If you’re seeking a unique weekend getaway this winter, consider a trip to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin during the community’s 18th annual Winterfest celebration. Scheduled from Wednesday, January 30, to Sunday, February 3, the event also includes the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition.
That weekend, roughly 30,000 people will converge in Lake Geneva to watch 15 teams from around the country compete for the national title. Each team comprises three members who spend three days carving a 6- by 6- by 10-foot block of snow with a variety of hand tools.
The sculpting teams will be hard at work in Riviera Park, on Wrigley Drive at the lakefront, from Wednesday morning to 11 a.m. on Saturday. Members of the public also may try their hand at sculpting sample snow blocks, cast their votes for their favorite sculpture and then head for the historic Riviera Ballroom, where competition winners — first, second and third place, plus the People’s Choice Award — will be announced at 3 p.m. that day.
The Riviera Ballroom will feature food, refreshments and entertainment from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday during Winterfest. This is a great opportunity to check out the celebrated venue that once hosted musical legends such as the Glenn Miller Band.
Other attractions around town include live music, helicopter rides, horse-drawn carriage rides, children’s activities and plenty of world-class dining and shopping opportunities. Several area inns and rental homes also are offering special Winterfest accommodations packages.
For more information, call 800-345-1020, send e-mail to email@example.com, or visit lakegenevawi.com and lakegenevawinterfest.com. — H.S.
Gage Marine: A History of Evolution
Those who are planning a trip to Wisconsin’s Geneva Lake this year will be in for a delightful surprise at Williams Bay. Gage Marine, a full-service marina business with Victorian roots, has expanded its offerings in a major way.
President Bill Gage Jr. is a strong advocate for stewardship and historic preservation in Geneva Lake’s waterfront communities, and he’s something of a visionary. He decided that Gage Marine needed to be more than a working marina and boatyard. It had to be a world-class destination, a place that would draw locals and visitors alike, year round.
So Gage created a campus, repurposing buildings and fitting them out with salvaged pier parts, cribbing, railroad ties, stones, bricks, wood and architectural pieces. The highlight: The Pier 290 lodge and restaurant, which boasts a massive fieldstone fireplace, elegant bar with stained and clear glass rescued from an area mansion, cozy booths, formal dining room, open-air deck and a heated outdoor bar with fire pits.
He’s setting up a rink for ice skating and broomball, which he expects to be ready after the New Year’s holiday. He’s cross-promoting his new winter hotspot with nearby Alpine Valley Resort downhill ski area, and he’s hoping snowmobilers will take advantage of Pier 290’s easy-on, easy-off access to the Geneva Lake trail system.
The fun will continue during the summer months, as Gage is working on a clubhouse, an incubator for a maritime museum and a beach with imported Michigan white sand. He’s also installing a 1950s cruiser, setting it up as if it had crashed onto the shore.
Gage said he wanted his new campus to have the combined feel of an après-ski lodge in Colorado and a beach bar in the Caribbean. In the winter, snowmobilers, skiers, iceboaters and other offseason holidaymakers can mingle around the outdoor fire pits and enjoy great food in a casual environment. In summer, parents can sunbathe, swim and enjoy a mojito or two while easily keeping an eye on kids at play.
“This is a pretty special place, and I thought we were missing an opportunity,” Gage explained. “Geneva Lake has few cruising destinations. Now, boaters have a new place to visit — we can dock 40 boats, and we have two launch ramps. And people who don’t live on the lake will have a chance to really experience it."
The Gage family’s history has been deeply interwoven with that of Geneva Lake for generations. In 1958, the Gages became the third owners of the Williams Bay-based marina, which was founded by the venerable Lake Geneva Cruise Line in 1873 to service the many luxurious excursion boats plying lake waters. The family also purchased the cruise line itself.
That same year, father-and-son team Russell and Bill Gage brought naval architect John Hacker out of retirement to design a wooden runabout that could handle the chop on the lake, which easily can kick up 5-footers in a good blow. Famous industrial designer Brooks Stevens handled the above-waterline styling, and the striking Gage-Hacker was born. Ranging from 22 to 26 feet, 33 Gage-Hackers were built from 1961 to 1969. Most still survive, with many still operated on and around Geneva Lake.
During the 1960s, Gage Marine started selling Boston Whalers, and it built the region’s first indoor storage facility, starting with just 12 storage customers — there are more than 700 today. In the 1970s, it added the lake’s only mobile boat hoist.
With each passing year, Gage Marine's evolution has been impressive. Its operations today include fiberglass, woodworking and metal shops, full mechanical repairs, pier service, haulout, launching, storage and sales; and it has added a second location in Delavan, primarily for sales and storage. It recently started building a new generation of the classic Gage-Hacker runabouts in partnership with Van Dam Woodcraft of Boyne City, Michigan, and it remains one of just two service partners in the world for prestigious boatbuilder Hinckley Yachts. — H.S.
