Recreation & Destinations

4 Idyllic Lake Retreats to Explore This Summer

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You don’t need to travel far to have a fun summer vacation. These four destinations known for their watery attractions are just a day trip away.

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Water is a main ingredient for summer fun, and waterfronts are ideal destinations for day trips and extended family vacations alike.

Lucky for us, we’re just a short drive from four lake communities that stand out for their water attractions and all-around appeal.

Madison, Wis.

Visitors are attracted to Wisconsin’s state capital for a number of compelling reasons, but among the top is the area’s five interconnected lakes.

Madison has built upon the lakes’ natural appeal by providing ample access along its shorelines and developing many ways to enjoy the water, says Judy Frankel, director of public relations and communication for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau. Hotels such as The Edgewater host visitors in the middle of the action.

“Visitors can dine outdoors along the shore and make use of the lakefront’s many boating opportunities,” Frankel says. “One of the more popular attractions is stand-up paddling. Lake Wingra is calm and a more serene body of water, and while central to the bustling downtown area, it gives newcomers to the sport a perfect place for learning while being sheltered from boat wakes.”

Another thrilling sport is kite boarding, in which users are propelled into the air on pillars of water. It’s a high-risk, high-excitement sport that’s as fun to watch as it is to do.

Madison is a family-friendly vacation destination, with activities that range from fishing in the sparkling lakes to visiting the city’s 105-year-old Henry Vilas Zoo.

“We’re really lucky in our zoo,” Frankel says. “It offers 200 animals and many other attractions. It’s world-renowned and budget-friendly because it’s free. Families can maximize their vacation budgets and spend their money on other things.”

One of Madison’s most significant landmarks is its capitol building, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. With its impressive marble details and elegant architecture, the capitol is highly visible from all directions, even from Interstate 90, because of ordinances that prohibit buildings blocking the view.

“The other side of this concept is that visitors to the building’s observation deck on the sixth floor have an equally unobstructed view of the city and its necklace of lakes,” Frankel says. “Plus, the building itself looks different every day, depending on the light reflecting off the marble. There are free guided tours seven days a week.”

Inevitably, a trip to Madison always circles back to the water. Boat rentals are readily available. Those who enjoy a leisurely cruise find that Betty Lou Tours has plenty to offer.

“Getting out on the water is a common and popular activity for visitors,” Frankel says. “Betty Lou does themed cruises, including Sunday cocktail and Friday-night fish fry events.”

Visitors preparing for a trip should check VisitMadison.com to find resources like sample itineraries based on activities such as biking, hiking, fishing and visiting the city’s many attractions.

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Door County, Wis.

Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula has long attracted those who enjoy spending time in a restorative natural setting. It’s surrounded on three sides by Lake Michigan and Green Bay.

“Door County has a bucolic atmosphere and its shores are lined with waterfront villages that each have their own personality and appeal,” says Jon Jarosh, director of communications and public relations for the Door County Visitor Bureau. “We have five state parks and 19 county parks. Folks can bike, hike, kayak, fish, boat and spend their entire time here enjoying the outdoors.”

Visitors enjoy the county’s 11 lighthouses, three of which are open daily for tours from mid-May through October.

“Door County is probably best known for its cherries,” Jarosh says. “Depending on the season’s weather, we produce between 8 and 14 million pounds of cherries each year. People can pick their own or buy them fresh, dried or in dozens of delicious ways including inside muffins, breads, wine, jams and jellies, and the favorite: cherry pie.”

Food is a big draw in Door County, and the fishing industry has helped to spur the signature fish boils popular at area restaurants, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.

“People can play golf and there are 53 beautiful public beaches to explore,” Jarosh says. “The whole county has an island vibe, complete with 34 named islands. Washington Island, the county’s largest island and the only one inhabited year-round, has about 700 residents and is reached by a ferry. Travelers can boast of crossing Death’s Door and spend their island time exploring School House Beach.”

Relatively new to Washington Island is the cultivation of lavender, which has inspired a new summer festival.

“Along with aromatic and culinary attractions, Door County has a lively craft beer and wine industry,” Jarosh says. “Visitors can follow the Wine Trail to eight wineries.”

What more could a vacationer want? Jarosh doesn’t hesitate to add to the possibilities.

“We have a very active performing arts scene here in the county, from classical theater to musical comedies, to Shakespeare, to professional orchestras – all set amidst Door County’s scenic backdrop,” Jarosh says. “We have dozens of music venues with every kind of music. We have many fine museums, including the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay. And then there’s shopping. People come just to shop all the wonderful boutiques and galleries located throughout the county.”

