Gawking in Lake Geneva

On a mansion-lined footpath, walking is a spectator sport.

A speedboat cruises past Lake Geneva's Stone Manor.
The 1901 Stone Manor is the largest house on Geneva Lake.

There are thousands of lakes in the north woods, but the most famous one is a stone's throw from Illinois.

Lake Geneva has been the favorite retreat of Chicago folks for 150 years, and everybody who was anybody had a place there: the Wrigleys, Maytags and Schwinns, but also cartoonists, actors, brewers and bottle-cap makers.

Geneva will seem citified to people who vacation on woodland lakes. There's a good reason to go there, though: It's entertaining to gawk at extreme wealth, and there's no better place to do it than Lake Geneva.

The rich built fabulous estates along the 20 miles of shoreline — French chateaus, Tudor lodges, turreted Queen Annes and one Buddhist temple, formerly the Ceylon pavilion at the 1893 World's Fair.

Many are gone, but many remain, alongside newer homes that are bigger and more resplendent than the originals.

Lake Geneva was named a Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which cited its "historical spectrum of American residential architecture."

Miraculously, tourists can see the mansions up close from a footpath used by the Potawatomi and honored by early lakefront landowners.

Today, the rich and poor alike have the right of way on a 2-foot strip around the lake, and they can ogle all they like.

We walked the path one Memorial Day weekend, starting from Library Park in the town of Lake Geneva and heading counterclockwise, along the stretch that was first to be settled.

A few of the houses were close to the water, and we felt like voyeurs traipsing by owners relaxing or grilling on their patios.

But soon the lawns began unrolling in green carpets, putting the mansions at a regal remove. We passed estates owned by the Rockefellers, the Wrigleys and the Swifts.

Even more striking than the buildings were the towering oaks, the carefully pruned shrubs, the tulips and azaleas and pale-blue clouds of forget-me-not.

There were gazebos and ornate boathouses and iron bridges with whimsical dragonflies and ferns worked into their railings.

People walking around Geneva Lake.
In the town of Lake Geneva, the footpath is a sidewalk.

At Glen Fern, a 1911 Beaux Arts manor built by a judge, waterfalls coursed down the hillside, and we stopped to watch a yellow-headed bird twittering in a sycamore.

It takes a lot of money to be rich, we realized. Many of the docks still were piled on lawns, massive piles of lumber and steel awaiting the sturdy marina men and their crane.

The boats were high-maintenance teak and mahogany. The vast lawns were lush and devoid of dandelions.

In this town, we deduced, it pays to be a marina owner or a gardener.

Sometimes, the path was nothing but grass. But more often, it was slabs of glowing limestone, or glazed bricks embossed with patterns. A few times, owners gave us a friendly nod as we walked by.

There are a thousand stories about the people on Geneva Lake. House in the Woods, intended as a spring birthday present, was built in the winter of 1905 under a circus tent borrowed from the P.T. Barnum Circus, wintering in nearby Delavan.

The largest house, the 1901 Stone Manor, was built by Otto Young, a penniless German immigrant who sold costume jewelry on the streets of New York but moved to Chicago after the 1871 fire and acquired seemingly worthless land that now is the Loop.

It'd be fun to own a place here, we thought, if only because then we'd know all the gossip. It must be fairly juicy; the creators of "The Young and the Restless" developed the soap opera while living in the 1929 palazzo Casa del Sueño.

We walked another trail in Williams Bay, through the Kishwaukétoe nature preserve, treading a boardwalk over wetlands thick with wildflowers as a turkey vulture circled overhead.

We emerged onto a restored prairie, then Highway 67, the main drag through town.

Following it back to the lakefront, we stopped at the Skagen Hus, a Scandinavian imports started by John Conlin and his Danish wife, Marianne. Conlin said the village bought the 230-acre property in 1989 for $1.2 million, finally ending the clamor from developers.

"There was a lot of wrenching of hands and big speeches, but now it looks like a great deal," he said.

A sailboat on Lake Geneva.
Sailboats whip around the lake in warm weather.

It's impossible to spend time around Geneva Lake without thinking about money. Walking by the municipal pier in Fontana, we noticed the steep launch fees, even for a kayak.

In the town of Lake Geneva, it costs $25 an hour to park a yacht at pier. People who want to tool around the lake in a rented motorboat pay $105 an hour, and sunbathers pay $7 to use Riviera Beach.

People-watching is free, though, and since the tourists buzzing around Lake Geneva's waterfront reflect the diversity of Chicago, it was top-notch. We also enjoyed the two-hour Full Lake Tour from Geneva Cruise Lines.

It's a good way to find out more about the houses and the people who lived in them, and as the Walworth headed down the lake, we listened intently to the narration.

The women sitting in front of us were too young to care that the 1930s radio show "Amos and Andy" was broadcast from the porch of one home, and they were bored before we reached Williams Bay.

"Oh, look, another big house," one said sarcastically. "I don't know those people."

"Yeah, it gets kind of old after a while," her friend replied.

Besides mansions, there are condo complexes, a country club, a state park and two youth camps. But we also found one classic 1950s resort in Williams Bay, with a small beach and a walk lined by tidy cottages, and when we walked through it, every guest looked very pleased to be there.

Nancy and Jim Maiers have run Chippewa Resort since 1971, and there's rarely an opening because everybody comes back every year.

"We get approached all the time, 'Can we buy our cabin?' " Nancy Maiers said. "But there's wonderful camaraderie; people just love each other, and you can't buy that."

