Summer Outside the City

Beat the heat in this historic Wisconsin resort town.

“The mail jump videos went viral on TikTok. Or maybe it was YouTube.” That’s what I learned from my 22-year-old son when I told him the highlight of a recent trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. And, as it turns out, Lake Geneva mail jumpers have blown up
on both TikTok and YouTube.

Wrigley Hillcroft Estate photo by Kristen K. Tucker

Mail delivery to the homes encircling Geneva Lake dates to 1916. Wealthy Chicagoans, primarily, already had begun to relocate to the small town of Lake Geneva, 80 miles north of Chicago, Illinois, after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The road route around the lake was not yet complete, so to deliver mail during the summer months while the homeowners were in residence, the U.S. Postal Service contracted with a local boat company to bring the mail to the homes’ docks, where mailboxes were installed. Today, the tradition remains. From June 15 to Sept. 15, mail is delivered to about 75 homes around the lake by the Lake Geneva Cruise Line on the 75-foot Walworth with a load of 150 paying passengers, a captain, and a mail jumper, who has tried out for the summer job.

Driehaus Estate photo by Kristen K. Tucker

The Walworth departs at 10 a.m. daily; the cruise around the lake and the delivery service takes two and one-half hours. For passengers, the highlight of the cruise is seeing the agile mail jumper deliver mail by jumping off the moving boat as it navigates between peers on the shoreline, dashing down the dock to the mailbox, and jumping back on the boat – usually. (Go to TikTok or YouTube to see the viral “fails.”) Passengers also get an in-depth narration of the lake and the area, an opportunity to view the original Wrigley Estate, consisting of six different homes, and see the villages of Lake Geneva, Williams Bay, and Fontana from the lake.

Late last summer, I visited Lake Geneva after a 20-year hiatus. I experienced the mail boat cruise, visited several historic properties, enjoyed outside activities, and ate great food.

Grand Geneva Resort & Spa photo provided by Grand Geneva Resort & Spa

Lake Geneva rose to prominence in the late 1800s as a Gilded Age retreat for Chicago’s wealthy magnates. The Wrigleys, Wackers, Chapins, Drakes, and Schwinns built lavish summer mansions here, more than 100 of which stand still. Encircling Geneva Lake is a public shore path that stretches 26 miles. The path follows the route taken by the Potawatomi Native Americans, who lived on the land before colonial settlement, and passes by estates dating from the 1870s to today.

More than 50 years ago, Playboy Enterprises chose Lake Geneva as the site for a new high-end resort, bringing elaborate grounds and progressive architecture to the area. Today, the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright-style design and now owned by Milwaukee’s Marcus Corporation, attracts visitors from around the world to its AAA Four-Diamond getaway.

Yerkes Observatory photo by Kristen K. Tucker

Another notable attraction is the Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of modern astrophysics. This majestic building has welcomed astronomers, astronauts, Nobel Prize winners, and the public since 1897. The observatory houses the world’s largest refracting telescope and is situated on beautiful grounds designed by the Olmsted Brothers in Williams Bay, overlooking Geneva Lake.

Maxwell Mansion photo provided by Maxwell Mansion

Accommodations in Lake Geneva include historic options like the Maxwell Mansion, where I stayed. The current owners, Luke and Monica Pfeifer, have renovated the 1856 mansion, carriage house, and stables to offer luxurious rooms with modern amenities. The main portion of Maxwell Mansion sports a dark and moody speakeasy lounge in the basement. On Tuesdays throughout the summer, Maxwell Mansion rolls up the door and opens its back terrace tiki bar. It’s the only time the pool is open to the public; public guests must buy at least one drink from the tiki bar to receive a wristband, which allows use of the pool that day. The public pool guests made for a lively visit during my stay.

Maxwell Mansion Pool photo provided by Maxwell Mansion

Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty to do in Lake Geneva, from kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding on the lake to renting bicycles and walking the shore path. Golfers can enjoy the legendary courses at The Ridge Resort and the Grand Geneva. Horseback riding is available for guests of all ages at the Grand Geneva, as well.

Lake Geneva has a rich history in magic, partly due to its proximity to Appleton, Wisconsin, the home of Harry Houdini. Illusionist Tristan Crist performs up-close Las Vegas-style magic in his impressive theater, The Tristan Crist Magic Theatre. In fact, Tripadvisor.com visitors rank the theater Lake Geneva’s No. 1 attraction in 2023.

Kayaking on Geneva Lake photo by Holly Seng

If a destination wedding or event brings you to Lake Geneva, take note of the Riviera Ballroom; you will see it when you board the Walworth Mailboat. Built in 1932, the Riviera Ballroom was a regional destination for music until the 1980s, hosting performers that included Glenn Miller, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, among many others. Today, after an extensive renovation, the Riviera is a marina and event hall with shops and concessions on the lower level serving the nearby Riviera Beach.

Aboard the Walworth Mailboat, be prepared for jaw-dropping views and, perhaps, a few chuckles. After all, Lake Geneva Cruise Line itself posted a video in 2023 captioned, “They don’t always make it back to the boat in time.”

WHEN YOU GO

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is a six-and-one-half-hour drive from Evansville – straight up U.S. 41 North through Chicago and around Lake Michigan to Kenosha before heading west to Walworth County, Wisconsin. I flew to Milwaukee and had group transportation for the 55-minute drive to Lake Geneva. Evansville Regional Airport’s twice-daily flights to Chicago with American Airlines return on Sept. 4, making northern destinations like Lake Geneva more accessible.

TOURISM AND TRIP PLANNING
visitlakegeneva.com

House of Bogini photo by Kristen K. Tucker

STAY
MAXWELL MANSION
GRAND GENEVA RESORT & SPA

DINE AND DRINK
PIER 290
BARRIQUE BISTRO & WINE BAR
GENEVA TAP HOUSE
HOUSE OF BOGINI
HILL VALLEY DAIRY

DO
LAKE GENEVA CRUISE LINE
KAYAK AND STAND-UP PADDLE BOARD ON GENEVA LAKE
GENEVA LAKE MUSEUM
AVANT CYCLES
TRISTAN CRIST MAGIC THEATER
YERKES OBSERVATORY

Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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