The Impulsive Traveler: Lake Geneva, Wis., really knows how to spread the wealth

Correction: The Nov. 13 Travel section’s Impulsive Traveler feature on Lake Geneva, Wis., incorrectly referred to the Yerkes Observatory’s “refractory telescope.” The correct term is “refracting telescope.”


Stone Manor is the largest mansion on Wisconsin’s Geneva Lake — and you can share in its views, thanks to a requirement that lakeside landowners grant public access. (Robin Soslow/For The Washington Post)
November 11, 2011

I’m traipsing across the lakefront lawns of retail, industrial, brewing and chewing gum tycoons. In broad daylight. With a gang of locals and two hounds that bound in the water near docked boats that cost as much as a house. The chances that we’ll get busted for trespassing? Zero.

In the town of Lake Geneva, Wis., (pop. 7,700, give or take) the law requires landowners to grant lakefront access to the public. Not only do the owners comply, but most also maintain bloom-laden footpaths of pavers, pebbles, bricks and grass that together form the 26-mile Lake Shore Path. It follows a trail used by Potawatomi Indians since 2,500 B.C. to circle crystal-clear Geneva Lake, a 5,500-acre bowl carved by a crawling glacier.

Lake Geneva, Wis.: How to get there, where to stay, what to do


This is just one way Lake Genevans share the wealth.

Express interest and they’ll tell you about the wealthy Chicagoans who built summer lakeside estates here starting in the mid-1800s; how the local Playboy Club turned into Grand Geneva Resort & Spa; why it’s worth spending $6,000 a year to dismantle docks each fall (freezing water is murder on wood); and about “hard water” escapades such as ice boating.

Awaiting carryout flatbread at Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub, I’m engaged by a third-generation Lake Genevan who tells me about free Saturday tours of Yerkes Observatory, an architectural wonder on the lake’s northwest shore that boasts the world’s largest refracting telescope. My “Sprechtangle” arrives; he suggests reconvening over coffee or a New Glarus brew to discuss a conspiracy theory linking Yerkes and the Vatican. Lesson learned: These folks love to share their good fortune — the juiciest apples, the freshest greens, the purest lake, the quaintest and quirkiest antiques.

That civic pride is in full force when I visit the Baker House, a lakeside Queen Anne restored to Gilded Age glamour. There, lifelong Lake Geneva resident Rodney Whetlow and his friends Lorraine, Helen and J.B. regale me with tales of four-season fun at the lake.

First stop: a hallway with racks of saucy vintage hats. A bystander docks one on my head. All guests must wear a hat; that’s dressing for dinner at the Baker House. Meanwhile, the staff wears period costumes complementing the sumptuous interiors of the 1885 turreted Victorian, which owner Bethany Souza revived last year as an inn, the culmination of a lifelong dream.

Over specialty cocktails (star fruit, apple), finger foods and mismatched vintage tableware, local lore flows as the setting sun is reflected in the quicksilver lake that reaches depths of 146 feet. In the background — soon to become the foreground at singalong time — Tom Stanfield, outfitted in ragtime regalia, plays yesteryear standards on piano, pocket trumpet and fluegelhorn.

Rodney describes riding motorcycles across the frozen lake, praising J.B.’s skills in studding tires for an optimal mix of traction and speed. They’ve sailed the ice as well. “Most of Geneva Lake freezes two feet below the surface, which is perfect for ice boating,” says Rodney. An ice boat has a long, narrow hull, like a kayak; its large main sail acts as an airfoil. “Sailors with good winds can reach speeds over 100 miles per hour,” Rodney explains. “Some parts of the lake, such as the Narrows, don’t freeze.” These “faults” are one to 30 feet wide. “You try to gain enough speed to jump the fault.”

The next morning, a shimmery sunrise jump-starts my bicycling trip on roads around the lake (the shore path is for foot travelers only). Going from the south shore to the north, I pass through Big Foot Beach State Park (named for a Potawatomi chief) and the towns of Linn, Fontana, Williams Bay, then, oddly, Linn’s north shore half before returning to Lake Geneva. Landmarks range from Chuck’s waterside bar, opened in the 1950s, to Green Grocer, a new local produce mart.

In downtown Lake Geneva, quaint old shops and neon-signed lounges flank newcomers: Refined Rustic, a trove of salvage cobbled into lamps, jewelry and furniture; I Love Funky’s, where vintage home decor oddities include antique coffee urns, jukeboxes and ornately carved tables; and a java/bake shop, a children’s boutique and a novelty purse outpost slotted into a creatively adapted Baptist church.

To refuel, locals pointed me to Simple Cafe, which pairs cheery modern design with old-school reverence for farm-fresh foods. Umbrellas shield the patio; the interior sports waves of color and amusing salvage-collage lamps from Refined Rustic. Under one lamp lunches Refined Rustic’s owner, Philip Sassano, who recently relocated from Chicago to Lake Geneva because “it’s the epicenter of where we antique.”

Chef and co-owner Young Cho sums up Simple’s mission as super-fresh, healthful fare sourced from local independent farmers using ethical and healthful practices. All dishes are priced under $10 so everyone feels welcome. I refresh with a delectable wheatberry salad and a thick butternut squash soup that could pass as a fabulous pudding.

Next door, the also-new Sweet House of Madness displays ornately designed cakes and artisan breads. I dig into sample bowls for research purposes; rustic texture and flavor distract me from the nearby pies made with local apples, pumpkins and cranberries.

A “Now Open” banner lures me into Rose’s Fresh Market. “I wanted a place with foods we ate before food conglomerates changed what we eat,” explains Rose Mennella. Wares include baskets of fragrant honey crisp apples, caramel dips mixed by a community nonprofit group and locally crafted Blue Collar Blackberry Pepper Jam and River Valley Kitchens Heirloom Tomato Salsa.

On my last day, I jog along Lake Shore Path. I pass Covenant Harbor Bible Camp; the Wrigley gum family compound; and homes more than a century old, such as Wadsworth Hall, a classical Georgian style, and the House in the Woods, whose wind chimes mingle with trilling birds. Honored back in the day for mating old-world elegance with modern technology, the latter was once decorated with lavish murals painted by the owner’s son, a respected artist. Subsequent owners removed the murals. Today, abundant outdoor art includes beautiful ironwork footbridges and wind sculptures.

For views from the lake, I set off on a stand-up paddle board rented from Clear Water Outdoor. Stone Manor emerges from the south shore woods. The mansion, reputedly the lake’s largest, was built by a German costume jewelry salesman turned real estate magnate after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Seven levels, Bedford limestone exterior, Tennessee marble interior, 14-karat-gold fixtures, a ballroom and a bowling alley. Auctioned for back taxes in the 1960s, it was snagged by a developer for $75,000 and housed a restaurant and a Christmas tree museum before being partitioned into condos.

As I paddle, Lake Geneva’s secret becomes clear: You don’t need to be rich to enjoy the good life.

Lake Geneva, Wis.: How to get there, where to stay, what to do

Soslow is a Washington-based writer and photographer. She can be reached at rsoslow@gmail.com.

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