Stipulated: the perfect travel time for a three-day weekend getaway is four hours. More, and you waste your vacation. Less, and you’re still near home. Hence our series, The Four-Hour Rule, dedicated to revealing the best destinations that are far away, yet still close to home.
Summer in Chicago means lake houses.
If you’re among the lucky ones (or have a generous friend who is), you know the joys of ditching city life and escaping to mellower pastures.
For the rest of you, your summer getaway list should include Lake Geneva, the town wealthy Chicagoans have chosen to summer in for more than a century.
Back when gentlemen with last names like Wrigley and Driehaus were visiting their lakeside mansions, it was easy to get here by train — a train the Chicago Tribune once claimed carried more millionaires than any other in the world.
Now you’ll have to drive, but an hour and a half in the car is well worth it. Here’s what to do once you arrive.
The Villas at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa
Once home to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, these days you’ll likely find more families than bunnies on Grand Geneva Resort & Spa’s 1,300 acres. It’s a couple of miles away from the lake itself, but there are plenty of reasons to lay your head here, first of which are the 29 new villas that’ll debut in June. They range in size — from studios to a three-bedrooms fit for a crew — and come with all the fixins’ of home: a kitchen, washer and dryer and private patio. Jumpstart your day with a cup of coffee there — or drive over to Boxed and Burlap, a new coffeehouse-garden-center hybrid that’ll greet you with cozy, small-town vibes.
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, 7036 Grand Geneva Way (map)
Also check out: The Abbey Resort
Lake Geneva Cruise Line
The best way to take in Lake Geneva is to get thee onto Lake Geneva. Our recommendation: hit up Lake Geneva Cruise Line and splurge on a small group charter, such as the 41-foot Holland-built Lorelei. You and up to 11 chosen buds can spend the day taking in lake breezes and lavish estates while exchanging friendly waves with fellow boaters from the teakwood-and-mahogany stunner.
Lake Geneva Cruise Line, 812 Wrigley Dr. (map)
Also check out: Lips Rentals
Talk to anyone who’s frequented Lake Geneva over the years and they’ll throw out the names of restaurants that have been around for generations. Some might say it’s high time for newness (no shade to the supper club institutions). You’ll find that at Crafted Americana, the restaurant in the recently renovated Ridge Hotel, formerly the Geneva Ridge Resort. From your Eames-style chair in the swanky dining room, you can choose to keep the experience elevated and order the pork chop served with a peach glaze and truffle potato puree. But passing up the cheese curds, which have been rolled in a New Glarus Spotted Cow batter, would be a miss.
Crafted Americana, W4240 State Highway 50 (map)
Also check out: Mars Resort
The family-owned spot in Williams Bay, on the western end of Lake Geneva, has all the essentials of a solid lake day: kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals and a restaurant with plenty of lakefront seating. Stake out a seat in the sand and settle in for a few rounds of drinks and dishes featuring locally grown ingredients (remember all of those farms you passed on the drive up?).
Pier 290, 1 Liechty Dr., Williams Bay (map)
Also check out: Oakfire
Despite being a quintessential vacation spot, Lake Geneva is not without culture. Williams Bay is home to this 1897 astronomical observatory, which is easy to spot by its 90-foot dome. Its real claim to fame though is its 40-inch refractor, the world’s largest lens-type telescope. If you time your vacation to line up with one of the designated observing sessions, which happen at night throughout the year, you’ll get a chance to gaze through it.
Yerkes Observatory, 373 W. Geneva St., Williams Bay (map)
Also check out: The Black Point Estate and Gardens
Lake Geneva Shore Path
Small towns are not without their quirks. Here’s one that works to your benefit: Lake Geneva named the 20 feet of land leading up to the shoreline public domain. That no doubt serves as an annoyance to the homeowners who have a near-constant stream of people strolling through their yards. But it’s your win, so get out there and walk. Technically, you could walk around the entire 26-mile path, but unless you’ve got 10 hours, your best bet is to tackle one section, starting at the Lake Geneva Public Library and turning around after a mile or so.
Lake Geneva Public Library, 918 W. Main St. (map)
Also check out: Lake Geneva Canopy Tours