A funny thing happened on the way to Lake Geneva — the Chicago fire of 1871. To escape the gritty rebuilding of the city, many industry barons hopped the train to this charming Southeastern Wisconsin outpost to while away the summer close to its cool, clean water and refreshingly unpolluted air.
They — the Wrigleys, the Maytags and their ilk — built lakeside mansions that still line the shore today.
They called it the Newport of the Midwest during its heyday of 1870 to 1920. Still is, and it lies just a five-hour drive southeast of Minneapolis (and 80 miles north of Chicago).
Lake Geneva — and the town it spawned (population 8,000) — continues to offer an idyllic setting in which to while away summer on the lawn, on the dock, on the water.
And it continues all year long. Golf and fishing remain big, to be sure, but also skiing, sleigh rides and indoor pools.
The 5,400-acre spring-fed lake is bordered by a 21-mile shoreline, open to hikers via a public-access Lake Geneva Shore Path — originally a Native American trail — so voyeurs such as we can ogle the homes of the rich and famous.
A new app details each home’s history and architecture for the passing parade of charter trips and pleasure boats.
You’ll see Colonial, Victorian, Spanish, what-have-you, including multiple mansions built by chewing gum (the Wrigley family), such as the recently sold 11,000-square-foot, $11.25 million Snake Road property.
For an extra-special experience, take one of the town’s mega-popular U.S. mail boat cruises (June 15–Sept. 15) with narration by a teenage “mail jumper.”
This has to be one of the more unusual summer jobs for kids like Molly (who was working our cruise), who annually audition for the opportunity (itself a televised event): They work one of the oldest mail routes in the country, conducted via water launch with stops at more than 40 docks.
Mail jumpers must grab the mail, climb out a boat window onto the dock, race to its mailbox for delivery, then sprint and jump back onto the boat, which never stops.
Did Molly ever end up in the shallow drink?
“It happens,” she confessed with a grin.
Bring your camera, and reserve well in advance, for the trips sell out. Bonus to shoreline hikers: Most of us, who choose not to tramp the entire circle, can arrange for a pick-up by boat.
Trips depart from Lake Geneva’s downtown Riviera Beach, named for the site’s ballroom where Count Basie and Duke Ellington once entertained. The compact downtown itself — maybe six square blocks — is lush with shopping opps geared to lakeside living.
Start off with Cornerstone, touted as a local favorite for contemporary ways to dress your home and yourself. Avant is a bike shop turned coffee roaster. Allison Wonderland offers grandparents a chance to win hugs by bringing home curated toys, books and cute costumes.
Looking for an old-school diner breakfast? Olympic Restaurant is your destination for omelets, cinnamon French toast and skillets.
Delving into history
Meanwhile, a handful of mansions — such as Black Point Estate (accessible by boat) and The Baker House (includes Victorian-style afternoon tea) — are open to tour, as is the must-see Geneva Lake Museum.
This former flour mill now holds a cache of history, starting with a Potawatomi wigwam made of reeds and moving on to a street from the 1880s lined on one side with a blacksmith (who outfitted horses with round wooden shoes to harvest winter’s ice for Chicago’s summers), a barbershop, dentist, general store, photo studio and more. The street’s opposite side showcases homes of early times (no velvet ropes, so visitors can get up-close and personal).
Guides point visitors to the mob corner, which includes bootlegging mobsters’ special shoes, outfitted on the bottom with footprint of a cow, thus avoiding leaving telltale shoe tracks in muddy fields. It also showcases a stagecoach, along with its written instructions: Don’t snore loudly. Keep firearms on your person. If runaway horses, keep calm.
There’s a soda fountain featuring “sundaes,” invented to bypass ordinances forbidding fizzy sodas on the Sabbath. There’s even an exhibit of the world’s first Playboy Club, complete with bunny costumes, now the elegant Grand Geneva Resort & Spa.
Magic happens nightly at Tristan Crist Magic Theater, a 55-seat venue ensuring that every enthralled viewer is close to the stage as Tristan escapes from chains, saws his assistant in half, multiplies wine bottles and more. It’s always a sell-out, so order tickets in advance (LakeGenevaMagic.com).
Not far from town rises the 121-year-old Yerkes Observatory, a facility of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the University of Chicago.
Take a tour to see the world’s third-largest telescope that’s open to the public; and be sure to gawk at the building’s ornate Gothic Romanesque carvings.
But do it soon. The facility, known as the birthplace of modern astrophysics, will close in October.
Evening tours and viewings are popular, but depend on visibility. “Open the dome,” we begged. “No, it’s raining.”
Food and drink
Rain? Who cares? Head to Lake Geneva Country Meats to taste — and fill the cooler with — Nick Vorpagel’s award-winning brats. Choose from traditional, a best-selling cherry version (think Door County) or bacon-cheddar-jalapeno, plus beer pairings, too.
Geneva Lake Brewing Company also offers suds to sip or take away with close to a dozen on tap, including a fine Cherry Wheat and an Imperial Stout. Owner Pat McIntosh plans to open a downtown taproom in August.
Wendy Staller, vintner at Staller Winery, put her science degrees to work to do wonders with grapes we know here in Minnesota — Marechal Foch, Frontenac and La Crescent. Try before you buy in the showroom.
It’s the same drill at Rushing Waters Fisheries & The Trout House, in the heart of Kettle Moraine country. There staff conduct tours and toss food pellets into several of the 56 spring ponds raising the fish, which sell to Roundy’s supermarkets and farm-to-table restaurants as well as in the on-site refrigerator case or dining room, which boasts:
“Our trout are harvested to order. That means your fish are swimming when we receive your order.”
Folks can snag their own rainbow trout with a package that includes gear, ice, cleaning and cooking.
In Delavan, a series of Walldog Project murals depict scenes from local history on various walls (maps available). Then head to East Troy, where a 1907 electric-railroad line has been resurrected by dedicated volunteers and today offers a leisurely seven-mile chug through woodlands, backyards and ponds (we spotted Sandhill cranes). Stop at The Elegant Farmer, a deli-plus-plus-plus, selling its signature cider-baked ham, popcorn by the gallon and a patented apple pie — baked in a paper bag — to enjoy before the return train ride.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.