After Labor Day, things ease up. "September is gorgeous," Maiers says.

We heard the same thing while dining at Medusa Grill and Bistro in Lake Geneva, where we struck up a conversation with Duane and Cheryl Halleck of Homer Glen, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

The two visit frequently, bringing their dogs and walking around the lake, watching the landscape change from spring's tulips to summer's roses and lilies.

"It gets crazy here on the weekends in summer, so we try to come on weekdays," Cheryl Halleck said. "And fall is gorgeous."

Even when it's crazy, though, you have to hand it to Lake Geneva: It's one of a kind.

Walking around Geneva Lake.
Walking-path surfaces range from brick to paving stones to grass.

Trip Tips: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Getting there: It's an hour and a half from Chicago and an hour or less from Madison and Milwaukee.

When to go: September is quiet but beautiful. May and June also are good times to visit. It's quite crowded in July and August and on October weekends.

What to know: Businesses in the entire area say they're in "Lake Geneva," but the village of Lake Geneva is just one of three small towns on Geneva Lake; the others are Fontana and Williams Bay. Nearby Lake Como also is part of the "Lake Geneva" area.

2023 events: Feb. 1-5, Winterfest and National Snow Sculpting Championships. Aug. 12-13, Art in the Park. Aug. 16-20, Venetian Festival. October, Oktoberfest.

In Williams Bay, the Music by the Lake series at George William College of Aurora University runs from late June to mid-August.

Lake cruises: The Lake Geneva Cruise Line gives narrated tours from May from October, including the one-hour Geneva Bay Tour, two-hour Full Lake Tour, 2½-hour U.S. Mailboat Tour, 3½-hour Black Point Estate Tour and brunch, lunch, dinner, music and ice-cream social tours.

Reserve in advance, especially on weekends and holidays.

A pretty bay on Geneva Lake.
Flowering trees line the lake path in spring.

Lake walk: It's 20 miles, depending on the source. We used the guide "Touring the Geneva Lake Shore Path," which puts the mileage at 19½.

It says that from Williams Bay, it's a 6½-mile or 13-mile walk back to Library Park, depending on which way you walk; from Fontana, it's 8¼ miles or 11¼ miles. It's available at local gift shops.

The guide "Walk, Talk and Gawk," however, puts the distance is 21 miles, and says the walk is 10 miles either way from Fontana.

Lake Geneva Cruise Line advertises Lake Walk tours, in which hikers can walk seven to 10 miles around the lake and travel the rest of the way by boat. Reserve in advance.

Using a stroller would be difficult, and bicycling isn't possible; many spots require climbing steps or making narrow turns.

Canoe and kayak launch: It's free from Chapin Road, but there's no parking. There are fees from the Fontana launch and the Lake Geneva pier, a block east of Riviera Beach.

The walking path around Geneva Lake.
A bridge spans a creek along the path.

Accommodations: Nearly all the resorts, hotels and inns list their addresses as Lake Geneva, but the only ones in the town and on the lake are the Bella Vista Suites, Harbor Shores and, three blocks away on the lake path, Eleven Gables Inn & Cottage, which welcomes dogs.

The 1856 Maxwell Mansion is near the Baker House, two blocks from the lake near downtown.

The Cove of Lake Geneva and Mill Creek Hotel are just around the corner on Center Street, between the lakefront and downtown.

A short walk from downtown, SevenOaks is a bed-and-breakfast inn with nine suites, each with a porch, stone fireplace and spa tub, in seven one-floor buildings.

On the northeast corner of the lake, the modest Lake Geneva Motel is just a block from Lakeshore Drive on Wells Street and walking distance from downtown. It has tidy rooms and, in summer, small cabins and a small outdoor pool.

On the opposite side of the lake in Fontana, the Abbey Resort is a sprawling complex with a large marina that separates it from the lake.

An ocean-liner boathouse on Geneva Lake.
A boathouse resembling an ocean liner lies along the lake path.

Not far away, near Big Foot Beach State Park, the Geneva Inn is a hillside boutique hotel on the lake, and rates include a breakfast buffet in its Grandview Restaurant.

In Williams Bay, I liked the Chippewa Resort, a darling family-run 1950s resort with a sand beach, a lawn and unbeatable prices. It's hard to get in, though; proprietors Nancy and Jim Maiers accept reservations on Feb. 14 for the year, 262-245-9566.

The huge Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, which Hugh Hefner opened in 1968 as the Playboy Club, is on neither Geneva Lake or Lake Como. It's on a beautifully landscaped acreage just east of Lake Geneva and has 36 holes of golf, a spa and a large sports club.

Just down the drive, the family-oriented Timber Ridge Lodge has an indoor water park.

Camping: Big Foot Beach State Park, a mile south of Lake Geneva, is right on the lake, with a quarter-mile sand beach, and has campsites with showers.

Dining: On Main Street, Sopra Bistro is a friendly little places that serves sophisticated and rich versions of classic dishes and has a nice beer list.

Also on Main Street, the Egg Harbor Cafe is popular for breakfast and lunch.

In Williams Bay, we liked the adorable and friendly Daddy Maxwell's Antarctic Circle Diner, famous for its French toast and pancakes.

Most restaurants are priced for the Chicago crowd; those on a budget will find plenty of places to pick up sandwiches or pizza.

Craft beer: In a repurposed church downtown, Topsy Turvy Brewery serves its own beer and has a patio.

Information: Lake Geneva chamber, 800-345-1020; Geneva Lake West chamber, 877-275-5102.

Last updated on November 18, 2021

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