- Lake Geneva Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Lake Geneva, WI https://www.lakegenevawi.com
- Lake Geneva, WI https://www.lakegenevawinterfest.com
- The Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club Madison, WI https://www.iceboat.org
- Lake Geneva Cruise Line Lake Geneva, WI https://www.cruiselakegeneva.com
- Geneva Lake Guide Lake Geneva, WI https://www.genevalakeguide.com
- Geneva Lakes Antique & Classic Boat Show Fontana, WI https://www.genevalakesboatshow.com
- Gage Marine/Pier 290 Restaurant Lake Geneva, WI https://www.gagemarine.com
- Jerry's Majestic Lake Geneva, WI https://www.jerrysmajestic.com
Not every boating destination in the Great Lakes region is a big-water cruising ground. Throughout the Midwest, gem-like inland lakes and their distinctive waterfront communities beckon to trailerboaters and vacationers seeking a respite from the hectic pace of life in teeming metropolises such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and the Twin Cities.
Perhaps the most remarkable of these jewels is Wisconsin’s Geneva Lake, a 7.5- by 2-mile body of water that is the state’s second-deepest inland lake at roughly 144 feet. Carved by two glaciers between 14,000 and 30,000 years ago, it lies at the southern end of the Kettle Moraine just a stone’s throw from the Illinois border. The Geneva Lake area encompasses the communities of Lake Geneva, Fontana-on-Geneva Lake, Williams Bay and Delavan, and lakes Como and Delavan are within easy reach.
Geneva Lake has been a haven for city-dwellers since 1871, when two significant Victorian-era events changed the course of its frontier history. That was the year a legendary fire reduced the great city of Chicago to ashes; that same year, the railroad established a stop in the town of Lake Geneva, which allowed wealthy Chicagoans such as the Wrigley and Montgomery Ward families to relocate and live comfortably while the homes and businesses were rebuilt.
They constructed luxurious, rambling summer homes along the shores of Geneva Lake, and they obtained elegant private launches to take them from the downtown Riviera Dock to those waterfront mansions. They raced yachts, and later cruised aboard gracious runabouts, on the lake’s crystalline waters. They entertained high-profile guests such as famed French Impressionist painter Claude Monet at their lavish estates.
Before long, Lake Geneva and its sister communities collectively became known as the Newport of the West. But that’s not the only reason why this region is special, and believe it or not, you have to come here in the depths of winter to see why.
Chasing the Need for Speed
During the winter months, the same sublime waters that attract cruise vessels, historic launches, classic runabouts, sailing yachts, fishing boats and myriad other watercraft play host to an entirely different animal: The iceboat. Iceboaters from around the Midwest, and even around the world, descend on Geneva Lake when the water gets hard to race at mind-boggling speeds.
Quite simply, an iceboat is defined as a hull with three skates, or runners, that is sail-powered. If conditions are right, modern designs can reach speeds up to 10 times the wind speed. International DN iceboats can reach speeds up to 59 knots, while the Skeeter class can exceed a jaw-dropping 90 knots.
These boats need smooth, stable, snow-free ice to operate, which means enthusiasts are always seeking lakes with just the right conditions. And, for generations, they’ve found the ideal venue at Geneva Lake.
Few sailors are as decorated as Jane Pegel, 1957 women’s national sailing champion, 1964 US Sailing Yachtswoman of the Year, 10-time world champion in the DN class and longtime resident of the Lake Geneva area. She and her husband, Bob, raced together for many years, accumulating a plethora of sailing and iceboating awards, and they operated the Williams Bay-based dealership Sailing Specialists Inc. before their retirement in December 2009.
Pegel said the region has several advantages for iceboaters. For one, the latitude is just right.
“Where we are, we may have 6 inches of snow one day, then we’ll get a rainstorm, it’ll melt, and we’ll get new ice,” she commented. “Madison is just 70 miles north, but they won’t get the thaws we get. Plus, we’re not in the snow belt, so we don’t get the volume of lake-effect snow.”
Lakes north of Milwaukee, she said, tend to be “snowed out” by the middle of December and are no longer options for iceboaters. So they look southward, toward Geneva Lake and its sisters — Como Lake, which lies just to the north, and Delavan Lake, which is approximately 5 miles west.
“This year’s been too warm, as it was in the 60s last week,” Pegel reported. “But it’s supposed to get cold, so we might be sailing Como in a couple of weeks. It’s only 6 to 8 feet deep, so it freezes quickly. Delavan is 50 feet deep, so that will be frozen by the holidays.”
What about Geneva Lake?
