Next Weekend: An outdoor adventure guide to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Just an hour’s drive outside Chicago, this tony resort town offers a glimpse of Gilded Age America along the shores of Wisconsin’s glorious lake system
The first thing you’ll notice about the city of Lake Geneva, besides its crystal clear waters, is that everyone and everything has a story. With a current population of just under 8,000, the town got its modern start as a tranquil escape from 19th-century bustling Chicago, as wealthy families built summer cottages around Geneva Lake, drawn to its breathtaking beauty. When the devastating Chicago Fire struck in 1871, many of these luxurious but temporary residences became permanent homes. The area has been a desirable destination ever since.
Here are a few ideas to get you ready for some family fun in Lake Geneva:
Take a hike through a protected prairie
For a ground-level experience, head over to neighbouring Williams Bay and fall in love with its native grasslands and marshes. Designated as Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy in 1990, here you’ll find 65 acres of protected prairie with four miles of cleared trails, all dedicated to “the children of tomorrow” and managed solely by volunteers. This isn’t really a hike as much as it is a peaceful nature walk, with easy terrain and a (less intimidating than the treetops) four-storey lookout tower. Paths are colour-coded and run in a loop, so you’ll always end up where you started from. Keep your eyes peeled for bird, animal and aquatic sightings as this protected meadowland is a haven for wildlife.Get a treetop thrill with a zipline adventure
For those looking for a more thrilling, yet safe, way to immerse yourself in nature, Lake Geneva Ziplines & Adventures (formerly Lake Geneva Canopy Tours), set amongst sprawling forested grounds with an oversized cabin headquarters, offers nine unique zip lines, a high ropes obstacle course and a climbing tower to entice almost any member of the family. The zip lines and high ropes course are limited to adventurers weighing over 70 pounds, and the climbing tower is perfect for guests over 4 years old. There are also hiking and biking trails throughout the 100-acre property, ranging from beginner to expert. If city cycling is more your thing, Avant Cycle Cafe, located off Lake Geneva’s historic Main Street, rents cruiser and e-bikes – in addition to serving up a delicious cup of Joe.
Learn about the locals on a relaxing boat cruise
An engaging way to discover more about the area’s current storied homes, and see the town from a buoyant perspective, is aboard Cruise Lake Geneva’s boat tours. All trips include a narrated tour of Geneva Lake and its prominent residences, which include the Wrigley Estate, with its five adjacent homes along the water, and Alta Vista, home to the Vick family of Vick’s Vapour Rub fame. Cruises offer stunning views of manicured lawns and stunning facades, and most boats will have snacks and a cash bar aboard. There’s also jazz-themed tours, sunset tours, and even a tour specifically featuring ice cream sundaes. For a historic treat, take the U.S. Mailboat tour: from June to September you’ll experience this 100-year-old tradition firsthand, riding along with unique U.S. postal staff who deliver mail to around 75 homes dotting the lakeshore.Discover the area’s epic Indigenous beginnings
Kish-Way-Kee-Tow is what the native Potawatomi called this land: it means “clear water.” The sparkling lake system has lured people to its shores for millennia; evidence of the indigenous Oneota Tribe goes as far back as 1,000 B.C. The Potawatomi resided in Kishwauketoe until they were removed by European settlers in the 1800s, which led to the area being renamed Lake Geneva by surveyor John Brink. (A tad confusing but the town is called Lake Geneva and the main lake is called Geneva Lake!) Family favourite Big Foot Beach, a 110-hectare state park established in 1949, was named in memory of the Potawatomi leader from that tumultuous time, Chief Big Foot, otherwise known as “Maunk-Suck.”
Stroll along Geneva Lake’s meandering Shore Path
Follow your boat cruise with a close-up view of the breathtaking homes seen from the water by walking along Geneva Lake’s historic Shore Path, the same route used by the Potawatomi to circle Kishwauketow. This gentle footpath loops around the lake for 21 miles and is friendly for all ages, though it’s not fully accessible for those in mobility devices. At times so intimate you’ll cross private property (only the edges, mind you), the Shore Path offers a charming stroll through history. For those wanting a more in-depth experience, keen local historians offer private guided tours ripe with the kind of insider information only a fellow resident can provide. Contact Visit Lake Geneva for details.Enjoy casual fine dining by the water
After working up an appetite on your hike of Kishwauketoe, enjoy lunch or dinner at nearby Pier 290. With its laid-back lakeside location only steps from the water, you can catch the sunset over Geneva Lake from an Adirondack chair beside your very own fire pit. Dine on seasonal seafood, steaks and homemade flatbreads, and don’t forget to kick off your meal with the famous “state starter” – deep-fried cheese curds. This is Wisconsin, after all! If you prefer to head back to Lake Geneva’s town centre, you’ll find lots of places to suit differing tastes, such as the kitschy and fun Popeye’s or the contemporary Oakfire. Lake City Social, a casual option attached to the Cove of Lake Geneva hotel, is a reincarnation of the longstanding Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub and will continue to feature local craft beer (and root beer) from Sprecher Brewing.
Spend the day at a full-service resort
Lake Geneva is a true resort town and families can enjoy a jam-packed day without even leaving their resort grounds. The Ridge Hotel on Lake Como offers year-round activities with an outdoor pool, rental boats, an ice rink and live music. In operation since 1883, Lake Lawn Resort is a full-service getaway set amongst 250 wooden acres along Delavan Lake, with a golf course, multiple pools, tennis and basketball courts, a marina and bonfire pits. For family trips led by Grandma and Grandpa, the breathtaking Grand Geneva Resort & Spa (at one time the very first Playboy Club!) often offers signature Grandparents Packages to entice second-generation travel. Other packages are geared towards couples, golfers and spa retreats – deals change throughout the year so keep an eye out for your perfect fit.
Words and photography by Carolyn Grisold