At the turn of the century, when Chicago was a developing powerhouse, Geneva Lake was the playground of the city's rich and famous. Between 1870 and the Great Depression, Chicago's merchant and manufacturing aristocracy entertained itself by constructing summer palaces, each one grander than the next, around this lovely spring-fed lake 75 miles northwest of the city. One real estate baron purchased the Buddhist temple that had been Ceylon's exhibition hall at the World's Fair of 1893, shipped it in pieces to Geneva, reconstructed it, and moved in. Ceylon Court is gone, but enough of these fabulous old homes still stand to give a visitor a heady sense of what life was like for the privileged few before income taxes and labor unions began to level the playing field a little. With that in mind, here are three top-of-the-list suggestions:
The best way to see the mansions is to catch the U.S. mail boat Walworth II, run by Gage Marine (800-558-5911). It leaves the Riviera Docks on Wrigley Drive in downtown Lake Geneva at 9:45 every morning from June 15 to September 15. This is one of the last operating marine mail services in the country, and it is entertaining on several levels. During the two-and-a-half-hour ride around the lake's perimeter, the mail carrier jumps off the moving vessel, dashes to a dock-mounted mailbox, and leaps back into the boat, which never stops, about 30 times. Between deliveries, he or she points out landmark buildings and dishes up background on their ownership. Lower-level seats offer the best perspective on the acrobatics; from the upper deck, you'll get expansive views of the lake. The cost is $13.35 for adults, $12.05 for seniors, and $7.05 for children. The mail boat does not operate after September 15, but other cruises continue to be available through October 31. In the winter, the lake freezes over.
The other not-to-be-missed attraction in the Geneva Lake area is Yerkes Observatory (414-245- 5555), on the west side of the village of Williams Bay (on Observatory Drive off Highway 67, five miles from Lake Geneva). This research outpost of the University of Chicago is only open to visitors on Saturdays (afternoon tours, June through September, are at 1:30, 2:15, and 3; morning tours at 10 and 11 run October through May), but it's worth planning the rest of your weekend around it. In these days of Hubble trouble, Yerkes's nearly century-old refracting telescope--the world's largest--is awesome. It's been in use since 1897 and is still providing valuable information. You won't get to look through it, but the chance to enter the 90-foot-diameter dome, where the 63-foot telescope sits like a giant cigarette in an equally giant eggshell, is a surreal experience even by space-age standards. To top it off, this antique eye-in-the-sky is housed in an ornate Henry Ives Cobb building decorated with astrological figures and surrounded by beautiful grounds. A donation is suggested; the tours last about 35 minutes.
Finally, if you are nonsmokers and have no children under the age of 12 in tow, you can turn your visit into a real time warp by spending a night at the Allyn House Inn, a bed and breakfast in Delavan, 11 miles west of Lake Geneva on Highway 50 (511 East Walworth Ave., 414-728-9090). This Queen Anne-style mansion, built in 1885, has been restored and furnished by two Chicago-area teachers who are antiques collectors, history buffs, great cooks, and gracious, urbane hosts. The 23-room house is a meticulously maintained work of art, with frescoed ceilings, marble fireplaces, gleaming parquet floors, and oriental rugs. Most rooms have double beds; the seven baths are shared. If you've ever wanted to camp out in the Chicago Historical Society, this is for you. Rooms are $75 (plus tax) Friday or Saturday; $60 Sunday through Thursday, including 8:30 AM family-style breakfast.
With its long history as a resort area, Lake Geneva and the surrounding communities offer a multitude of shopping, eating, and lodging options, as well as the water sports that were the original attraction. When you get off the mail boat, pause for a look at the Riviera pier building, an Italian Renaissance structure built during the Depression and recently renovated. The upper-level ballroom was a big-band venue in the 30s. The city beach is adjacent to the pier, but there's a $4 per person charge to use it (less for kids and seniors). The glass- walled building in the park behind the beach is the Lake Geneva Public Library (918 Main St., 414-248- 8311), designed by James Dresser, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. If you're up for a real hike, pick up the shoreline footpath here and it will take you around the 26-mile perimeter of the lake. Near the Riviera pier is the well- stocked chamber-of-commerce information center (201 Wrigley Drive, 800-345-1020); pick up a free copy of the Resorter newspaper.
Main Street in Lake Geneva (which is also Highway 50) is a five-block traffic jam, lined with the predictable moccasin, mug, and T-shirt shops. The Gameland Arcade (120 Broad St., 414-248-9896) is worth a stop if you're into old pinball machines and have a few dozen quarters to spare, but the best idea is to head for the Geneva Lake Area Museum of History (818 Geneva St., 414-248- 6060, open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons only, closed for the winter after October 16). Take a look at the respectable collection of antique clothing and other artifacts, buy a copy of the centennial walking tour guidebook from the nice lady at the desk ($3), and set out to see the town (as opposed to the lakefront mansions) on foot. This illustrated booklet will make you an instant expert.
