Lake Geneva: “Newport of the West”
By Suzanne Ferrara
Once you arrive at the city of Lake Geneva, you are immediately struck with the notion this place is matchless and doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country; you will be awed by its natural splendor of rolling hills, glacier-formed spring-fed lake, and stunning architecture. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, has been the destination for Midwestern millionaires since the 19th century. The history and lavish lifestyles are still evident today, but you don’t have to dig deep into your pocket to have this breathtaking and one-of-a-kind experience.
Native Americans and wealthy Americans alike were not only awed by its natural beauty, but knew the value of this stunning Midwestern site’s natural resource which sits on the eastern shore of Geneva Lake. Fast forward to the 1960s, and Lake Geneva was the site of glamour and Hollywood entertainment with the opening of Hugh Hefner and Playboy Enterprise’s Playboy Club resort. Guests were served food and libations by Playboy Bunnies outfitted in the nostalgic corsets and bunny ears, and Chicago visitors could fly direct to the resort thanks to a private airstrip with service from the O’Hare airport. Upon arrival, guests were transported around the resort on the hotel’s “Bunny Tram”.
Lake Geneva has managed to maintain its unmatched splendor for hundreds of years. The area was untouched by European Settlers until the early 1800s because of its remote lake location; before that, however, Native Americans, who knew first-hand the value of this hidden jewel and its pristine lake, inhabited the land early on. This grand display of nature still exists today. (History Tip: Amazingly, archeological evidence shows the lost ancient Oneota Tribes made these shores their home dating back to 1,000 B.C. until the United States Army led Chief Big Foot and the local Potawatomi Tribe out of its primeval home in 1836).
You can experience this lake just as the Native Americans, European settlers and wealthy Midwesterners did. That’s because the lake is surrounded by an ancient foot path that’s been used for several hundred years, and you can walk completely around Geneva Lake on this gorgeous 21-mile trail. The awesome views along the path are ones you’ll never forget.
This historic shore path is unlike anything in existence because of its unusual public access which includes not only the pathway but also access up to 20 feet of the land from the shoreline. What you experience along the path is unforgettable, from historic Victorian mansions from a bygone era to uniquely constructed and decorated pathways, some of which tell stories all their own. A guided walking tour of the pathway is one way to take in all the history, or you can opt to take it alone as you ponder amid the amazing scene.
Dozens of grand estates (many belonging to notable millionaires), plus Frank Lloyd Wright-styled mansions and three beaches can be found all along this public lake path. Every hundred feet or so, the pathway changes in design, shape, and character, and adds to the fairytale-like atmosphere. Estate owners take great pride in making sure their segments of the lake trail, which literally cut through their property, exquisitely exhibit unique character and charm. This path, once used by the Potawatomi Indians, stretches across the palatial estates of the Schwinns (founders of the Schwinn Bicycle Company) and the Wrigleys (Chewing gum entrepreneur), and many others.
And don’t forget to ring the “Miracle Bell” along this trail; it’s been rung by thousands of locals and visitors all hoping for a bit of divine intervention. The Expect A Miracle House is equally inspiring, and has many poems and positive sayings written along its white picket fence railings. Be sure to sit on the bench along the path, and as you soak in this beauty, view the inspirational quote, “Expect a Miracle” on a bench seat.
Taxi boats provide great ways to cut across the lake to reach particular points of interest along the shoreline. Speaking of… try a walking tour which uncovers the history and evolution of Geneva Lake, or take the unforgettable journey to “Black Point Estate”, a classic example of Queen Ann architecture (and contains four generations of furnishings and other personal possessions). This summer cottage, which is a true time capsule that belonged to the Conrad Seipp family and was built 1888, invites its visitors to take in the gorgeous grounds and look at the intricate details of Black Point’s fascinating historical Victorian dollhouse.
For a one-of-a-kind experience from a bygone era on Geneva Lake, witness the “sport” of mail-boat delivery! For 100 years mail carriers have jumped on and off a moving boat with great precision, and visitors can board the vessel and take part in this practically obsolete form of government service. Watch the ‘mail jumpers’ hop onto the docks, put mail in the boxes and then jump back on. (Note: Today it’s considered a prized job, and applicants have to physically try out for the position). The mail-boat excursion is also a scenic tour.
For more outdoor adventure fun, there are helicopter tours of the lake, kayaking, sailing, fishing and boat excursions of every kind. On land, meanwhile, if you love golf, this is your place: you can tee-off at eleven area golf courses.
Whether or not you love astronomy, the Yerkes Observatory is a must-see. It houses the largest lens telescope in the world—a 63-foot long tube–and observatory operators say Yerkes is the birthplace of modern astrophysics. Fun fact: Albert Einstein chose to visit Yerkes instead of Niagara Falls during his visit to America.
After working up your appetite, head to Pier 290 at Gage Marina for grand views of Geneva Lake and some of the area’s finest cuisine (A must try: Wisconsin White Cheese Soup!). The history behind this place–it was built from salvaged scraps of area buildings and boats–adds to this mystique of this premier restaurant. If that doesn’t work for you, head to the Egg Harbor Café, a local hot-spot, for a gourmet breakfast or lunch.
Rest assured you will sleep very well at the historic Grand Geneva Resort and Spa. This AAA Four-Diamond resort housed the legendary Playboy club owned by Hugh Hefner and welcomed entertainers such as Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Sonny & Cher. (History note: back in the day, Playboy bunnies outfitted in the nostalgic corsets and bunny ears served guests food and libations and guests were transported around the resort via the hotel’s “Bunny Tram”). Today the award-winning resort (which also has a bit of a Frank Lloyd Wright design) is chock-full of alluring amenities. Family entertainment isn’t lacking here, either; there’s horseback riding, hay rides and a large-scale indoor waterpark on the grounds. Kids of all ages will no doubt be smiling after a full day of fun.
Want more? Tee-off at two of the resort’s stunning championship golf courses or head to The Fitness Center at Grand Geneva where you can partake in cycling and yoga classes. The center also includes a 35-foot-tall climbing wall, basketball court, indoor tennis courts, and an indoor pool.
After working up an appetite, head to the resort’s Ristorante Brissago and tempt your taste buds with Executive Chef Michael Sawin’s mouthwatering Italian dishes, amidst views of the countryside. (Note: The Grilled Calamari Steak and Bufala Mozzarella are musts.)
For ultimate relaxation, melt your cares away at the Well Spa and Salon. The spa offers a wide range of services sure to rejuvenate and reinvigorate. You will rest easy inside the resort’s well-appointed rooms with warm soothing décor. Be sure to choose one of many rooms or suites with balconies overlooking the vast golf courses and beautiful grounds.
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