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Kohler, Wisconsin Is Flush with Tourism Appeal—And It's Not Just the Plumbing | Frommer's Kate Silver

Kohler, Wisconsin Is Flush with Tourism Appeal—And It's Not Just the Plumbing

Welcome to Kohler, Wisconsin—the plumbing mecca flush with history, nature, luxury, and adventure.

Kohler isn’t just the name of your finest bathroom porcelain. It’s also a village in Wisconsin where those fixtures are made—a place that has developed a stellar reputation among Midwesterners looking for a getaway (albeit a heavily branded one).  

The village of about 2,000, located just outside of Sheboygan in the eastern part of the state, was incorporated in 1912, not long after an Austrian immigrant named John Michael Kohler transformed a water trough for farm animals into an early bathtub. The Kohler family sought to build the ultimate company town, where immigrant workers would live in clean dormitory rooms, eat healthy meals, and learn English to pass their citizenship tests. 

Much of the action today still revolves around the old factory campus, now remade into a vibrant tourism complex dubbed Destination Kohler. In addition to plumbing, the area runs on hospitality, with multiple hotels, restaurants, golf courses, and a spa all stocked with Kohler products (no surprise there) and all operating under the Kohler name. Here’s what to do during a visit. 

Stay—and eat—in a former dorm that's now a luxury getaway

At the American Club, each posh room is named for an American of note—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fred Astaire—and, of course, all of the plumbing carries the name of the town. Every day, the staff leads an afternoon tour of the property, guiding participants past photographs of the workers who used to live in the former dorm rooms. On the lower level, the Immigrant Restaurant is a dimly lit maze of rooms, each of which nods to the countries from which early Wisconsinites hailed: the Netherlands, France, Denmark, England, and so on.

Similar European influences inspire the seasonal fine-dining menu, which is fit to be paired with any of the wines from the book-thick wine list—a testament to Wisconsin's rising reputation for grape cultivation. The Sunday brunch, served in the former workers' dining room, offers table after table of culinary indulgence: crab and oysters, prime rib, pastries, and desserts galore. It's safe to say that the french toast brûlée, which is torched before your eyes, is a far cry from what the new French immigrants who once dwelled here would have eaten. 

See the surprisingly fascinating history and future of plumbing

First, know that the Kohler Design Center is more interesting than you might suspect. The three-level building is about the size of a city block; once a recreation center for the company town, it now houses a museum providing insights into Kohler’s beginnings.

Bathtubs existed before Kohler, but they often lay flush with the ground and the water grew cold quickly. Kohler's were raised on legs, which not only added an ornamental element, but also allowed the water to stay warm longer. The center takes visitors on a tour of bathrooms throughout the ages—the 1960s were particularly snazzy, with brightly colored fixtures you can't find anymore. Upstairs, the retail space could double as an art museum, with toilets and sinks flamboyantly displayed floor-to-ceiling on gigantic walls.

You literally can’t miss the "intelligent" toilet area: The lids on these commodes have motion detectors that raise them to attention when you pass by. Grab a remote control and see what it feels like to play with Numi, a $7,000 john with a heated seat and foot warmer, ambient lighting, speakers, and wireless Bluetooth capability to sync your tunes. The public bathrooms here are, of course, also lovely, with hands-free flushing and roomy stalls lined with ceramic tiles.    

The American Club

Explore the great outdoors

Commune with your inner woodsman at River Wildlife, a preserve encompassing 500 acres of forest and a winding stretch of the Sheboygan River. You can rent canoes and kayaks, fish, hike, go birding, shoot skeet or trap, camp, ride horses, or just explore. There's even pheasant hunting—you'll pass the pen where the birds are kept. The area is private, so visitors will either need to be guests at The American Club or pay for a day pass ($28). There's also a restaurant that serves warm, homemade bread, hearty soups and salads, local fish, and a BLT made with pheasant raised on the premises. 

Hit the links

Pete Dye, a designer for more than half a century, created the golf courses here and they’re a huge draw. The two courses of Whistling Straits stretch along the Lake Michigan shoreline, while Blackwolf Run, which also has two courses, spreads across a river basin cut by glacial runoff. In 2020, the Ryder Cup will take place here.

Leave hydrotherapy (and spa services) to the experts

When a company is known for its water-centric products, it should know a thing or two about spas. Sure enough, Kohler Waters Spa is home to custom equipment specially developed for branded properties. During unique hydrotherapy treatments, spa-goers climb on a table under a custom Kohler Vichy shower, nodding off under soothing, warm waters. My treatment included exfoliation, hydrating lotion, and Moroccan oil for my hair. It all left my skin feeling as soft as cashmere. Plan on a few hours to enjoy the relaxation areas, which include a waterfall, plunge pools, saunas, steam rooms, and a rooftop fireplace. For couples looking to have a spa day together, plenty of spots welcome both men and women.