The wider "Geneva Lakes" resort area includes the villages of Fontana and Williams Bay on Geneva Lake; the nearby town of Walworth (known for its antique shops); two smaller lakes, Como and Delavan; and the town of Delavan. Delavan has a new greyhound track, the area's hottest tourist attraction. (The Geneva Lakes Kennel Club is located at State Highway 50 and Interstate 43 in Delavan. Admission is $1 to the grandstand, $3 to the clubhouse. Call 414-728-8000 or 800-477-4552 for the schedule and more information.) But the town hangs its image on its history as 19th-century winter home to a few dozen circuses. It has scattered circus statuary and a Clown Hall of Fame (212 E. Walworth Ave., 414-728-9075), which is now mostly a storefront souvenir shop but is slated for bigger things. (Renovations are now under way for a clown museum, expected to open in January.) Admission to the Clown Hall of Fame is $2 for adults, $1.50 for seniors, and $1 for children; hours are 9 to 5 weekdays, 10 to 4 weekends. The most convincing evidence of Delavan's circus legacy is in the Spring Grove and Saint Andrew's cemeteries (they share the same hill), where more than 140 circus people are buried. Look for small oval circus markers at their graves.
There's an abundance of adequate restaurants in the area. Popeye's (811 Wrigley Drive, 414-248-4381), across the street from the beach in Lake Geneva, offers good Greek specialties, outdoor barbecues, and a prime view of the lake. Ask for a table on the porch. In Delavan, we got positive reports on food and ambience at Heritage House of Delavan (523 E. Walworth Ave., 414-728-2808), but decided to try Sweet Aroma (intersection of Creek Road and County Trunk X, 414-728-6878, closed Mondays), which advertises the best food this side of Italy and was highly recommended by the locals. With hometown access to both Taylor Street and Highwood, we're tough to please on Italian and found this to be only OK. Tab was $37, plus tip, for dinner for two with two glasses of house wine. Millie's (South Shore Drive and County Trunk O, Delavan, 414-728-2434) has dependably delicious pancakes and other family fare; lunch for two was about $10. For a sense of the wood-paneled bars where fishermen used to wet their whistles and trade stories after a day on the lakes, try Readers (6008 Lakeshore Drive, 414-248-8855), on the north shore of Lake Como (quick, before someone decides to gentrify it). Named for a 1926 Chicago Evening Post promotion that offered a 20-by- 100-foot Lake Como lot for $76 as a premium with any six-month subscription to the newspaper, Readers offers a tasty filet mignon sandwich for $4.75 and has live music on Friday nights.
The Geneva Lake bar scene includes Champs Sports Bar & Grill (747 W. Main St., Lake Geneva, 414- 248-6008), and Chuck's (Lake Street, Fontana, 414-275-3222), both popular with the college crowd. In case you're homesick, Silver Moon is a "Chicago-style" blues bar with live music Thursday through Sunday nights, six miles west of Delavan (Highway 11/14 and County CM, 414- 724-5400). Silver Moon acts run the gamut from Byther Smith to Mike Gibb and the Homewreckers.
Locals frequent the auto races at Lake Geneva Raceway (on North Bloomfield Road, 414-248-8566), Saturday nights through September. There's summer stock at the Belfry Theater (Highways 50 and 67, Williams Bay, 414-245-0123), where Paul Newman and Harrison Ford started out, June through Labor Day only.
Water sports and golfing are still prime reasons for visiting this area. You can pick them up on your own (many are listed in the free chamber of commerce directory) or stay at one of the resorts that offer them. These include Lake Lawn Lodge on Highway 50 in Delavan (gracious traditional family spot, with stables and its own airport, 800-338-5253); the Abbey in Fontana (offers a spa at extra cost, 800-558-2405); and the Americana Lake Geneva Resort, east of Lake Geneva (formerly the Playboy Club Resort; its Brute golf course is said to be worthy of its name, 800-558-3417). High-end accommodations include the posh new Geneva Inn, a Jacuzzi-in-the- suite sort of place, with rooms starting at $145 per night (804 S. Lakeshore Drive, Lake Geneva, 800-441-5881); on the low end, George Williams College (Williams Bay, 414-245- 5531) offers a summer (or winter) camp environment for the entire family, starting at $35 per room, fall season, with meals available for about $13 per day (less for children). Big Foot Beach State Park (State Highway 120, 414-248-2528) offers overnight camping at 100 sites, a small beach on Geneva Lake, and a fishing lagoon. Nonresident charges are $6.75 per campsite and $6 per vehicle with written reservations only, no phone reservations.