By Debi Lander
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, sounded like one of those classic resort towns that a travel writer, like me, ought to know. So, I hopped a flight and began to explore. I came home with plenty of reasons to encourage others to visit, and I’m seriously considering a personal return next summer. It’s my kind of place.
Lake Geneva’s grand waterfront awed me and felt so relaxing, yet the place initially was called “Maunk-suck” (Big Foot) for a Potawatomi chief, and then later named Geneva after the quiet town of Geneva, New York. The destination was eventually identified as Lake Geneva to avoid confusion with the nearby Geneva, Illinois.
Attracted by the fresh air, clear lake and scenic vistas, the community prospered and grew. Chicago’s wealthy businessmen started going there to hunt and fish. The Midwest’s great moguls, like Wrigley, Kellogg, Maytag and beer baron Conrad Seipp, liked it so much, they built opulent summer homes. A rail line opened in 1871 bringing more people to the area and it gained the nickname “The Newport of the West.”
Then, in October 1871, Chicago suffered its Great Fire, an event that oddly benefited Lake Geneva. Numerous families escaped the burning city on the train and stayed through the winter waiting for city homes to be rebuilt. While life in the big city slowly resumed, the Chicagoans cherished memories of summering in Lake Geneva and kept returning. Even today, about 80 percent of the summer residents have roots in Chicago.
You’ll find Lake Geneva’s old-fashioned main street about 80 minutes from Chicago, and 45 minutes from Milwaukee. Boutique shops, non-chain restaurants, coffee shops and bars do a brisk business. Fall foliage, Oktoberfest, a winter ice sculpture extravaganza, and of course, ice fishing keep the pace going year-round.
No trip to the region is complete without a guided cruise showcasing the spectacular lakefront mansions. The script from the cruise line sounds like it was lifted from the show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” You need only look at the yachts and boathouses to see the owners’ rank among the country’s highest tax brackets.
The best way to work off those splurge-worthy vacation meals is to walk a portion or all the way around the scenic 21-mile lake path. I took a guided tour past some of the mansions and loved learning their behind-the-scenes stories.
Touring inside the Black Point Estate, a fabulous high Victorian style mansion built in 1887-8 for beer baron Conrad Seipp brings a taste of the bygone lifestyle. The property stayed in the family until 2005, much unchanged, until it was gifted to the state. (Group tours via ferry boat or motor coach only.)
If returning, I’d choose to stay in either the Baker House or Maxwell Mansion, two historic downtown properties. They are ideal for couples or a girls’ getaway. The boutique hotels with gardens feel magical, flaunting their Gilded Age glamour. The homes include fire-lit parlors, period dining spaces and enticing bars. The Maxwell House even sports a basement Speakeasy Lounge. Should you stay elsewhere, make reservations for champagne brunch, high tea or dinner at one of these inns.
Lake Lawn Resort, a few miles from downtown, is a family place where generations have returned to vacation in rustic style overlooking two miles of lake shoreline. The 140-year-old resort has seen additions and continual updates and renovations. Many guest suites include full kitchens, entertaining areas, lofts and patios with lake views — perfect for weeklong escapes.
If you are headed toward Wisconsin, don’t miss dipping your toes in glorious Lake Geneva. For more information: visitlakegeneva.com
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photos courtesy Debi Lander
Black Point Estate