Strolling the footpath encircling sparkling Geneva Lake, you can’t help but feel a little awe. Native Americans softly padded this same path for millennia, starting around 2500 B.C. Later, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Chicago’s elite—the Wrigleys, the Schwinns, the Maytags—constructed immense summer homes around its crystal-clear waters. Today, thanks to the footpath’s legal designation as a public passageway, anyone can walk past these impressive estates and gawk. In fact, that’s one of the major pastimes here in Lake Geneva (population: 7,651).
Come summer, Geneva Lake— Wisconsin’s second-largest spring-fed lake—gets busy with boaters, swimmers, parasailers and paddleboarders. Nearby boutiques sell unique home goods, classy furniture, antiques, fine art, funky clothing and repurposed found objects. The new Studio Winery offers tastes and live music. A longtime draw remains: free tours on Saturday mornings at the 116-year-old Yerkes Observatory, part of the University of Chicago and home to the world’s largest lens telescope.
Newcomers to the dining scene offer fresh perspective, with dishes like fettuccine with smoked salmon and tender filet mignon complementing the standard burger-and-fish-fry scene. Ditto for drinks; you’ll find sake martinis, fine wine and craft brews (the best: Finch’s Secret Stache Stout at Sopra).
The well-known places to stay in this resort town have built on their storied reputations with renovations and new amenities. At The Abbey Resort and Spa, lavish treatments promise pampering, and three on-site restaurants make mealtimes convenient. Kids splash in the Timber Ridge indoor water park on the site of the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, where the beds are soft and inviting. The Native Americans from long ago would marvel at the development-—but recognize what spurred it.
All eyes turn toward shore as the guide on the Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s Geneva Bay Tour points out impressive estates; you also can see them on the Sundowner cruise and the mail boat cruise, which features a sneak peek at “jumpers,” who deliver from a moving boat. (262) 248-6206; cruiselakegeneva.com
Walkers on the Geneva Lake Shore Path get up-close views of grand properties—even strolling across the front lawns. The 20-plus-mile footpath encircles the lake. (800) 345-1020; VisitLakeGeneva.com
In nearby Fontana, the spacious Avani Spa at The Abbey Resort and Spa offers a unique “bacial” treatment (a gentle exfoliating back scrub followed by a gentle facial). Cheery, lake-house-theme guest rooms start at $170 on weekends, with a two-night minimum. (800) 709-1323; theabbeyresort.com
Grand Geneva Resort is a Prairie-style masterpiece on 1,300 acres; its Timber Ridge indoor water park suits families. From $199. (800) 558-3417; grandgeneva.com
For dinner, chic Sopra: An American Bistro serves locally sourced cuisine, like grilled pork tenderloin with asparagus and mixed wild mushrooms. (262) 249-0800; soprabistro.com
Lose yourself in Brick and Mortar Home, where you’ll find candles, decorative throw pillows and kitchenware. (262) 249-0210; brickandmortarhome.com. Maple Park Antiques draws you in with an intriguing mix of items on the porch, including fat 1940s-era waterskis. (262) 248-1802. Global Hands sells fair-trade goods, including coffee, clothes and chocolate. (262) 248-6920; globalhandsfairtrade.com. The artsy basement shop at Refined Rustic Studio and Gallery carries a wonderful selection of home decor items made from artfully repurposed found objects. (262) 249-0940; refinedrustic.com.
Grab lunch at Simple Cafe, a funky, brightly colored restaurant featuring seasonal dishes, some of which have an Asian slant. On our visit, we loved a roasted pork sandwich served with pickled daikon radish and sesame-honey mayo on a French roll. (262) 248-3556; simplelakegeneva.com
The immense Cornerstone Shop and Gallery carries home and women’s merchandise from more than 350 vendors (cornerstoneshoppe.com).
Open for lunch and dinner, Tuscan Tavern and Grill satisfies diners’ cravings for elegant Italian cuisine with artisanal pizzas cooked in a brick oven and vodka gnocchi. (262) 248-0888; thetuscantavernandgrill.com
Don a vintage hat and toast a stunning sunset over Geneva Lake with a bit of bubbly at Baker House. (262) 248-4700; bakerhouse1885.com Before you head home, stop at Studio Winery, where you’ll find fine wine, fine art and great live music; the winemaker is also a blues keyboardist. (262) 348-9100; studiowinery.com