Destination Kohler: A Wisconsin luxury resort built on American dreams

The Sandhill Cabin at Destination Kohler features a wide porch with a view of a private pond, two bedrooms and two bathrooms, outfitted with the best in Kohler products. (Brian Sirimaturos/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
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Amy Bertrand St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

KOHLER, Wis. — We needed a break. A break from vaccines, viruses, masks, plans for next year, plans for returning to the office, plans to return to normalcy when nothing really feels normal. A resort was in order, but we aren’t ready to fly yet, and though I love Branson’s Big Cedar, I wanted something new. My family (husband, two teenage boys and our dog) found exactly what we needed — for adventure, relaxation and escape — at a short getaway in Kohler, Wisconsin.

You may recognize the name Kohler. You’ll find it on kitchen sinks, faucets, baths and even toilets. In 1900 the Kohler Co. built a factory just outside of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a medium-size town that sits along Lake Michigan, about 45 minutes from Milwaukee. The factory needed workers, and immigrants came from all over to work there.

Thus, the village of Kohler was born. And more importantly for future tourists, the American Club was built in 1918 to house those who worked in the factory across the street. At the club they ate, played and studied English, all in hopes of becoming American citizens.

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Today, a restaurant, the Immigrant Restaurant and Winery Bar, has replaced the old laundry; luxury hotel rooms take the place of dormitories; a pub sits in a basement area where workers had a bowling alley; the Wisconsin Room is in the former mess hall.

In 1978, the American Club was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and Herbert V. Kohler Jr. made the brilliant decision to turn the Tudor-style building into a luxury hotel. The renovation lasted three years and sought to retain the historic American spirit of the original structure.

Today, it’s a paean to the past with its elegant light fixtures, oak-paneled walls, charming pictures of early workers and Wisconsinites in the American Club, part of the whole resort known as Destination Kohler. Guests can golf at one of two world-class courses, relax in the newly renovated spa, dine at one of 12 eateries, or read the newspaper while sipping coffee in the Greenhouse, a gorgeous conservatory with stained windows overlooking one of the many gardens. In fact, the whole village is a certified botanical garden. Across the street, the factory, still in use, looms as a reminder of the storied history. In non-COVID times, tours are available there.

What to do

Kohler Waters Spa: It does seem only natural that Kohler would have a first-class spa. After all, it has a long history in the bath and water business. From hydrotherapy treatments to relaxation treatments such as the signature Kohler massage I had, it’s almost more about the experience. First, get there early to enjoy a dip in the spa’s mosaic-tiled coed relaxation pool with an 8-foot wall of water cascading at one end. I could almost imagine it as one of the Roman baths Pliny the Elder once wrote about. Guests can relax all day on an uber-comfy chaise lounge, ordering food from the spa menu to be delivered poolside. Take a dip in the men’s or women’s whirlpools, plunge pools, saunas, steam rooms. There’s even a rooftop deck with an indoor lounge with a whirlpool and an outdoor relaxation area.

Sports Core: Quite possibly the biggest gym I’ve ever been in, Sports Core sits back from the road on a small lake. In warmer months, there is beach access, kayaking, swimming and jumping in off an old-fashioned wood platform. And in cooler months, large windows look out onto the lake for a workout with a view. There are six indoor tennis courts, six outdoor ones, two pools, fitness centers, cycle rooms, group exercise rooms, a clothing boutique and a juice bar. It’s open to the public as well as guests at Destination Kohler.

River Wildlife: This 500-acre preserve is like a country club in the wilderness. It’s a private club with dining, organized pheasant hunting, river kayaking, hiking and horseback riding. The land is beautiful, a mix of forest and prairie; the river is swift-moving but clear on the sides, so although kayak trips are not guided, there isn’t really any danger of getting caught up in brush along five miles of banks. There is also fishing (guided and solo), cross country skiing in winter and some rustic campsites. Local residents and companies buy memberships to the club, but for a fee ($56 per family) guests at Destination Kohler can get a pass.

Golf: In September, some of the best golfers in the U.S. will face off against some of the best from Europe in the biennial Ryder Cup at the Whistling Straits golf course at Destination Kohler. In May, my family played on that very course. Just stepping on that first hole, with Lake Michigan right alongside, is a magical feeling. The course, designed by Pete Dye, runs up and down along the coast, on its east side. On its other side is another course called the Irish Course, and once I heard the name I couldn’t help but feel like Ireland is exactly the place we were.

There are no houses around the course — nothing but straits, fairways, bunkers and greens. Black-faced sheep roam the course during the day; unfortunately, we golfed in the evening and missed them. Golf carts aren’t allowed on Whistling Straits, but a couple of gorgeous stone buildings add to the ambiance. One is a private clubhouse that will be used when the Ryder Cup players come. The other houses the pro shop, an upscale restaurant with views of Lake Michigan and an upstairs Irish pub. Golf there is pricey (summer twilight rates are $240 for 18 holes; 9 holes are available but you have to call; not book online), but anyone can go to the restaurant or pub.