Every mile of Door County is easily accessible, regardless of where visitors find accommodations, so no one is likely to miss an opportunity.

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For more information, visit doorcounty.com.

Lake Geneva, Wis.

For well over a century, Lake Geneva has been a magnet for visitors and summer residents who appreciate both the natural beauty and the artistic sophistication this thriving community offers.

Darien Schaefer, president and CEO of the Lake Geneva Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, says the fascinating string of homes built by Chicago’s wealthiest families remains a powerful draw to boat tours available through Gage Marine.

“This year marks the 100th anniversary of the mail boat tour,” Schaefer says. “From now through Sept. 15, the boat takes passengers on the historic boat mail run, one of only a few left in the country. It leaves at 10 a.m. every Monday through Friday and glides past 75 homes while delivery staff members jump off the boat onto the docks, leaving and picking up mail.”

The 2.5-hour tour also acquaints riders with the history of the homes surrounding the lake, including those that were built to accommodate families after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

“For a long time, there weren’t enough roads, so everything from mail to building supplies to food was delivered by boat,” Schaefer explains. “That tradition is being celebrated this year with a T-shirt giveaway on each tour.”

Water is still the main attraction in the Lake Geneva region, which offers familiar traditions as well as new attractions.

“The Ridge on Lake Como, formerly known as Interlaken Resort and then as Geneva Ridge, has undergone extensive renovations,” Schaefer says. “Its crafted Americana restaurant and hip modern decor go well with the pastoral, natural beauty of its setting.”

For the more energetic vacationer, Schaefer believes a hike around Geneva Lake on its lakeshore walking path is well worth the effort.

“The walking path winds along the lake’s 22-mile shoreline through backyards and gardens of the historic homes of the rich and famous,” Schaefer says. “It’s free and open to the public, and there’s so much to see along the way, including vintage, restored boats.”

In addition to the lake boat tours, visitors can shop Lake Geneva’s downtown district, which offers a diversity of retail shops, eateries and fun attractions.

“One of the newest attractions is the Clue Room,” Schaefer says. “It’s a locked-room mystery attraction. People go into the room and are challenged to figure a way out. It’s great fun for families and groups.”

Nearby is the Bottle Shop, where guests can purchase wines, many of them produced locally, and then open and share them with friends on the patio.

Tristan Crist Magic Theater also rates high with visitors. The magician formerly performed for the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis., Schaefer says.

The Lake Geneva area is an ideal place to spend a day or a vacation. Learn more at visitlakegeneva.com.

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Traverse City, Mich.

The first thing that attracts visitors to Traverse City is its natural beauty. Located on Lake Michigan’s east shoreline, this small community offers not only a wide swath of sandy beach and enticing water but also woods and open spaces to explore.

Unlike sophisticated Lake Geneva, Traverse City is a laid-back, yet active recreation venue. “Our population is about 15,000, but we’re surrounded by water and countryside,” says Mike Norton, media relations manager for Traverse City Tourism. “Visitors can golf, swim, sail, boat and bike in the summer, then come back and ski or snowshoe in the winter months.”

The area’s culinary reputation is growing.

“Not many people know that Michigan is second only to California in its agricultural diversity,” Norton says. “We’re becoming known for our wine, craft brewing and culinary offerings.”

Traverse City was quick to embrace the farm-to-table concept in dining, he adds.

“For more than a century, this area has been recognized for its cherries and other fruits,” Norton explains. “Our restaurants, from the high-end establishments down to many of our fast-food spots, center their menus on fresh, locally grown foods. It doesn’t hurt that the Great Lakes Culinary Institute is located here, so we have both homegrown food and homegrown chefs.”

Shopping is another draw. Since the 1960s, the Traverse City area has been a must-see for the artsy crowd.

“We’re small, but we have exceptional galleries and shops that provide unique handmade crafts and art that reflect the region’s personality,” Norton says. “Again, it doesn’t hurt that the Interlochen Center for the Arts is just 15 miles away.”

But the region’s strongest draw is the Great Outdoors, in all its beauty. One spectacular example is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located just west of the city.

“Sleeping Bear was voted the Most Beautiful Place in America by viewers of Good Morning America,” Norton says. “Stand on top of those 500-foot dunes and you feel as if you’re flying as you soak in all that sun, air, water and light.”

Accommodations run the gamut, from cozy bed-and-breakfasts to the full-service Grand Traverse Resort.

“It’s a place that appeals to everyone,” Norton says. Learn more at traversecity.com.

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