(Tom Holoubek photo)

Escape to the Water: 3 Boating Havens

It’s nearly time to hit the open water, and there’s no better location for boating than right here. Eron Harvey explores three popular destinations for powerboating and kayaking, from busy lakes to quiet waters.

(Tom Holoubek photo)
(Tom Holoubek photo)

Whether your desire is power boat partying or serene solitude, heading out to open water is like hitting the eject button on the terrestrial world. The boat becomes an escape pod from mundane life.

Randy Drozd knows the feeling. “Being on a boat on a hot summer day is like being in another world,” says the avid boater and service manager at Five Star Boat Center in Fox Lake.

The number of escape routes is nearly as limitless as the rivers and lakes in the northwestern Chicagoland area, but three premier watersport destinations stand out from the rest: the powerboat haven of intertwined waterways in the Chain O’Lakes, the aquatic grandeur of historic Lake Geneva, Wis., and the snaking seduction of the Fox River.

Chain O’Lakes

Located between Lake and McHenry counties, the Chain O’Lakes consists of 15 lakes, ten of which are connected by the Fox River. Five Star Boat Center sits just off U.S. Route 12, on the eastern shore of Pistakee Lake, the largest in the Chain, and it’s the first marina that visitors come to when traveling north from Chicago. The only gated marina on the chain, Five Star is a safe, secure location for both families and boats. Drozd says it’s an ideal launch point for all sorts of water activities.

“The Chain O’Lakes is a great place to get away,” Drozd says. “The different lakes, the different areas to stop – you can find whatever you want. It’s an adventure. It makes you feel like you’re in another country.”

Pistakee is also the deepest lake in the Chain, which makes it ideal for any type of watercraft, says Drozd.

“You can go canoeing, kayaking,” he says. “You can take out a rowboat or 17-foot open bow. Skiing, wakeboarding, tubing – you can do every type of water sport and bring out any kind of boat. And we’ve seen some big ones. I’ve seen a 44-footer out here before.”

The ideal boat for the Chain, however, is a 16- to 28-foot bowrider, says Drozd, who often helps boat enthusiasts to find the right one.

“We’re the only dealer in Fox Lake carrying Larson and Wellcraft pontoon lines,” says Drozd, who’s been the Five Star service manager for 10 years. “We can sell them, service them and store them. We get a lot of referrals because people know we’re very helpful and can work on anything.”

Pistakee is the most popular spot on the Chain, for good reason. “There are a lot of fun events on the lakes,” Drozd says. “There are live bands and a lot of places to stop and have lunch or dinner to watch the sunset. It’s great for fishing with friends.”

Five Star’s marina has two restaurants within walking distance: Morretti’s, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria, and Famous Freddie’s Road House, which serves classic American cuisine and features live music and dancing.

If live music is your escape, Drozd suggests cruising northwest out of Pistakee, through Nippersink Lake and into Grass Lake, to a bustling oasis in the middle of the water.

“If you want action, you have to go to Blarney Island,” he says.

Only accessible by boat, Blarney Island is located a mile off the Grass Lake shoreline, and is billed as the “Greatest Boating Bar in the World.” Blarney Island’s claim to fame is boats, women and booze in a wild party scene. It’s the kind of full-throttle place that puts a new spin on an old Las Vegas motto: What happens on Blarney stays on Blarney.

For those with something more tranquil in mind, Chain O’Lakes State Park offers a public boat launch and good fishing.

“Relaxation, no matter how you find it, is the best thing,” Drozd says. “Leave your job behind and get out on the water. The quietness out here in the middle of the lake makes it absolutely the best thing to do.”

Lake Geneva

Just a half-hour’s drive northwest of the Chain O’Lakes, Lake Geneva is another watery paradise with an uncanny ability to transport boaters to another world. Or to another time, perhaps, says Becke Connelly, director of marketing and advertising for Gage Marine in Williams Bay, Wis.

“The area is very rich in history,” says Connelly. “Not many other lakes can match the beauty of Geneva Lake itself, but the estates along the shoreline that have been maintained from generation to generation take you to a time gone by.”

In the 1800s, wealthy Chicago families built summer homes around the lake. Many of the mansions remain today, providing cruising boaters with a unique shoreline view. Some, like Black Point Estate, are open for public tours.

Lake Geneva Cruise Line, operated by Gage Marine, offers guided boat tours that pass by these mansions. One of Connelly’s favorites is the Mailboat Tour, from which curious riders can watch real, active-duty U.S. Post Office mail carriers jump off the moving boat, deliver mail to the estates and jump back onboard before the boat passes the dock.
Shopping and dining choices abound here, too.

“There are so many places to visit on the lake,” Connelly says. “You can cruise over to Lake Geneva city and dock at the Riviera docks, where there are lots of little stores, do some shopping, get some ice cream cones or have dinner.

