As the boat pulled away from the dock behind The Rivera Ballroom in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Sam went to work.
Sam, the narrator on the Lake Geneva Cruise Lines vessel, told my group about the lake’s mail jumpers. Every summer, mail is delivered by boat to about 60 homes on the lake, thanks to the jumpers who leap from moving boat to dock and back. The jumpers, he deadpanned, are successful 99.9% of the time.
Sam talked about the lake’s history and geography and the architecture of the grand estates on the lake, many built by wealthy Chicagoans in the late 1800s and early 1900s as vacation homes.
Out on the water, taking in the scenery and the stories, I could see why Lake Geneva was once known as the Newport of the West.
“The comparison to Newport is flattering, as is the moniker the ‘Hamptons of Chicago,’” said Stephanie Klett, president and CEO of VISIT Lake Geneva, the community’s official tourism bureau. “There is such scenic beauty here with a feel of the seaside that it’s only natural visitors would lay down roots, returning year after year to carry on traditions.” Klett added, “It’s gratifying to see how residents and tourism employees rise to the occasion each time, extending such genuine warmth to leisure, group and business travelers, making visitors realize they, too, are part of the fabric of the community.”
Geneva Lake (the word order is reversed from the town) covers 5,000 acres. Lake Geneva Cruise Lines offers eight vessels and many cruise options. Group tours are a specialty for the company.
Groups can explore the lake from a different perspective by strolling on the Geneva Lake Shore Path. This public foot path follows the lakeshore, crossing the lawns of lakefront estates, and weaving in and out of the woods. The terrain varies on the path, which is some 20 to 25 miles long.
Exhibits at Geneva Lake Museum, housed in a former power plant warehouse, share the essence of the area and its people. I learned about Native Americans, the North Western Railway, the estates around the lake, Yerkes Observatory and a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel.
My sense of Lake Geneva’s golden age was reinforced when I toured Black Point Estate. I could picture lazy summer days entertaining guests on the wrap-around porch, reading, writing letters, playing games and sailing on the lake. Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp had the house built in 1888 as a family getaway. “Chicago at that time was pretty nasty,” said David Desimone, site coordinator. “It was polluted and dirty and hot in the summer. If you had the ability to get out, you got out.”
The Queen Anne-style home is the epitome of Victorian summer estates on the lake. Four generations of Seipp’s descendants used the cottage each summer until his great-grandson donated the 20-room house, its grounds and furnishings to the state of Wisconsin in 2005 for use as a historic site. Group tours are available.
“To me it feels more like a home than a decorator showplace,” Desimone said. “It has a lived-in and loved feeling.”
Some members of my group had a tour and cocktail class at Maxwell Mansion. In 1856, Maxwell Mansion was the first mansion built in Lake Geneva. It’s now an upscale hotel.
My itinerary was filled with outdoor adventures, including a hike, a zip line canopy tour and a scooter tour.
At Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy, we walked through a variety of ecosystems on the 230-acre preserve. “If you spend an hour here in nature, there’s nothing better for you, physically or mentally,” said Harold J. Friestad, chairman of the board.
What a thrill it was to fly through the trees on zip lines at Lake Geneva Ziplines & Adventures. My nine-line tour ended with a 1,200-foot dual racing zip line, where I came in second after a nail-biting finish. A high ropes course, climbing wall and hiking and biking are also available.
After a scooter training session in the parking lot, I took off on a ride through the grounds of Grand Geneva Resort & Spa. Lake Geneva Scooter Tours & Rentals offers a three- to four-hour guided tour on back roads to scenic spots in and around the city, but I only had time for a short ride.
VISIT Lake Geneva
More for groups in Lake Geneva
Be mesmerized: Illusionist Tristan Crist’s “wows” groups with performances at the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre.
Dine out: Hunt Club Steakhouse, Popeye’s, Tuscan Tavern & Grill, Sprecher’s, and Grand Geneva Resort & Spa serve up delicious meals for groups.
Stay awhile: The Abbey Resort is just one of many group accommodations in Lake Geneva.
In and around Walworth County
Walworth County is the home of Lake Geneva, and the Walworth County Visitors Bureau (WCVB) offers a variety of services for tour operators. The bureau helps operators put together itineraries that can focus on everything from antique hunting, farms and harvest, and farm-to-table cuisine to adventure, history and nature. VISIT Lake Geneva and WCVB partner together to help tour operators and planners make memorable experiences for their group members.
Tim Malenock, executive director of WCVB, noted the bureau and VISIT Lake Geneva have approved a two-year partnership in which the visitors bureau will handle marketing to attract motorcoach groups and group tours to the city and the county.
“This is a great partnership for our county-wide tourism industry,” Malenock said. “This offers the WCVB an opportunity to work better with VISIT Lake Geneva and the City of Lake Geneva. It’s an even greater opportunity for us to connect our outstanding community assets to the tourism market, bringing in new interest to our unique county.”
Southeast Wisconsin holds many attractions for group tours. For example, take in The Dancing Horses Theatre in Delavan, East Troy Railroad Museum in East Troy and Fireside Dinner Theatre in Fort Atkinson.
Walworth County Visitors Bureau