“It’s 50 feet deep at the east end and close to 150 feet deep at the west end, so it freezes in stages,” Pegel explained. “Last year was abnormal; it didn’t freeze at all. But hopefully we’ll be sailing the east end by January 10 and the west end by January 21 or so.”
The best part is that if one lake gets snowed out, the iceboaters can move to another lake. Pegel said there’s always new ice on which to sail.
“We’re really one of the best spots in the country,” she enthused. “We get North American sailors from as far away as the East Coast, and we’ve had sailors come from Europe.”
At press time, the Lake Geneva community was scheduled to host the Northwest Ice Yachting Association’s 100th Anniversary Regatta on January 18-20. If conditions aren’t satisfactory on Geneva Lake, NIYA has chosen Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as an alternate location.
“The Northwest regatta has been held for a century and throughout the years has attracted some of the most beautiful ice yachts ever produced,” said NIYA Commodore Greg Simon in a written statement. “The majestic stern steerers, the sleek Skeeters and the classic one-designs of the Renegade and DN classes will all be present to help usher in the next hundred years of iceboating.”
Today, NIYA is comprised of 25 member clubs. Of these, only three hold regular activities: The Green Lake Ice Yacht Club, west of Oshkosh, Wisconsin; the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club in Madison; and the Skeeter Ice Boat Club out of Geneva Lake’s Williams Bay, where the contemporary front-steering iceboat design was pioneered by Walter Beauvois in the 1930s. And of those three, Pegel said, only two host regular racing events: Four Lakes and Skeeter.
The Skeeter Ice Boat Club plays an important role for iceboaters in the region, and not just because it has approximately 100 active members and has roots going back more than seven decades. Since roughly 50 percent of its membership hails from Chicagoland, the club is dedicated to monitoring ice and weather conditions and communicating regularly with out-of-towners.
For example, if it’s below 10°F, races are canceled. At iceboat speeds, the resulting wind chills can damage sailors’ lungs. High winds can be an issue as well, but Pegel noted that several factors will influence whether the boats can race.
“Clear, smooth ice can take higher wind velocities,” she explained. “If it’s sticky or slushy, it’s more dangerous.”
Pressure ridges, seams and weak ice also are major hazards for iceboaters, so the Skeeter Ice Boat Club has an ice-checking committee dedicated to monitoring ice conditions on area lakes.
“The ice-checking committee members all live locally and are retired or semiretired,” Pegel said. “We watch the lakes freeze, and we know the treacherous areas. The ice can be 3 feet thick here, and open over there. It might be only be half an inch thick, and you don’t realize it. We need 4- to 5-inch minimum thickness, and some of the large stern-steerers need a foot.”
With so many people descending on the Geneva Lake area in winter to snowmobile, cross-country ski, snowshoe and enjoy iceboat racing, Pegel cautioned that visitors must talk to someone who is intimately familiar with the ice conditions before venturing onto the ice.
“Fishermen and iceboaters are the only ones who really know,” she said. “Not snowmobilers, not law enforcement. So don’t just wander out. Talk to us; we know where we’re going.”
Pegel started iceboating in 1948. And although she is almost 80 years old, she’s still out on the lakes each winter.
“The people are fun to be with, and I enjoy the challenge of racing, making the boat go faster — even spending hours and hours in the shop, trying to get the last ounce of speed out of the boat!” she reflected with a chuckle. “It’s a unique experience. And there aren’t many places in the world where you can do it.”
Summertime, and the Living’s Easy
But winter doesn’t last forever. Eventually the iceboaters pack up and go home, the Winterfest revelry subsides (see sidebar), the lakes thaw and the world again becomes soft and green. Now it’s time for the trailerboaters and summer holidaymakers to create summertime memories in Geneva Lake’s historic, genteel, waterfront communities.
With so many surviving estates from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Geneva Lake is best experienced from the water. If you’re bringing your own boat, the 5,500-acre lake has public launches in downtown Lake Geneva, Fontana and Williams Bay. It has three additional ramps in Linn Township — on Hillside Road and Linn Road on the south shore, where the lake is only about a half mile wide, and one opposite on the north shore.
Cruise across the lake to the Geneva Inn and enjoy dining al fresco on the Grandview Restaurant’s magnificent outdoor patio. Head for the Abbey Resort (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) in Fontana, with its protected marina, full-service Avani spa and multiple restaurants, lounges and cafés. And you’ll definitely want to check out the new Pier 290 restaurant at Gage Marine in Williams Bay (see sidebar). Geneva Lake may not be a big one, but motoring into these waterfront hotspots will make you feel like you’ve really arrived somewhere special.
All is not lost for those visiting without their own watercraft, however. The Lake Geneva Cruise Line operates eight cruise boats that depart from the historic Riviera Dock. Owned by the Gage family since 1958, the line’s vessels include the steamboats Lady of the Lake, Grand Belle of Geneva and Duchess, the restored 1902 steam yacht Louise, the 1898 yacht Polaris, the 50-foot motor launch Geneva and the stunning 41-foot cruiser Lorelei, built in Holland.
