When I was a little girl, every summer my family would drive an hour or so north to a little beach and lake in rural Wisconsin. I have the absolute best memories of these trips - they were sweet, simple day trips filled with all of the joys of summer (translate: swimming and ice cream). As an adult, my husband and I try to take the same day trip once or twice a summer up to the Lake Geneva area. It's close, it's easy, and it's a mini escape to a small town surrounded by beautiful pieces of nature. We are big fans of spontaneous adventures and these excursions are never planned. Usually we'll wake up on a random weekend morning, realize that we don't have any plans for the day, and proceed to hop in the car head north.
This past Saturday, Robbie and I decided that it was officially the day to take our annual visit to the area. It was actually a really dreary morning - which meant we'd have to skip our usual swimming experience, but also meant dealing with less crowd madness. (Lake Geneva tends to be a pretty popular spot on summer weekends, and the parking and restaurant situations can be somewhat challenging during those times.) We quickly got dressed, grabbed coffees, got in the car, put on some Talking Heads, and drove out of urbanization into Illinois farmlands, along winding rural roads, until we arrived in town. (You can view a slightly amusing short video of our drive via my Instagram account.)
We decided to start off with an early lunch, and our first stop was a restaurant called Simple Cafe. I'd heard great things about this farm-to-table restaurant and their fresh, local menu, and was excited to try it out. There was a 20 minute wait for a table, so we headed next door to their bakery, which had all sorts of delicious breads, spreads and treats. Back at the restaurant, Robbie ordered some sort of fancy omelet, while I opted for the grilled cheese and tomato soup (I have a thing for grilled cheese sandwiches). We were not disappointed. The multi-grain bread was insanely good and the tomato soup - which tasted of hints of Parmesan - may have been the best I'd ever had. I washed my lunch down with a Sprecher Cherry Cola, which was also ridiculously good (I need to get my hands on some of that Door County cherry juice). If you're ever in the area, I can't recommend Simple Cafe highly enough. (For those of you in Milwaukee, apparently they own one there as well.)
After lunch, we decided to take a drive down Snake Road, which is a rustic road, dotted with historical, multi-million dollar summer estates. Although you can only see the gates (and servant's quarters) from the roads, it's still a gorgeous drive, and fun to imagine what it was like when many of these massive homes were built over a hundred years ago. The Lake Geneva area actually has a very rich history - it was a hugely popular resort town during the roaring '20s (and popular with Al Capone and his mob pals as well), Hugh Hephner opened the first Playboy Club ever there, and many noted Chicago celebrities owned mansions there, deep in the woods.
We headed back to Lake Geneva, parked the car by the lake, and spent a couple of hours walking around and taking photographs. Although small and often congested, the beach is still quite beautiful, and it's very peaceful to sit and stare out into the waves. The shops downtown are touristy, but there are quite a few fun boutiques and antique shops. Kismet is full of handmade gift items, many crafted by local artists. Lake Geneva Antique and Art Bazaar is a newer shop that has a huge mix of handmade art, antiques, and vintage goods. Geneva Jakes has cool outdoor goods. For a wide assortment of gorgeously crafted fair trade goods, stop into Global Hands. And for some of the most delicious ice cream in the midwest, pay a visit to Kilwin's Chocolates.
By late afternoon, the weather had started to warm up and the sun had finally emerged, so we decided to drive over to Williams Bay, a tiny town also on the shore of Geneva Lake. When we're visiting the area specifically to go to swimming, we usual choose this beach, because it's a little more removed and slightly less crowded. It was too cold to swim this time (at least for us), but we wanted to stop by Yerkes Observatory (the birthplace of astrophysics!) to take some photographs. Yerkes is operated by the University of Chicago, and houses the world's largest refracting telescope. I am completely fascinated by this place and am hoping to take one of their summer night courses/tours, but on this particular day we knew it was closed and just wanted to take pictures of the outside. The building, which dates back to 1897, is really extraordinary, with all kinds of incredible detailing. It's definitely worth checking out if you're in the area.
As the evening approached, we went on an unsuccessful hunt for fried cheese curds (I went to school at UW-Madison and have insatiable cravings for cheese curds whenever I visit Wisconsin), then headed home. It was a great day - equal parts relaxation and spontaneous mini adventures. For those of you in the Chicago area who want a quick escape (that still allows you the luxury of being back in your own bed that night), I highly recommend heading to Lake Geneva. Although a popular weekend destination for Chicagoans (I swear 90% of the license plates I saw that day were from Illinois), it's also a fun getaway just for an afternoon. If you've been to the area and know of any places we may be missing, please let me know! I have a feeling we'll be back again before summer comes to an end.