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Getaway to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

The 1 percent may own the best digs in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, but the rest of us can walk through the yards of their estates and claim a piece of the region’s inheritance. Here's your guide to a weekend getaway.

The waters of Wisconsin’s sparkling Geneva Lake have lured families for more than a century. Bonus points for the white-sand beach.

The waters of Wisconsin’s sparkling Geneva Lake have lured families for more than a century. Bonus points for the white-sand beach.

On a walk along the shore path around Wisconsin’s Geneva Lake, it’s easy to channel Titanic’s Jack Dawson. The film’s vagabond artist found himself hobnobbing with millionaires like John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim on their first-class turf.

You might not meet the rich and famous on the path, but you will skirt the lawns of their mansions, some built more than a century ago by elites from Chicago (80 miles southeast). Maytags, Schwinns and Wrigleys summered here, as did Rockefellers, Firestones and Fords. For that, Lake Geneva (the area’s anchor town) earned the name Newport of the Midwest. Strolling between the fancy homes and their boat docks feels like trespassing, but the law gives the public right-of-way on the shore path.

To see homes like this one, get on the shore path in downtown Lake Geneva.

To see homes like this one, get on the shore path in downtown Lake Geneva.

The path predates the tony homes—by a lot. From 2,500 B.C. to the mid-1800s, Native Americans used the route around the famously clear freshwater lake, a 7.5-mile-long basin formed by glaciers 10,000 years ago. Today, the loop covers more than 20 miles, including a popular 8-mile stretch linking Lake Geneva to downtown Williams Bay. Download the shore path app to make your walk interactive.

Though the walk-and-gawk trail is a must-do, the lake itself beckons irresistibly. In summer, crowds of boaters, anglers, swimmers, parasailers and paddleboarders test the water, while baskers fill beaches. (Several stretches of sand offer public access.)

Farther ashore, shoppers crowd downtown Lake Geneva’s mix of quaint older shops and trend-forward boutiques. The dining scene caters to classic and current tastes, too. Even on summer weekdays, expect to hunt for parking and wait for a table.

Millionaires don’t have a monopoly on luxury lodging. You can stay at the 1856 Maxwell Mansion (the town’s first estate) or a nearby resort (such as Grand Geneva Resort) for amenities like spas and golf.

Maxwell Mansion

To get a solid introduction to the area, board a Lake Geneva Cruise Line tour boat. Or visit Black Point Estate, summer home of Chicago mogul Conrad Seipp and his descendants. It’s a state historic site where visitors arrive by boat. These tour vessels may not be as majestic as the RMS Titanic, but then, you don’t have to worry about icebergs.

The Grand Belle of Geneva offers dinner cruises and hosts wedding parties.

The Grand Belle of Geneva offers dinner cruises and hosts wedding parties.

Indulge

  • Start Simply The morning crowd hits Simple Cafe for corned beef hash with potatoes, apple crumble French toast and the Korean barbecue breakfast bowl.
  • Ciao Chow Sopra Bistro plates fine Italian-American fare in a lively setting inspired by Chicago neighborhood spots. Try the baby octopus appetizer and choose from entrees like New Zealand lamb chops.
  • Stay Your Way At the Maxwell Mansion, the main building offers lodging in elegant, traditional rooms, while the carriage house features modern suites. Relax with drinks in the Apothecary Bar.

A weekend speakeasy bar in the Maxwell Mansion’s basement adds to the town’s Chicago ties. Just whisper a password to get in.

(Left to right) Apothecary Bar; Simple Cafe; Strawberry Fields

Shop

  • Boutique Chic You could browse downtown Lake Geneva shops like Strawberry Fields forever (OK, maybe not literally) without finding all the treasures. The women’s clothier features breezy finery like Chan Luu accessories and Free People clothing.
  • Stock (Up) market On summer Thursdays, stop at the little farmers market at historic Horticultural Hall for fresh picnic fixings.

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