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In Kohler, Wisconsin, Rugged Exploration or Luxurious Escape

WINTRY WONDERS: A resort 150 miles from Chicago offers travelers a pristine woodland or respite from the cold in ultimate luxury

Tomczyk Cabin, located in Kohler, Wisconsin
Kohler’s two-room Tomczyk Cabin

 

DESTINATION Kohler, Wisconsin
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 150 miles

Every winter, Dave Otten of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, goes off the grid. He loads up a wheelbarrow with provisions, pushes it half a mile through a snowy woods, and moves into a log cabin deep in an 800-acre wilderness. Never mind smart-phones and Wi-Fi: The Tomczyk Cabin doesn’t even have plumbing or electricity. There’s an irony to the cabin’s privy, located across a ravine bridge a discreet distance from the 1870s home. Like the cabin and surrounding forest, it is part of the Kohler resort, a place largely defined by luxury commodes.

In the Kohler Design Center, there are bathrooms so elaborate the toilets require remote controls. Compare that fanciness with the old-school amenities of the Tomczyk Cabin, and you have a general idea of the spectrum of experiences available at the resort, which, like the town of Kohler itself, rests on the fortunes and philanthropy of the namesake family. Nearly 130 years have passed since the Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler took a cast-iron tub used to scald pigs, coated it with enamel, and sold it as a bathtub. From that glorified hog bucket was built a factory, a town, a resort, and a name now synonymous with innovative waterworks.

While Otten prefers the solitude of the Tomczyk Cabin, many visitors gravitate toward the American Club, originally built as a dormitory for the hundreds of immigrant men working at the Kohler factory in its early days. Today the American Club houses luxury-loving travelers drawn to a destination that includes two top-rated PGA golf courses (Tiger Woods played Whistling Straits, badly, at the PGA Championship in August), a spa that elevates exfoliation to an art, and a cluster of high-end shops where you can find, among other baubles, handmade chocolates that look like giant rubies.

Lodge Restaurant
Warm and cozy dining: Lodge Restaurant

But the largest component of the resort that Kohler built has nothing to do with golf or plumbing or upscale confectionary treats. The 800-acre refuge known as River Wildlife is pretty much the same as when the Kohlers arrived in Wisconsin. In the warmer months, its 25 miles of trails teem with birders and hikers, while canoes float down the seven-mile stretch of the Sheboygan River that threads through the property. In the winter, an icy hush falls over the area. Lace up your snowshoes at daybreak, and you might reach sunset without seeing another person.

Some changes have been made within the preserve over the years. The location of the Tomczyk Cabin is one. In the early 1980s, it was painstakingly moved, log by log, from the nearby farm where Valentine Tomczyk originally built it for his bride, Anna. In the kitchen, Anna stares grimly from a sepia photo, perhaps weary of a kitchen untouched by such newfangled conveniences as running water.

“My kids are grown now, but we all come to the cabin, two days every winter, just like we did when they were little. It’s time we all treasure, although it is work,” Otten says. “Bringing in water from the pump out back, hauling your own wood. If you’re expecting the American Club, this isn’t it.”

True. The American Club has valets. Guests at the Tomczyk Cabin use a battered wheelbarrow to cart their belongings through the no-cars-allowed woods. The American Club is a quick shuttle ride from the Kohler Sports Core, where state-of-the-art elliptical machines are equipped with their own TV screens, showing 100 cable channels. River Wildlife offers the wholly unplugged sights and sounds of all those winding trails.

Of course, it’s possible to merge the rough wonders of the woods with the creature comforts of the American Club: Spend a hearty morning hiking along the Sheboygan River and then repair to the hotel at teatime, going from snowy isolation to a clubby, cozy environment that feels like the sort of place Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson might cap the day with a brandy.

Ponder the beginnings of the Kohler empire, and you invariably wind up marveling at the family’s ingenuity. Who would have thought an oversize pig-scalding pot would lead to spa treatments such as the ridiculously relaxing acoustic bath, wherein you soak in a tub that makes the water gently vibrate and change color in time to the musical selection of your choice? It’s tough to say which is more beautiful: the aquamarine waterfall in the spa’s waiting area or the sight of a fine winter mist glittering on the river. We’d pick the mist. And eventually trade the wheelbarrow for valets and head to the spa.
 

ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

Rough it in the Tomczyk Cabin ($175 per night) or book a room in the Old World, upscale comfort of the American Club (419 Highland Dr.; 800-344-2838, americanclub.com). Rooms start at $195 per night. The trails of the 800-acre River Wildlife are available to Kohler guests for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, pheasant hunting, and trapshooting; for information, call 920-457-0134.

WHERE TO EAT The American Club’s Immigrant Restaurant serves succulent wild boar chops and osetra caviar in an atmosphere that calls to mind a castle. Lodge Restaurant in River Wildlife (920-457-0134) offers lunch, dinner, and a marvelous Sunday brunch in a log cabin done up like an opulent hunting barrack.

 

Photography: (Tomczyk Cabin) Adam Senatori, (Lodge Restaurant) Courtesy of Kohler Co.

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