LAKE GENEVA, Wis. -- This small lakeside town in southern Wisconsin has always been "Chicago's playground."
Chicagoans can hop in the car and within two hours be fishing or boating on one of the region's three major lakes -- Lake Delavan, Lake Como and Lake Geneva -- or teeing it up on a scenic resort golf course kissing their shores.
Downtown Lake Geneva is stocked with an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants. Mansions built by big-city cash from Chicago and Milwaukee line Lake Geneva. All these upscale offerings are in stark contrast to the cornfields and open green spaces surrounding Lake Geneva. It's an escape that city dwellers cherish.
Lake Geneva is easily accessible from the Milwaukee airport (45 minutes) or Chicago O'Hare (1 1/2 hours). And the roster of courses goes at least eight deep. Many of these courses have the look and feel of northern Michigan with elevated tees leading fairways lined with trees and wetlands.
The lake views are especially spellbinding in fall, when the colors leap off the canvas.
Lake Geneva: Where to play
The 68 curvaceous bunkers and uneven lies are the signatures of the region's best course, the 7,085-yard Brute Course at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, one of only five AAA Four Diamond resorts in Wisconsin. The resort's 6,659-yard Highlands Course, originally a Jack Nicklaus/Pete Dye design before being redesigned by Bob Cupp in the 1990s and updated further by Bob Lohmann in 2006, has some fine holes as well.
Let me end the debate about the best course at the 54-hole Geneva National Golf Club, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2011. There's no weak hole on Geneva National's Gary Player Course, although the 18th should be played from the tips for maximum drama to cap off a great round.
Its formula is great scenery, variety and playability. The routing of three par 3s and three par 5s on the back nine is one I'd love to play more often. Lake Geneva's Arnold Palmer Course starts off weaker but finishes stronger with the par-3 16th and the par-5 17th directly along Lake Como.
The Lee Trevino Course is the toughest, yet lacks the vistas of the other two. Truth is, they're all pretty darn good.
Rain dampened my visit to Abbey Springs Golf Course, but not my enthusiasm for the 6,644-yard course in Fontana. Abbey Springs touts itself as "Wisconsin's Most Beautiful Golf Course."
The folks at Whistling Straits might disagree, but there's no doubting Abbey Spring's charms. It's got more trees and elevation changes than all its local competition. The raucous back nine will kick you in the teeth on the scorecard and still force a gap-toothed smile at the 17th tee box, which stares off into the horizon over Lake Geneva.
Hawk's View Golf Club offers Como Crossings, a strong, 7,074-yard course, and the executive Barn Hollow that plays 2,708 yards. Como Crossings climbs to a ridge for two great downhill par 3s at No. 3 and No. 17.
The 6,201-yard Lake Lawn Resort golf course in Delavan is in a bit of a transition under the resort's new owners, but it has two of the region's best holes, the downhill, par-3 second and the par-5 third along Lake Delavan. It's a fine Dick Nugent course with some wild greens. A name change and other improvements are in the early stages of becoming reality.
Lake Geneva: Where to stay
Grand Geneva has completed renovating all 355 guest rooms and suites, adding plush amenities such as 37-inch LCD flat-screen TVs and even TV monitors hidden in bathroom mirrors.
Soaring views of The Brute can be found at the Embers Terrace and the outdoor pool. Kids will love the 50,000-square-foot Moose Mountain Falls water park inside the Timber Ridge Lodge, home to more accommodations. A trolley transports guests between the lodge and the main resort.
The 283-room Lake Lawn Resort on 250 acres made an amazing comeback in 2011. The resort, dating to 1878, spent millions of dollars on upgrades earlier this decade, an investment that couldn't be recouped during the recession, forcing a bank foreclosure.
Lake Lawn closed Dec. 12, 2010, but new local investors purchased the resort, opening it up piece by piece starting in May with the golf course. Tom Hyslop, the new director of sales and marketing, said the resort was booked full every weekend of the summer in July and August.
"People are thrilled we are back," he said.
Lake Geneva: Where to eat
The Geneva Chophouse at Grand Geneva serves the finest cuts of filet and steak with some excellent sides such as lobster macaroni and cheese. The Frontier Restaurant at Lake Lawn is manned by David Ross, a local celebrity chef.
For a night out, Popeye's in downtown Lake Geneva (not the chicken chain) or Gordy's Boat House Restaurant in Fontana are good low-key places to hang out along the water.
The best dining experience is served at the Baker House, a restored historic home that relives the roarin' 1920s every night. Guests are asked to wear old-fashioned hats to get in the mood. There is no official dining room in the Baker House, just parlors where guests can mingle with hosts who are dressed in character. A sunset toast on the front lawn overlooks the lake.
Lake Geneva: Off the course
Even the postmen have fun in Lake Geneva. The Lake Geneva Cruise Lines still delivers mail to about 60 homes around the lake on a daily basis through September, a local tradition since 1870.
You can ride along to watch an acrobatic mailman jump from dock to dock to deliver the mail with the boat in constant motion. In fall, the cruise line offers color tours.
Another boat excursion on the Yacht Geneva explores the Black Point Estate, a grand residence built in 1888 on a bluff overlooking the lake. A 21-mile trail around the lake challenges runners and cyclists.
The Fireside Theatre remains one of the Midwest's most popular destinations for plays. Fishing and boating on the lakes are favorites in summer.