There’s something about the waterfront that calls to our souls, beckons us to slow down and enjoy the sweeter things in life. Now that it’s finally time to start planning that family getaway, we’re dreaming of five nearby destinations where you can’t help but press pause at the water’s edge.
Warmer months are prime for travel, to get out into nature for family fun. It’s also a time when air travel and hospitality prices are at a premium. So, why not save the airfare and drive to a great destination just a few hours from home? Some of the Midwest’s best lakeside summer retreats are so close that you’ll be on the shores of a freshwater paradise by lunchtime. Camp, glamp, or cast your cares away at a luxury resort in one of these five Midwestern destinations and find out what lake life is all about.
Dubuque, Iowa/Galena, Ill.
Roughly a three-hour drive from the Windy City, Dubuque and Galena sit just 15 minutes apart without much in between them besides the Mississippi River and some of Illinois’ most breathtaking vantage points.
Dubuque is a substantial city of about 58,000 people, though there’s plenty to enjoy if you want to get away from it all. A year-round destination, the town comes to life during the spring and summer. Tour the river on boats like Bell & Twilight to enjoy wildlife and gorgeous scenery. Bring or rent a kayak to experience the Mississippi up close.
“There’s a very diverse amount of activity” on and off the river, says Keith Rahe, president of Travel Dubuque, the local tourism agency. From the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, to the vibrant murals throughout the streets of Dubuque and the Field of Dreams of Hollywood fame, the Dubuque area boasts a wide range of sights that appeal to many interests.
“Our outdoor activities are second to none,” Rahe notes. “It’s a quick, nice getaway if you are looking for a unique spot and someplace you won’t spend a ton of money.”
Just 16 miles southeast, across the river, lies Galena, Ill., with its rolling landscape and small population. Explore the town’s quaint business district, where more than 100 shops and restaurants make up South Main Street. The original buildings, dating back to the 1800s, are architectural gems.
Chase a breathtaking sunset from thousands of feet in the air inside the basket of a hot air balloon with Galena On the Fly. Catch a Civil War re-enactment or tour the U.S. Grant Museum, where the former Union general and U.S. President once lived.
Race down the Alpine Slide at Chestnut Mountain Resort, where a toboggan-like track whisks you down 2,050 feet from a bluff to the Mississippi River – in the summertime.
Rest your head at luxury resorts like Eagle Ridge or Chestnut Mountain, with access to award-winning golf courses and restaurants. Or enjoy a kitschy joint, like The View or Marcotte’s Family Motel, for a fraction of the price.
If elite amenities and upscale hospitality are your cup of tea, be sure to check out the romantic rooms and creative cuisine at the Goldmoor Inn bed and breakfast. Nurture your natural state by camping in an RV or tent at a campsite like Vel Terra Ranch or Palace Campground.
The Galena Territory sits adjacent to the famous Eagle Ridge Resort, on the shores of Lake Galena. It’s a community of mainly vacation homes rented out to families or groups of visitors who want to experience something a little different.
Resident Kitty Behof has owned a home in Galena Territory for 11 years but moved in full-time in 2016. The self-proclaimed city girl has fully acclimated to life on the lake, calling the community, which offers unique amenities like private access to Lake Galena, “a little bit of a well-kept secret.”
Lake Geneva, Wis.
Just 83 miles northwest of Chicago, in Wisconsin’s Walworth County, Geneva Lake is surrounded by Gilded Era mansions that formerly belonged to wealthy lumber barons, steel tycoons and other elites escaping Chicago’s summer heat. In the mid- to late-1800s, lakeside estates like Stone Manor and Black Point were legally required to maintain a lakefront path; you can still travel that 26-mile shore trail while ogling the mansions up close on one side and marveling at the expansive waters on the other.
“This is the most accessible body of water in Wisconsin,” says Julie Baron, public relations representative for VISIT Lake Geneva, the area’s visitors bureau. The accessibility of Geneva Lake is partly due to a treaty signed in 1833 guaranteeing “public access to the Lake Shore Path in perpetuity,” she adds. Modern-day visitors will find four public beaches, a cruise line for boat tours, speedboats and paddle boats for rent.
The town of Lake Geneva, boasting several luxury retreats and champion golf courses, is more than just an upscale resort town. “There’s so much more to it,” Baron says. “There’s a small-town feel.”
The town’s population of nearly 8,000 residents is a popular destination for travelers from Chicago and Milwaukee. Hotels like Maxwell Mansion and Baker House offer luxurious amenities like antique furnishings and personal staff. Family-friendly Abbey Resort has indoor and outdoor pools, an arcade, a virtual reality venue and an in-house cinema. Enjoy panoramic views and renowned cuisine at the quaint and cozy Geneva Inn, where you can pull up on your boat and park at one of many slips. Several small towns surrounding the lake, including Williams Bay and Fontana, each have their own vibe and unique attractions.
“Lake Geneva is excellent for couples looking for a romantic getaway, families with a diverse range of ages and young folks looking for a girls or guys getaway,” Baron says. “From the Tristan Crist Magic Theater (a Las Vegas-caliber magic act in a 50-seat theater), ziplining, golf, and restaurants to on- and off-the-water activities, there’s so much to enjoy.”
The U.S. Mail Boat Tour has been delivering mail around the lake for more than a century. Guests ride along, watching the deft dock jumpers hop from the boat to the pier, where they deposit a rolled-up tube of mail into residents’ mailboxes before (hopefully) making the jump back onto the mailboat as it speeds around the lake.