“You can anchor in Buttons Bay and just lounge and enjoy the beautiful weather and beautiful sites, swim around or get out on a raft,” Connelly says. “If you get hungry, you can anchor and have a picnic on the shore at Big Foot Beach State Park, or up north a bit at Lake Geneva Beach.”

But the town of Lake Geneva is not the only community accessible from Geneva Lake. Fontana and Williams Bay have shoreline, too. Gage Marine is situated in a cove at Williams Bay and is known as a boat owner’s haven. The marina’s in/out valet service makes the journey from a free parking area to the open water pain-free.

“Anything you could possibly want is here,” says Connelly. “Give us a call before you leave home, and your boat will be in the water, tied up, gassed up and ready to go in a slip when you get here. Tell us what you want, and we could even have a cooler stocked with ice and anything you asked us to put in it. Whatever it takes, we’ll get your boat ready for you.”

Gage also helps prospective boat owners to decide which watercraft is right for them, through its Lake Geneva Boat Club, which is essentially a timeshare for boats.

“It’s your boat for the season – you don’t own it, but you can use it absolutely hassle-free,” says Connelly. “You simply pay for gas and a seasonal fee to rent it. It’s great for people thinking about buying a boat and wanting to avoid buyer’s regret.”

Topping off the Lake Geneva experience at Gage Marine is Pier 290, a dockside restaurant featuring fresh, farm-to-table, locally grown items.

“We even make our own butter,” says Connelly, adding that Pier 290 is the only restaurant in the area where patrons can walk right out of the restaurant and onto the waterfront.
“If the mood strikes, they can continue strolling along Lake Geneva’s famous walking path that rings the entire lake. Maintained by all property owners, the path serves as a window into each home’s personality. Some leave it as a well-kept dirt path, while others adorn their patch with elaborate decor.

Connelly says she could imagine no better place to begin and end a waterborne adventure.
“The great thing about Lake Geneva and Gage is you can go out boating all day, dock at our marina for dinner and drinks at Pier 290, and go for a walk beside all the historic mansions and great views. How could you have a better day than that?”

Fox River

While Chain O’Lakes and Lake Geneva are fishing and powerboat havens, the experience along the Fox River is more peaceful and personal, says Ryan Rushton, owner of Geneva Kayak Center in Yorkville.

“It’s an altogether different type of adventure,” says Rushton, an experienced paddlesport coach and guide. “This is for those who are looking to be on the water, but want a closer, intimate experience. You get to be outside, experience quiet and access places powerboats can’t.”

A trek down the Fox in a kayak or canoe can be as strenuous or leisurely as the paddler desires.

“You can work hard or take a nice float on the river, but it’s perfect if you need time away from work or quality time with family and friends,” says Rushton, an American Canoe Association Level 5 Instructor Trainer. “You can be near one of the towns on the Fox River and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”

The quiet nature of the sport lends itself to viewing wildlife.

“We see heron, eagles, river otters and beaver,” says Rushton. “You’re more likely to see them with a silent sport like kayaking or canoeing.”

Geneva Kayak specializes in training people how to paddle a canoe, kayak or standup paddleboard, and it boasts some of the most highly trained instructors in the Midwest.

Rushton says it provides everything from beginning paddling classes to tours on the Fox River, Chicago River or Lake Michigan. For true adventurers, Geneva Kayak even offers adventures to Wisconsin destinations including Door County and the Apostle Islands, as well as far-flung places like Alaska, Greece or Wales.

“There are several areas where you can rent a canoe or kayak in the area,” says Rushton. “What makes us different is we’re truly specialists in our sport. We set the standard of excellence for paddle sports.”

One of the attractions of paddling down the Fox River is the ever-changing landscape as it meanders south to its junction with the Illinois River, near Ottawa.

“St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia are all historic towns with neat architecture, but further down from Yorkville, you move out of urban area and into a more rural setting,” says Rushton. “As you pass through Silver Springs Park, there are fewer houses. Even further south around Sheridan and Wedron, you come to the Dells of the Fox with its sandstone cliffs.”

With the removal of a dam near Yorkville and the installation of the Marge Cline Whitewater Course, a Class 1-2 whitewater area, the Fox River is now free-flowing from Montgomery to Wedron, Rushton says. “That’s a 40-mile stretch of uninterrupted water and is really quite nice.”

For beginners looking for a unique kayaking experience in the Fox River area, Rushton recommends the Lower Fox River Half-Day Trip.

On this trip, kayakers arrive in Yorkville around 9 a.m. to receive a short paddling lesson. Upon launch, they swiftly leave the urban environment and move to a natural area in Silver Springs, where they stop for lunch and a hike around the park. Back in the water, the group paddles to the stopping point in Millbrook.

“All told, it’s seven miles on the river with the current, so it’s a pretty easy paddle,” says Rushton. “It’s a great way to experience kayaking, see natural areas and have a great time on the water.”