Destination Kohler also features another golf course, near River Wildlife, called Blackwolf Run, also designed by Dye.

Kohler Design Center: Redesigned during the pandemic, the Kohler Design Center, next door to the spa, is part museum, part store, part showroom. And according to Justin Gephart, director of sales, it’s also now used as event space.

With 36,000 square feet over three levels, it’s hard not to be awed by the rows and rows of faucets, the toilets hanging interestingly with mannequins on the wall, the gorgeous waterfall and high-tech screens and even the history exhibits in the lower level. The lower level also has a mini art gallery with works from artists who were given access to the tools and materials of the Kohler factory. If you walk around town, you’ll see many others as sculptures as well.

Make plans to take a guided one-hour tour of the museum. They are daily at 11 a.m. and free.

My favorite part of the Kohler Design Center was the upstairs level with its predesigned bathrooms and kitchens. Snap photos for ideas, and dream big.

More to do: Yoga on the Lake offers more than 75 classes a week in a variety of locations, indoors and out. Shopping abounds at Woodlake, from a garden store to clothing boutiques to a cigar shop to a very nice food market. Don’t miss Kohler Chocolates; the chocolate brandy there is used in many of Destination Kohler’s restaurants to make a chocolate old-fashioned. And if you are planning a wedding, a new chapel was just built right on the shores of Lake Michigan. It will take your breath away as you enter and see the view.

Where to eat

Destination Kohler has a dozen spots for eating. Here are a few of my favorites:

Whistling Straits: After a round of golf at Whistling Straits, grab a table at the restaurant across from the pro shop. If it’s chilly, like it was on our visit, ask for a table by the cozy fire or just one with a view of Lake Michigan. The menu, like many at the resort, is full of locally sourced ingredients. But be sure to order the potato leek soup ($6), creamy and flavorful and finished with a dazzling cream sherry and chive oil on the side. Entrees range from pan-seared salmon ($30) to lamb ($53).

Taverne on Woodlake: This restaurant sits amid a shopping center next to the Inn on Woodlake, and of course, on a lake. If it’s nice, a table outdoors is in order. Or sit in a beautiful rotunda, with windows overlooking the lake. The menu includes wood-fired pizzas (try the prosciutto and fig, $16), steaks, pork chops, burgers and more.

River Wildlife: As we opened a creaky wooden screen door, the aromas of home-cooked food and freshly cut wood filled the air at this members-only restaurant inside a rustic cabin. Next to a table of older ladies lunching, we caught some hunters or possibly anglers, but we were one of only three tables in our “room.” There are six of them, some with a fireplace, some in an upstairs loft. The menu showcases seasonal Midwestern food, but the most popular item is breaded walleye, served with remoulade and fresh veggies ($26). Dinner menus change every Friday; some sample offerings include elk tenderloin and pecan-crusted pheasant.

Horse and Plow: Nestled in the lower level of the American Club you’ll find the historic tavern called the Horse and Plow. It feels like a British pub, with its traditional bar, leather sofas and wood booths (with tables made from the old bowling alley). I came there with one goal: cheese curds. I’d read online that they were some of the best in Wisconsin, and they did not disappoint. They are beer-battered and made with local Gibbsville cheese ($10) and as fattening as they sound. But I ate every one of them.

Where to stay

When a plan to get two adjoining rooms at the Inn on Woodlake (we had our dog with us, and Woodlake is dog-friendly) didn’t work out, the folks at Kohler offered to move us to one of their cabins on our midweek stay. A secluded cabin sounded divine although I wasn’t so sure about the 10-mile distance from the resort.

But as soon as we drove up the gravel road to it, parked, and turned the corner on the walking path toward it, I knew this was going to be special. Special doesn’t adequately describe the luxury cabin. Giant windows across the back reveal the piece-de-resistance: a wide porch with a swing, an open yard, a pond and acres and acres of hiking trails.

Inside, a living room with a fireplace, a loft bedroom, a kitchen and a lower level with a bed and bath provide all the comforts of home. Actually, more because those bathrooms are decked with Kohler fixtures, including a free-standing clawfoot tub and overhead rain showers.

Outside was a cacophony of birds, visiting animals (turkey and deer), hiking trails — oh, and a sauna house. One night, we roasted marshmallows on a fire we built in the yard (Adirondack chairs, a pit and sticks provided), and played cards as a family in the sauna house, where a round table and small fireplace beg for recreation. And recreation is exactly what we were begging for — and got — on this trip.

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IF YOU GO

Getting there: Kohler is only about six hours from St. Louis by car. If you’d rather fly, head to Milwaukee and drive 45 minutes north.

More info: Destinationkohler.com

How much: Rooms at Woodlake start at $141 but prices increase depending on season and type of room. Rooms at the American Club start at $191, but go up steeply in the summer months. Destination Kohler offers a handful of luxury cabins, starting at $1,029 a night.

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