Throughout the Midwest, gemlike inland lakes and their distinctive waterfront communities beckon to trailer boaters and vacationers seeking a respite from the hectic pace of life in metropolises such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and the Twin Cities. Perhaps the most remarkable of these jewels is Wisconsin’s Geneva Lake, a 7.5- by 2-mile body of water that is the state’s second-deepest inland lake at roughly 144 feet.
Carved by two glaciers between 14,000 and 30,000 years ago, it lies at the southern end of the Kettle Moraine just a stone’s throw from the Illinois border. The Geneva Lake area encompasses the communities of Lake Geneva, Fontana-on-Geneva Lake, Williams Bay and Delavan, and lakes Como and Delavan are within easy reach.
Geneva Lake has been a haven for city-dwellers since 1871, when two significant Victorian-era events changed the course of its frontier history. That was the year a legendary fire reduced the great city of Chicago to ashes; that same year, the railroad established a stop in the town of Lake Geneva, which allowed wealthy Chicagoans such as the Wrigley and Montgomery Ward families to relocate and live comfortably while their homes and businesses were rebuilt.
They constructed luxurious summer homes along the shores of Geneva Lake, and they obtained elegant private launches to take them from the downtown Riviera Dock to those genteel mansions. They raced yachts, and later cruised aboard gracious runabouts, on the lake’s crystalline waters. They entertained high-profile guests such as famed French Impressionist painter Claude Monet at their lavish estates.
Before long, Lake Geneva and its sister waterfront communities collectively became known as the Newport of the West.
With so many surviving estates from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Geneva Lake is best experienced from the water. If you’re bringing your own boat, the 5,500-acre lake has public launches in downtown Lake Geneva, Fontana-on-Geneva Lake and Williams Bay. It has three additional ramps in Linn Township — on Hillside Road and Linn Road on the south shore, where the lake is only about a half mile wide, and one opposite on the north shore.
Cruise across the lake and enjoy dining al fresco at the Geneva Inn’s Lake Geneva waterfront restaurant, which boasts a magnificent outdoor patio. Head for the Abbey Resort in Fontana, with its protected marina, full-service Avani spa and multiple restaurants, lounges and cafes. And you’ll definitely want to check out Pier 290 at 140-year-old Gage Marine in Williams Bay. Bill Gage is the third-generation steward of the venerable family-run business, and Pier 290 is currently Lake Geneva’s only waterfront farm-to-table restaurant.
Geneva Lake may not be a big one, but motoring into these popular waterfront destinations will make you feel like you’ve really arrived somewhere special.
All is not lost for those visiting without their own watercraft, however. The Lake Geneva Cruise Line operates eight cruise boats that depart from the historic Riviera Dock. Owned by the Gage family since 1958, the line’s vessels include the steamboats Lady of the Lake, Grand Belle of Geneva and Duchess; the restored 1902 steam yacht Louise; the 1898 yacht Polaris; the 50-foot motor launch Geneva and the stunning 41-foot cruiser Lorelei, built in Holland.
The line also operates the U.S. Mail Boat Walworth, which has been featured on CNN and NBC’s “Today Show,” as well as in the Wall Street Journal and People Magazine. Preserving a tradition that began in 1870, the mail boat carries its captain, 150 passengers and an intrepid mail carrier who leaps from the deck onto private docks to deliver the mail and newspapers to approximately 75 lakefront homes. The tour runs daily at 10 a.m. from June 15 to September 15.
You also can enjoy the waterfront from shore. Stretch your legs on the 21-mile footpath that circles Geneva Lake, providing an intimate look at manicured lawns, lush gardens, sunny patios and relaxed local residents, who are known for offering a smile and a wave to passers-by.
Don’t forget to spend some time exploring the lively Lake Geneva itself, with its vibrant historic district. Dating to the 1860s, the downtown buildings range from Italianate and Classical Revival to Colonial Revival, and they house a thrilling collection of restaurants, taverns, cafes and shops. (Chicagoans, you can even find authentic deep-dish pizza here, at Gino’s East Lake Geneva.)
If you have the time, take advantage of Geneva Lake Guide’s narrated tours. Guide Jim Beloian, a renowned local historian, has impressive street cred in the tour business. Starting in 1999, he narrated the Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s boat tours, and in 2001, he began the cruise line’s Guided Lake Walks. In 2007, he joined the staff at the Black Point Museum; built by Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp in 1888, this is the only lakefront mansion open to the public.
Known for his interactive, spontaneous and fun style, Beloian offers sightseeing tours aboard guests’ private boats, and he provides a variety of walking tours on the lake’s footpath. One of these, the signature Lake Geneva to Williams Bay Tour, is a nearly six-hour extravaganza that incorporates a leisurely 7-mile hike from downtown Lake Geneva to Williams Bay, a picnic stop and an exciting return trip aboard one of the cruise line vessels. Highlights include all the Wrigley estates; the Swift, Harris, Crane and Schwinn estates; the Elgin Club; the gardens of Bonnie Brae; and a full-sized replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water.
On your own time, delight in the cool, fresh evening air at Music by the Lake, a summer music festival that Aurora University hosts at its Williams Bay campus, or at the weekly Concerts in the Park, held in Lake Geneva’s Flat Iron Park. Drive along Snake Road to view the opulent gatehouses guarding those awe-inspiring waterfront mansions. Visit the 1897 Yerkes Observatory, where you can see the world’s largest refracting telescope. Stroll “Main Street” at the Lake Geneva Museum, where you also can learn about the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, the lake’s yachting and boatbuilding history, and much more.
You also may ride the ziplines at Lake Geneva Canopy Tours and at Aerial Adventures, revel in 50,000 square feet of wet-and-wild fun at the Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark, or head out to the The Dancing Horses Theatre & Animal Gardens, a 40-acre wonderland that is home not only to the dancing horses, but also to more than 60 hay-eating animals, 16 species of exotics and Echo the talking and singing parrot, who has appeared on “America’s Got Talent.”
And the fun doesn’t stop after Labor Day weekend. September is the month for the Taste of Lake Geneva, with its many local culinary pleasures; the Fat Tire Ride of Lake Geneva bicycle ride; the Lake Geneva Escape Triathlon; and perhaps best of all, the annual Geneva Lakes Antique and Classic Boat Show at the Abbey Resort in Fontana.
Open free to the public, the well-known boat show features classic and vintage boats from around the country — Chris-Craft, Century, Streblow, Hacker, Gar Wood and more. The annual Saturday boat parade is a major draw, and a variety of vendors will be on site for the weekend’s festivities, scheduled for September 23-24 this year.
Then the leaf-peepers will descend for October’s riotous color, sailors will prep their iceboats for the winter racing season, and Pier 290’s outdoor fire pits will await hearty après-snowsports merrymaking as soon as the white stuff arrives.
And the white stuff will bring more revelry, as the community’s annual Winterfest celebration kicks off on January 27 and runs through February 4, 2018. That weekend, roughly 30,000 people will converge on Lake Geneva to watch 15 teams from around the country compete in the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition.
Winterfest also will include live music, helicopter rides, tethered hot air balloon rides, horse-drawn carriage and sleigh rides, children’s activities in the celebrated Riviera Ballroom and plenty of world-class dining and shopping opportunities, plus the intriguingly named Human Sled Dog Race and Abominable Snow Race. Several area inns and rental homes will be offering special accommodations packages during the event.
The little inland lake that has drawn summer vacationers for generations clearly has become a year-round hotspot for recreation, relaxation and restoration. And, in perfect Geneva Lake fashion, it’s doing it with style and grace.
For more information, visit /www.visitlakegeneva.com.