Safari Lake Geneva is an 800-acre wildlife habitat housing more than 50 types of native and exotic animals, like bison, Arabian camel, antelope, zebu and fainting goats. Explorers ride aboard a customized safari truck for easy viewing on the hourlong guided tour. Reserve your seats online ahead of time, as this newer attraction fills up fast.
Fifteen miles northwest of Lake Geneva is another cozy lake town with its own vibe, unique from its neighbor. Bring your fishing gear and cast off a boat or pier for some musky, bass, pike and walleye on Lake Delavan. Visit an area orchard or winery, like Apple Barn or Staller Estate. Travel through the treetops on a zip line at Lake Geneva’s Canopy or Zipline Tours for a one-of-a-kind experience.
The Phoenix Park Bandshell offers free entertainment like Blues Fest, Jazz in the Park and even the occasional Pink Floyd Laser Show. Congdon Gardens provides a quiet respite for anyone wishing to wander the petaled paths and enjoy the ambient sounds of the centerpiece fountain. Explore 40 acres of animal habitat at Animal Gardens. Pet baby farm animals or meet Echo the talking parrot, recently featured on “America’s Got Talent.”
There’s one place in town that seemingly everyone knows. Lake Lawn Resort celebrates its 140th anniversary this coming summer, and it’s a one-stop-shop for recreation and relaxation in Delavan. Golf at Majestic Oaks, a championship golf course voted best in Walworth County. Dock in one of the marina’s 170 slips. Swim in the lake or one of the resort’s three swimming pools. With three restaurants, a spa and salon services, Lake Lawn Resort takes the “rough” out of “roughing it.”
Green Lake, Wis.
Wisconsin’s deepest inland lake is spring-fed with clear, jade-colored waters that have inspired the name of the city and its signature attraction. Located 182 miles northwest of Chicago, the lake, nicknamed Big Green, boasts first-class fishing. Several state record holders have caught their trophy fish in these waters.
Tour the lake itself aboard the J. Lawson, a former Navy passenger ferry. The 50-foot yacht cruises for weddings and other gatherings, both business and private in nature. The Escapade highlights magnificent views, while captains regale passengers with timeless tales of Green Lake folklore.
Liane Walsh, director of Green Lake Chamber of Commerce, encourages visitors to enjoy the sites away from the water, too. Top choices include the Green Lake Conference Center (GLCC) and a show at the Thrasher Opera House. Green Lake is also home to Tuscumbia Country Club, Wisconsin’s oldest golf course.
The nonprofit GLCC hosts groups and families for a variety of events from retreats to workshops. The European estate is located on 900 acres, including two miles of lakefront, and offers tranquil trails perfect for reflecting and recharging. There are amenities for basketball, disc golf, and golfing as well as rope courses and ziplines for team building and recreation. Lodging options include dorms, lakefront and forest homes, cabins, hotel rooms and campsites.
Traverse City, Mich.
Slightly farther north, located about five hours from Chicago in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, lies Traverse City. Settlers in the 18th century made “the long crossing” across the Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan to build a new home. Their settlement may still be small, with only about 15,000 permanent residents, yet this community is anything but sleepy – or isolated.
“Traverse City has some cool, dichotomous vibes happening,” explains Jenny Jenness, of Traverse City Tourism. “On one hand, we are small and charming. But at the same time, there’s a very sophisticated urban culture here as well.”
Lake life in Traverse City means taking advantage of the local waterways not only for recreation and exercise, but also for transportation. The city offers a Kayak, Bike, and Brew Tour where you’ll pedal and paddle your way around town visiting a few of the area’s 20 local microbreweries, tap rooms and distilleries.
Ride on the urban bike trails, kayak the Boardman River and wind up a little tipsy and a lot happy on the beach in the West Bay.
Named “Most Beautiful Place in America” by “Good Morning, America” in 2011, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a place unlike any other. The massive dunes jutting over the lakeshore dwarf any human existence, and the views from the top are majestic. “If you’re only here for 48 hours, you need to go see that,” Jenness says.
Interestingly, Traverse City is located on the 45th parallel, a circle of latitude that, if followed, would lead you right to some of the most prestigious wine country in France and Italy. The natural climate at this latitude, combined with the ecosystem unique to Lake Michigan, make for more than 40 thriving vineyards in the area. In true Traverse City fashion, visitors can tour these spots via a psychedelic tour bus, a trolley or the famous Karaoke Cab.
After all of that exploring (and before all of that drinking) grab a bite to eat at one of the locally sourced, award-winning restaurants in town. Named one of the Top Foodie Towns by Bon Appetite Magazine, Traverse City is home to numerous downtown restaurants that use local ingredients to highlight a variety of influences. From the French and Latin flair of Amical to the local, eclectic American fare at Poppycock’s, there are options for even the most refined palette.
“Just consuming the local bounty is an easy way to understand the story of what this place is,” Jenness explains.
And speaking of local bounty, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the cherry capital of the world during the Fourth of July, don’t miss the annual Cherry Festival. Some 500,000 visitors descend upon Traverse City to experience the events and attractions, such as the air show or the many musical acts (this year performers include Sheryl Crow and Dustin Lynch). Most of the celebration is free, making the festival family-friendly and painless to your pocketbook. The festival celebrates the spoils of the area’s production of 75 percent of the tart cherries consumed in North America.
“People enjoy it because it does celebrate our agriculture and our history,” Jenness notes. “It’s the spotlight of all the people behind the scenes.”
Time to Get Packing
If you’re having trouble deciding on which destination to choose, the good news is that they’re all easily accessible and the endless days of summer are just begging you to try them all. Pack up the car, pack up the kids (or don’t) and hit the road before it’s too late.