Sunday, don’t miss the last hurrah at dusk, as lighted boats compete for awards and the sky over the lake comes alive with a fireworks display.
Also scheduled for Aug. 16 to 20, The Inland Lake Yachting Association Regatta Championship will provide its own excitement to the lake. With four classes of sailboats competing, the event draws top-ranking sailors, including Olympic medalists and national and collegiate champions.
Cool Overnight Stays
The T.C. Smith Historic Inn (262 248-1097) is an 1865 Greek Revival-Italianate hybrid that offers guests a tranquil landing place just two blocks from Lake Geneva’s bustling downtown and lakefront.
Eleven Gables on Wrigley Drive (262 248-8393) is situated right across from the lake. Built in the 1870s, the classic “lake cottage” is dog-friendly and tucked away on a quiet street — but right around the corner you’ll find shopping, dining and watercraft rentals.
Luxury and ambiance abound at The Baker House (262 248-4700) and Maxwell Mansion (262 248-9711). These historic hotels make the most of their Gilded Age legacy; guests can dine and relax in style in the heart of Lake Geneva. ν
Long known as the peaceful side of the lake, the West End comes closer to the pace of Geneva Lake summers in the old days.
Williams Bay, a short drive from downtown Lake Geneva, is less developed, especially along the shoreline. As a matter of fact, Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy, Edgewater Park and the beach are the center of life in the village. You’ll find restaurants and shops just up the road, and the Bay is also the site of the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. Home of the world’s largest refracting telescope, this behemoth of a Beaux Arts style facility — the dome soars 90 feet high
— is open for tours at select times year round.
Fontana’s vibe is livelier than the Bay’s, partly due to Chuck’s and Gordy’s, two establishments centrally located on Lake Street, and usually where you’ll find both locals and visitors. Reid Park, the village piers, and the beach are all conveniently close together. You can park in the municipal lot and enjoy the atmosphere all day long. The Abbey Resort, with its unmistakable 80-ft A-frame, is a short walk away, and you’ll want to check out the restaurants and spa inside.
Music by the Lake, located midway between William’s Bay and Fontana and with magnificent lake views, is a modern outdoor pavilion offering performances by regional and national celebrities each Saturday evening. This year’s headliners include America, the Chicago Philharmonic and Lyle Lovett.
Jessica Franzene is a life-long resident of the Geneva Lakes area. She is a frequent contributor to Lake Geneva Regional News and editor of The Resorter.Edit Module