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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

If you think folks don't love Lake Geneva in the winter, you're wrong.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The Abbey Resort draws guests all year long with special events like the recent All Star Lego Weekend.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The Abbey's game room is a lure for guests of all ages.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The rooms at The Abbey are bright and have doors that lead directly to outdoor fun in warm months and cold.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The spa: it's what all the adults want.

The Abbey Resort lures pleasure seekers all year long


Check in early and stay late during OnMilwaukee.com's "Hotel Week" sponsored by VISIT Milwaukee. The next seven days will be packed with stories about historic area hotels, reviews, famous guests, food and drink, overnights with kids and more. Find out what it's like to be a tourist in this town. (Chocolate on your pillow not included.)

Surely, you expect The Abbey – the only resort actually on Lake Geneva – to be doing a booming business in summer. But if you think a couple feet of accumulated snow stops folks flocking to the 50-year-old resort, think again.

On a recent visit, when the landscape resembled something of a frozen tundra, The Abbey – located in the town of Fontana, on the lake's western shore – was alive with activity both inside and out. Families frolicked in the indoor pool, the Avani Spa was doing a brisk business and a family ice skated on a small rink as snowmobilers whirred across the frozen lake in the near distance.

"While it is technically the off-season, I think that The Abbey Resort and, for that matter, the Lake Geneva area as a whole, have done an outstanding job in creating activities and excitement all year long," The Abbey spokesperson Sara Schmitz tells me.

"Additionally, our area is really fortunate in that the majority of businesses, restaurants and shops stay open year 'round. There is really something for everyone 365 days a year."

During our visit, we sought warmth and so we're thrilled to spend a weekend at a place where we could have fun all day long without ever stepping outside.

It was All-Star Lego Weekend at the resort and many of the meeting rooms were packed with tiny bricks and the people of all ages that adore them. One room had a giant spread of impressive Lego displays, another had piles of bricks for kids to build with. That room also hosted Lego building workshops.

Across the hall, a loop of cool Lego short films and in the evenings, a theater on the other end served up free popcorn and feature-length family films.

Next door, an arcade begged us to come in – yes, this pinball wizard notched two free games and a slew of extra balls (don't be jealous) – and in the solarium that runs along the large adjacent indoor pool area (with a hot tub, kids pool and larger pool), there were tables stocked with games like Trouble and Jenga. My son and I split a series of Battleship victories.

In the evenings, we could venture outside briefly for s'mores at the fire pit and skating at the adjacent rink, illuminated by festive holiday lights.

Schmitz says The Abbey is a popular place for families even when there aren't Lego weekends on the calendar.

"Our onsite activities department plans a number of themed events throughout the year in addition to the activities that occur at the resort on a daily basis – Mad Science, Spring Break, Paint 'N Sip and Lego, to name a few. We offer onsite childcare for guests who may want to enjoy kid-free time at the spa or our evening entertainment in The Waterfront Bar and Grill."

Did I mention there was live music in the casual Waterfront Bar and Grill? We didn't partake, but we did sample the spread during the Lego Family Buffet in this lower level eatery that offers a great view out over Lake Geneva.

Directly upstairs is the Fontana Grill, the higher-end dining venue on the property that offers a similar view and also dishes up an impressive buffet, but this one focused more on prime rib, oysters, crab legs and a range of other specialties. Here, we did enjoy the live music in the form of pianist Tom Stanfield, who simultaneously plays the trumpet.

But, says Schmitz, many adults arrive here in couples, leaving the kids at grandma's for a few days' respite. That relaxation is often focused on the attached Avani Spa, which also does a brisk day business, meaning folks who don't stay at the resort.

"The Avani Spa is like no other in the area," says Schmitz and as we enter the sprawling pool area, flush with natural light, her point was clear. Here, there is also a workout room for guests and, of course, a full range of spa services. But the pool area with its warmth and leafy green plants, feels especially good when there's two feet of snow just outside the floor to ceiling windows.

The Abbey is big – it boasts the largest A-frame in the Midwest – but it has some nice common spaces, most notably the lobby area with its warming fireplace, that makes it feel intimate. The guest rooms are bright and airy, with exits directly outside and, on our side, views out over the marina.

Much of the 50-year-old resort recently got a $50 million makeover and a couple spaces, including the Café Latte coffee bar, will move and get a new look soon, too.

"As part of those renovations, we updated the meeting space and exterior of the property," Schmitz says. "Earlier this year, we made improvement to the women's locker room area of the spa. This included new showers, new makeup area and updates to the steam and inhalation rooms. This spring we expand our current coffee shop, Café Latte, and also remodel and re-concept one of our restaurants and our lounge."

Though it took us a bit under an hour to get to Fontana from Milwaukee, Schmitz says a lot of folks still think of Lake Geneva as more a Chicago getaway than a Milwaukee one.

"A large percentage of our guests come from Chicago and the surrounding western and northern suburbs of the city," she says. "However, we continue to see more guests coming from Southeast Wisconsin."

"I think that many Milwaukeeans tend to think of traveling north to Door County for vacations rather than south. I think part of the reason is the distance perception and the other part tradition. In my experience, people tend to think the drive is further than the 45 minutes it actually is; and there is a strong tradition of Milwaukeeans vacationing 'up north' that still carries today."

If you come down, plan to trek into the town of Lake Geneva (the resort runs a free shuttle) and don't miss the Yerkes Observatory in neighboring Williams Bay, open for tours on Saturday mornings.

And, most of all, don't forget that lake over there. The Abbey has boat slips, offers boat rentals and access to kayaking and is adjacent to Fontana's public beach.

"We are the only full-service resort located on the lake," says Schmitz. "(We) provide our guests with easy access to their favorite water activities without needing to leave the property."

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