Newport of the West: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Beauty, elegance and a century-plus of summer lake culture make Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a fascinating destination.
When you live in Central Florida, sometimes you need a total change of scenery—cooler temps, a lake without alligators, country roads that gently rise and fall on which to ride a bike. You’ll find all that and more in just a few hours with a direct flight to Milwaukee (via Frontier and Delta) and a 45-minute drive through rolling farmland to reach Lake Geneva, just north of the Wisconsin/Illinois state line.
The wooded lake region is Chicago’s summer playground, but it’s a secret worth sharing outside the Windy City’s social circles. Couples retreat to luxurious historic inns, wooden boat enthusiasts scout 19th-century lake yachts still in use, and hikers and history buffs tackle the 21-mile shore path worn from centuries of use by the Potawatomi tribe. The path, which encircles the lake, grants voyeuristic views of some of the nation’s spectacular Gilded Age estates.
The Lake Geneva Canopy Tours course includes zip lines, suspension bridges and a dual racing course (DAVID MACGILLIVRAY).
In October 1871, a great fire razed the city of Chicago. Its wealthy scions of industry gathered their families and took the train, whose line had recently been completed, to the summer camps on Lake Geneva. They stayed throughout the fall and winter while their Chicago homes were rebuilt, then they replaced the lake’s rustic camps with grand summer homes, transforming the Wisconsin wilderness into the “Newport of the West” during the era of elegance lasting until 1920.
Today, lakefront property is coveted and wildly expensive, and only a handful of the original mansions remain—such as the compound of green-gabled white “cottages” owned by the Wrigley family. As the guide on a Lake Geneva Cruise Line tour put it: “To build your dream home, sometimes you have to tear down someone else’s.”
The narrated cruise, similar to the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour but on a grander boat, gets you out on the lake to view the major estates, learn their stories and see an impressive array of antique wooden boats (if this is your thing, don’t miss the Geneva Lakes Antique & Classic Boat Show held Sept. 22-24, 2017). It’s also the only way to visit Black Point Estate, the lake’s one historic home that is open to the public for tours.
Arrival at Black Point, built by beer baron Conrad Seipp in 1888, is by boat, followed by 120 steps to climb. The hillside is thick with evergreens and only the home’s tower peeks above; a perch from which the Seipp family enjoyed watching sailboat races on the lake.
This is no Newport mansion. It’s an exquisitely built-by-hand, Queen Anne-style summer home in its original condition that has been owned and lived in by seven generations of the Seipp family. To ensure that it would never be torn down and the valuable land subdivided, the last heir donated the house to the state of Wisconsin and funded a trust to help pay for its maintenance. Today, the home is a precise reflection of the way the family lived—with many of the Seipps’ heirlooms left in place, right down to the eyeglasses on the 1909 Chickering grand piano. It’s a must-see for anyone with a penchant for living history.
The lobby of the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa was once a Playboy Club (GRAND GENEVA RESORT & SPA).
If you miss the boat and can't get out to Black Point, you can still step back in time at the 1885 Baker House, on the lakefront in the village of Lake Geneva. Not only have owners Bethany Souza and Andrew Fritz restored and preserved the structure and architectural décor of this 17,000-square-foot beauty, but Souza–a former HGTV personality–has decorated every inch of the home with her trademark whimsical and impeccable style. While the upper floors are reserved for use as seven luxury suites, the opulent ground floor rooms are open to the public and designed to make you feel as though you are a guest in someone's home. Butler Jonathan Mindham will help you feel the part by showing you the collection of some 150 hats ranging from veiled velvet pillbox to a Capone-era fedora. Go for cocktails, high tea, a murder mystery night, cabaret show, or a sumptuous Sunday brunch.
For a hotel experience with a different kind of past, check in at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, built in 1968 by Hugh Hefner as the first Playboy Club Hotel in the U.S. Evoking the Prairie style architecture of native son Frank Lloyd Wright, the recreational playground then and now features two golf courses, ski hills (and a robust instruction program) and a private airport where the iconic bunny ears were once sculpted into the landscape.
Located only a few miles from the downtown area restaurants, shops and lakefront buzz, the Grand Geneva is spacious, peaceful and a place to truly relax and connect with family and friends.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Lake Geneva is a great place to explore and play at any time of year. Plan your trip at VisitLakeGeneva.com
ZIP LINE THRILLS
Scream and laugh your way through the two-hour zip line adventure with Lake Geneva Canopy Tours, where expert guides ensure safety and fun (“the best turkey call while zipping wins a prize”). Try to spot the carved wooden animals placed throughout the grounds as you fly through the canopy: Tick-Tock the Crocodile is below one of three suspension bridges.
The Grand Geneva’s Adventure Center (ski instruction is available in winter) rents well-maintained bikes for adults and children and can send you on a thrilling off-road trail or a paved road. A 7-mile, round-trip route to White River Park meanders along wetlands with bulrushes, a roadside stream and pleasant country scenery. If you have time to linger, pack a picnic.
A MAGICAL NIGHT
It’s no surprise that Tristan Crist Magic Theatre has become Lake Geneva’s #1-rated activity on TripAdvisor. Crist packs some Vegas-sized illusions into a tiny 51-seat theater that he built himself after leaving a 10-year stint at Circus World and bringing his entertaining-for-all-ages show to Lake Geneva in 2015. He’s a showman, a storyteller and an astonishing magician.
In town, go to Simple Café for breakfast or lunch. It offers a big menu, tasty food, fresh ingredients and good service, plus a terrific bakery next door. Definitely make dinner reservations for Medusa, a chef-owned bistro featuring Greek and Italian dishes. In nearby Williams Bay, Pier 290 puts you right on Lake Geneva with elegant indoor and casual outdoor seating and a bar that is always open.