LAKE GENEVA, Wis. -- In most well-heeled communities, traipsing through someone's well-manicured yard at all hours of the day or night could get you arrested.
But in this laid-back but heavily moneyed lakeside town, visitors are welcome -- no, make that encouraged -- to walk right through the rich people's yards, practically in the shadows of the opulent summer homes,
That's because the 21-mile-long footpath that circles the crystal-clear lake is open to anyone, thanks to the area's earliest settlers, who decreed in the 1800s that 20 feet of the lake's shoreline should be public domain. It's remained that way ever since, with adjoining landowners responsible for maintaining their respective sections of the path. Some do a better job than others, and in places the path is brick or asphalt, in others gravel, and still others just well-trodden grass.
But nearly any section of the 3-foot-wide path provides an up-close look at some of the most remarkable summer homes -- really, they're mansions -- that you'll see anywhere.
Lake Geneva, just 75 miles northwest of Chicago, has been a resort town since shortly after the Civil War, when wealthy Chicago families with names such as Wrigley, Maytag, Sears and Schwinn began building summer estates here. At one point, the area earned the nickname "Newport of the West," after the ritzy East Coast summer resort town.
Today, many of those homes are still owned and occupied by family members. But the nouveau riche can still join the party with their own McMansions -- all they need to do is buy some lakefront property for $30,000 to $40,000 per foot of shoreline.
But you don't have to be wealthy to enjoy a few days here, thanks to the dozens of lodging options available, from campgrounds and tiny B&Bs all the way up to luxury resorts.
For anyone considering a trip to Lake Geneva, here are nine things to know:
1. Don't confuse the town and the lake. The town is Lake Geneva, while the body of water is Geneva Lake. Why is that? Don't ask.
2. In a former incarnation, the sprawling Grand Geneva Resort was Hugh Hefner's first Playboy Resort. A big mural right off the lobby still includes a hidden Playboy bunny.
3. The Lake Geneva Cruise Line offers plenty of narrated lake tours, including champagne brunch and jazz dinner cruises, and even ice cream social cruises, as well as water taxi service.
4. Easily the most popular cruise is the U.S. Mailboat Tour, which makes the rounds of about 60 piers on the lake. At each, an agile young crew member leaps from the bow of the moving boat, sprints to a mailbox on the pier and deposits the resident's mail, then dashes back to the pier's end just in time to jump back onto the boat's stern before it gets out of range.
5. The only lakeside mansion open to visitors is Black Point, a stately Queen Anne-style home built in 1888. Partially hidden by thousands of evergreen trees planted by the original owners, the estate is high on a bluff overlooking the lake. It includes 13 bedrooms and a four-story tower.
6. There are plenty of restaurants, and among the more interesting are Bistro 220, which specializes in sake martinis (because they don't have a liquor license), and the Baker House, located in a restored Victorian mansion. At the latter, dinner guests enjoy small-plate delicacies, and as part of the nightly Sun-Downer Celebration, all are invited to don vintage hats and down classic cocktails as they gather in the garden to toast the sunset.
7. A local produce market called The Elegant Farmer is world famous for its signature item, Apple Pie Baked in a Paper Bag. Named Best Pie in America by The Wall Street Journal, it also beat out a celebrity chef's pie in an episode of The Food Network show "Throwdown! With Bobby Flay."
8. Outside The Elegant Farmer you can board the East Troy Electric Railroad for a 10-mile ride aboard vintage rail cars on one of the last original electric railroads in the country.
9. Under the 90-foot-diameter dome of the historic Yerkes Observatory is the largest refracting telescope in the world. Opened by the University of Chicago in 1897, one of the observatory's earliest staff members was astronomer Edwin Hubble, namesake of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Besides summer, another great time to visit here is fall. As the temperatures drop, so do the prices. And because the wealthy people who built the lakeside mansions also hired experts to design their landscapes, the brilliant fall colors last unusually long, from early September through late November.
Round-trip flights from Pittsburgh to Milwaukee, the closest city to Lake Geneva, cost approximately $200. For more information, call 1-800-345-1020 or check www.lakegenevawi.com.
Mike Kelly, a former Toledo Blade reporter, is a travel writer and editor (firstname.lastname@example.org).