Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva once a grand resort for the rich, now a laid-back venue for vacationers

That Einstein. He really got around. It seems just about everywhere I’ve visited, he was there first, among them Prague, Singapore and Williams Bay, a small community only 15 minutes from Lake Geneva. No, not that Lake Geneva on the border of Switzerland and France, but the Lake Geneva of Wisconsin.

Here’s how Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist and world traveler, made his way to tiny Williams Bay. When he came to America for the first time, he asked to see only two places. The first was Niagara Falls, understandable on his part for its sheer power and beauty, and the other was Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, often touted as the birthplace of astrophysics.

The impressive Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, close to Lake Geneva, was founded by the University of Chicago in 1897 and built in the style of Romanesque architecture.

The impressive Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, close to Lake Geneva, was founded by the University of Chicago in 1897 and built in the style of Romanesque architecture. 

Once you’ve seen the observatory, you’ll understand why Einstein wanted to see it. Founded by the University of Chicago in 1897 and built in an imposing gothic Romanesque style with domes, brick and terra cotta, Yerkes Observatory is the Taj Mahal of observatories. It’s quite the out-of-this-world experience to follow in Einstein’s footsteps to see the largest refracting telescope in the world that’s used for astronomical research. I felt much like a dwarf star standing next to it and its 40-inch lens. It just seems so unreal that such advanced technology existed then to build such a massive state-of-the art facility and telescope the size of a small rocket.

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Yerkes Observatory isn’t the only cool thing to see near Lake Geneva, a town of 8,500 that’s about a 90-minute drive northwest of Chicago. Over the centuries since its founding in 1836, and then over the next few decades with settlers and tourists alike clustering to its shores, it’s been called the Newport of the West and the Hamptons of Chicago.

Here’s why. In the late 19th century, some of the families of Chicago’s early movers and shakers, names including Sears, Wrigley, Maytag and Schwinn, began building elaborate summer homes (read: mansions) on the shores of the sparklingly clear and cerulean-hued Lake Geneva. The influx of these moneyed families helped the cozy community to earn its nicknames, references to the Newport of Rhode Island and the Hamptons of New York, both fashionable seaside destinations favored by the affluent and “in” crowds.

Now that summer is knocking, the glacier-sculpted, spring-fed Lake Geneva, with its outlying communities of Williams Bay, Fontana and Delavan, is ideal to visit during the warmer months. Probably one of the first things you’ll want to do is amble around the lake. It’s an easy stroll, with sailboat- and kayak-dotted panoramas of the lake on one side and those gorgeous lakefront homes and verdant, flower-flocked gardens on the other. You’ll walk across grass, dirt, concrete, brick, stepping stones and gravel on the path that was originally old Native America trails of the Potawatomi and Oneota.

While officially the shoreline is 21 miles, the path meanders for almost 26 miles as it intertwines with hills and forests of deep green. While you wouldn’t think of it to look at it, the lake eventually drains into the White River and then winds southward through a series of waterways, including the mighty Mississippi, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

If you don’t care to walk the 10 hours or so it would take to encircle the lake nonstop, then catch a cruise with Lake Geneva Cruise Lines. Not only is the scenery stunning but summer brings mail jumpers, as fun to watch as the picturesque sailboats and kayaks. The boat, named the Walworth, still delivers mail via the lake to about 75 homes. The jumpers, agile and balanced with mail in hand, leap from the boat, gazelle-like and graceful, as it’s still in motion, sprint to the mailboxes to deposit letters and packages, and then soar back on to the stern.

The mail to 75 homes is still delivered along Lake Geneva's shoreline via boat.

The mail to 75 homes is still delivered along Lake Geneva’s shoreline via boat. Here, Paige Young, a so-called “mail jumper” quickly bounds between land and boat to deliver the mail. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)

As the gazelles vault back and forth between shore and water and the Walworth chugs along on the entertaining 2 1/2 hour-cruise, you get the added bonus of history lessons about the elaborate Gilded Age mansions that line the lake as if they had been chiseled into the shoreline.

While the unmistakable allure of Lake Geneva is, for the most part, its laid-back vibe, plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure exist. You’ll find the requisite golf courses, ziplines, bicycle and scooter rentals, but also quite a few indoor opportunities to sample local wines and cheeses.

At the oxymoronically named Hill Valley Dairy, the focus is on small-batch artisanal cheeses, among them white and yellow cheddar and my absolute favorite called luna, a portmanteau of gouda and alpine-style cheese that pairs wonderfully with malbec or pinot noir. It’s a taste of Switzerland without having to travel across the Atlantic to the other Lake Geneva. Along with Staller Estate Winery for stunning cold-hardy grape wines and Apple Barn Orchard and Winery for bold fruit wines like honey crisp apple, a glass of vino, and a freshly-picked apple or two, is never far away.

At Hill Valley Dairy, wine and cheese tastings focus on small-batch artisanal cheeses including yellow cheddar and gouda.

At Hill Valley Dairy, wine and cheese tastings focus on small-batch artisanal cheeses including yellow cheddar and gouda. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)

Now let’s take Lake Geneva for $1,000, Alex. The answer is parrots and cockatoos, pretty young ladies in glass boxes and full-size helicopters. The question is, what are things that fly at the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre? Lots of thrilling extra magic acts fill the show, including making that helicopter appear out of nowhere and the levitating lady in a box, plus the classic tricks of mindreading and sawing a fair maiden in half. If nothing else, you’ll come to believe in the magic during its entertaining, fun hourlong show that’s truly as theatrical as any in Las Vegas.

The sleep menu of Lake Geneva has all you need for eight hours of beauty rest, from chain hotels to cozy inns. But take advantage of its unique resorts for rest and relaxation and a little something extra, including the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, a full-scale resort with its own private lake, a golf course, several restaurants and lounges and too many other amenities to count.

Too much? The boutique Maxwell Mansion, with its origins dating to 1855, has inn rooms and incredible stable-like rooms with even more incredible huge showers. Have a libation in its Speakeasy Bar, but you’ll need a password to get in. Pssst. Just ask for it. Another option is the Ridge Hotel. It’s Lake Geneva’s newest resort, and it’s chic, sleek and dog-friendly, all with incredible views of lake, woods and golf courses.

If you go

For more information, contact Visit Lake Geneva at www.visitlakegeneva.com or call toll-free 800-345-1020. Lake Geneva is located in southeastern Wisconsin, about a 90-minute drive from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport or a 45-minute drive from Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport.

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