When Albert Einstein 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. The other was Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., often touted as the birthplace of astrophysics, about 15 minutes from Lake Geneva.
Once you've seen the observatory, you'll understand why. Founded by the University of Chicago in 1897 and built in an imposing gothic Romanesque style with domes, brick and terra cotta, Yerkes is the Taj Mahal of observatories. It's an 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.
Yerkes Observatory isn't the only cool thing to see near Lake Geneva, a town of 8,500 in southeastern Wisconsin. Since its founding in 1836, and with settlers and tourists alike clustering on its shores, it's been called the "Newport of the West" and the "Hamptons of Chicago." 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 sparklingly clear and cerulean-hued lake. .
Today, the glacier-sculpted, spring-fed Lake Geneva is still 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, those gorgeous lakefront homes and flower-flocked gardens. You'll walk along the path that was originally old Native American 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.
If you don't care to walk the entire lake, then catch a U.S. Mailboat tour aboard the Walworth with Lake Geneva Cruise Lines. Not only is the scenery stunning, but summer brings out the mailboat jumpers as the Walworth delivers mail to about 75 homes. The young jumpers, agile and balanced with mail in hand, leap gracefully from the moving boat, sprint to the mailboxes to deposit letters and packages, and then soar back onto the stern.
As the gazelles vault back and forth and the Walworth chugs along on the 2½-hour cruise, you get a history lesson on the elaborate Gilded Age mansions that line the lake as if they had been chiseled into the shoreline.
Wine, cheese and magic
While the allure of Lake Geneva is in its laid-back vibe, plenty of opportunities for adventure exist. You'll find the requisite golf courses, ziplines, bicycle and scooter rentals, but also 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, 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 to the other Lake Geneva. Along with Staller Estate Winery for stunning cold-hardy grape wines and Apple Barn Orchard & Winery for bold fruit wines like honeycrisp apple, a glass of vino and a freshly picked apple are never far away.
Lots of thrilling magic acts fill the show at the Tristan Crist Magic Theatre, including making a helicopter appear out of nowhere and pretty young ladies levitating in glass boxes, plus the classic tricks of mind-reading and sawing a maiden in half. If nothing else, you'll come to believe in the magic of its entertaining hourlong show that's as theatrical as any in Las Vegas.
Where to eat
Where to start? From Oakfire in an old house remodeled into cool pizza digs, to the open-earth grill of Geneva Chop House, or the rustically elegant Hunt Club Steakhouse at Geneva National, Lake Geneva has been dishing up cuisine since the mid-1800s.
Crafted Italia, at the Ridge Hotel, with an excellent selection of pasta dishes, is trendy and upscale with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the lake. Sopra Bistro serves Italian-American and international dishes with selections from the barnyard to the sea.
At Popeye's, also on the lake and open since 1972, dine outside and enjoy the delicious flatbread with lobster and brie before a meal of burgers, sandwiches or ribs. Fancy a brew? It's your choice of Barrique Wine & Brew Bar, Flat Iron Tap or Topsy Turvy Brewery, which serves its craft beers in a historic church. In Williams Bay, try the casual Pier 290 for real Wisconsin cheese curds and deviled eggs, and an entree of pan-fried walleye or homemade meatloaf.
Where to stay
The sleep menu of Lake Geneva has everything from chain hotels to cozy inns. But take advantage of its unique resorts for something extra, including the Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, a full-scale resort with its own private lake, golf course and several restaurants and lounges.
Too much? The boutique Maxwell Mansion, dating to 1855, has inn rooms and incredible stable-like rooms with 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. Lake Geneva's newest resort, it's chic, sleek and dog-friendly, with incredible views.
While no alpine skylines exist at the Midwest's Lake Geneva as at Europe's Lake Geneva, this small community is a national treasure with its spectacular summer temperatures, blue skies and cool lake winds. Even Einstein would agree.
If you go
Lake Geneva is a four-season resort town, with bedazzling fall color and activities including corn mazes, wine tasting, hot air ballooning, golf, hiking, biking and water sports. Winter activities include skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling. Contact Visit Lake Geneva at visitlakegeneva.com or 1-800-345-1020.