The line also operates the U.S. Mail Boat Walworth, which has been featured on CNN and NBC’s “Today Show,” as well as in the Wall Street Journal and People magazine. Preserving a tradition that began in 1870, the mail boat carries its adept captain, 150 passengers and an intrepid mail carrier who leaps from the deck onto private docks to deliver the U.S. mail and newspapers to approximately 60 lakefront homes. The tour runs daily at 10 a.m. from June 15 to September 15.
On spectacular summer days, you also can enjoy the waterfront from shore. Stretch your legs on the 21-mile footpath that circles Geneva Lake, providing an intimate look at gracious, sloping lawns, lush gardens, sunny patios and relaxed local residents, who are known for offering a smile and a wave to passers-by.
Don’t forget to spend some time exploring the lively Lake Geneva itself, with its vibrant historic district. Dating to the 1860s, the downtown buildings range from Italianate and Classical Revival to Colonial Revival, and they house a thrilling collection of restaurants, taverns, cafés and shops. (Chicagoans, don’t fret: You can even find authentic deep-dish pizza here, at Gino’s East!)
If you have the time, take advantage of Geneva Lake Guide’s narrated tours. Guide Jim Beloian, a renowned local historian, has impressive street cred in the tour business. Starting in 1999, he narrated the Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s boat tours, and in 2001 he began the cruise line’s Guided Lake Walks. And, in 2007, he joined the staff at the Black Point Museum — built by Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp in 1888, this is the only lakefront mansion open to the public.
Known for his interactive, spontaneous and fun style, Beloian offers sightseeing tours aboard guests’ private boats, and he provides a variety of walking tours on the lake’s footpath. One of these, the signature Lake Geneva to Williams Bay Tour, is a nearly 6-hour extravaganza that incorporates a leisurely 7-mile hike from downtown Lake Geneva to Williams Bay, a picnic stop and an exciting return trip aboard one of the cruise line vessels. Highlights include all the Wrigley estates; the Swift, Harris, Crane and Schwinn estates; the Elgin Club; the gardens of Bonnie Brae; and a full-sized replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water.”
“That tour is a lot of fun for me, especially with first-timers,” Beloian said. “From downtown, you don’t see much of the lake. But as you head down the shoreline, it unfolds like a developing story. People are amazed at the actual size of it.”
Fun for all Seasons
On your own time, delight in the cool, fresh evening air at Music in the Park, which Aurora University hosts at its Williams Bay campus. Drive along Snake Road to view the opulent gatehouses guarding those awe-inspiring waterfront mansions. Visit the 1897 Yerkes Observatory, where you can see the world’s largest refracting telescope. Stroll “Main Street” at the Lake Geneva Museum, where you can learn about the Chicago & Northwestern Railway, the lake’s yachting and boatbuilding history, and much more.
You also may ride the ziplines at Lake Geneva Canopy Tours. At Aerial Adventures, revel in 50,000 square feet of wet-and-wild fun at the Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark, or head out to The Dancing Horses Theatre & Animal Gardens, a 40-acre wonderland that is home not only to the dancing horses, but also to more than 60 hay-eating animals, 16 species of exotics, and Echo the talking and singing parrot, who has appeared on “America’s Got Talent.”
And the fun doesn’t stop after Labor Day weekend. September is the month for the Taste of Lake Geneva, with its many local culinary pleasures; the Fat Tire Memorial Tour of Lake Geneva bicycle ride; the Land Rover TriRock Lake Geneva triathlon series; and perhaps best of all, the annual Geneva Lakes Antique and Classic Boat Show at the Abbey Resort in Fontana.
Larry Lange and his crew at Lange Custom Woodworking in Lake Geneva founded the event 13 years ago. “It started as a fall color tour,” Lange recalled with a chuckle. “It’s evolved from there.”
Indeed it has. Open free to the public, the well-known show features classic and vintage boats from around the country. Manufacturers include Chris-Craft, Century, Streblow, Hacker, Gar Wood and more. The annual Saturday boat parade is a major draw, and a variety of vendors will be on site for the weekend’s festivities, scheduled for September 28-29 this year.
Then the leaf-peepers will descend for another October of riotous color, sailors will be prepping their iceboats for the next racing season, and Pier 290’s outdoor fire pits will await hearty après-snowsports merrymaking as soon as the white stuff arrives. The little inland lake that has drawn summer vacationers for generations clearly has made the leap into a brave new world, becoming a year-round destination for recreation, relaxation and restoration. And, in perfect Geneva Lake fashion, it’s doing it with style and grace.