NW gems: Stout’s Island, Tagalong Resort

We are waiting on a quiet dock for a pontoon to ferry us away, and when the boat arrives, the driver makes a polite inquiry. “Do you have reservations?” he asks.

The trip is free and will be brief. The destination is the Island of Happy Days, near Birchwood and north of Rice Lake. If you are not an overnight guest or have a meal reservation, you likely will not get access to this unusual patch of tranquility from bygone years.

“Everything is done by reservation,” says Curt Pacholke, general manager. “We don’t do tours.”

There are pockets of elegance as well as a cozy Northwoods lodge feel at this 39-room resort, open late May to late October. The lodge and cabin history dates back to 1903, when lumber baron Frank D. Stout decided he needed a summer home. So he took over this 26-acre island, on Red Cedar Lake, and by 1915 spent $1.5 million to duplicate a grand Adirondack camp design in northwest Wisconsin.

Thick plank floors, carved ceiling beams from Germany, a three-launch boathouse and recreation hall remain a part of the charm. Genteel games of croquet or bocce ball are played on the front lawn of the main building, whose large windows overlook the lake.

Today the property is known as Stout’s Island Lodge, and it keeps a low profile in its home state. “The Twin Cities is our main target market,” Curt says, and sometimes the entire place will be rented for a corporate retreat, conference or family reunion.

“It’s nice for a wedding,” Curt mentions. “No one has to worry about driving. Everything can be contained at one location.”

Guest rooms tend to be furnished with antiques, and the décor of each is different. Each has a private bath; many have a fireplace and/or screened porch. Rooms do not contain A/C, a TV or telephone (although the boathouse rec room has a TV, library and games – billiards to table tennis).

Overnight lodge guests are accommodated for lunch and dinner before reservations are accepted for other people. The dining room seats 40, and the dinner pace is leisurely, so typically no more than 80 are served by the end of an evening. That total doesn’t include catering for on-island groups.

The dinner menu is small, gourmet and changes daily; the four entrée choices on a summer Sunday night were roasted chicken, roasted trout, lamb kebab and strip steak, at $24-35. Also on the ala carte menu: one soup, two salads, three appetizers (including Wild Rice Walleye Cakes, with red pepper aioli and mixed pepper jam) and three desserts.

Room rates are $179-229, including continental breakfast and use of a non-motorized watercraft. A two-night minimum stay is required on weekends; discounts are possible on weekdays. For more: www.stoutslodge.com, 715-354-3646.

On a night when I could have been in Scotland, looking at the world’s oldest golf course, I chose to accept another invitation that was a lot closer to home, at a golf resort whose course was patterned after the Scottish Old Course at St. Andrews.

That sounds like a lie, but it isn’t. My host was Tagalong Golf & Resort, which also overlooks Birchwood’s Red Cedar Lake. This property was another playground for Frank Stout, built in the 1920s as his private golf course. He reportedly even had the bentgrass for the greens cut in Scotland and shipped to this part of northwest Wisconsin.

“They cut down trees and plowed the land so they could plant grass and hit a ball around with a stick,” jokes Bruce Weegman, general manager. “Imagine what they thought at the time.”

Unusual, grassy-heavy hollows are what make the original course resemble St. Andrews. A former airstrip, next to the fairways, was replaced by nine more holes that have tighter fairways.

“A person who has not found a ball in a grassy hollow soon appreciates sand,” Bruce observes. Golf rates, not including a cart, are $32-36 for 18 holes. The acreage turns into snowmobile and ski trails in winter.

The gorgeous, split stone architecture of the 1923 clubhouse remains, and it has a grand European flair. A 1922 pump house has become a waterfront bar and grill, with live music on weekends.

Lodging has undergone a massive upgrade, to individually owned vacation condo units, listed for $257,000 to $410,000.

The 70 units include 16 set for completion this month. All have lake views, a full kitchen, fireplace and patio or balcony. Unlike Stout’s Island Lodge, these spacious one- to three-bedroom suites are full of modern amenities, DVD player to clothes washer and dryer.

Open year-round, the overnight rates are $99-370, depending on unit size and time of year. There is an indoor pool but no swimming beach. Watercraft can be rented (it’s $15 per half-day for a paddleboat or canoe).

Clubhouse dining choices are more extensive and less expensive than Stout’s Island. Entrees, $14-21, include a 12-ounce, hazelnut encrusted walleye filet. Cream of artichoke is the signature soup, served in a baked bread bowl for $5. Appetizers include andouille-stuffed mushrooms and a fried calamari “martini.”

Bruce guesses that 80 percent of clientale comes from the Twin Cities. Nearby Long Lake “is where most people congregate” in resorts and campgrounds. “But between us and Stout’s Island is nearly 4,000 acres of water,” in a quieter area that is good for fishing.

For more: www.tagalonggolf.com, 800-657-4843.

What other Wisconsin connection to Scotland is noteworthy this summer? The revamped 144-room Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa, which overlooks the legendary 17th hole of the Old Course at St. Andrews, recently was unveiled by the Kohler Co., which has owned the hotel since late 2004.

The five-star golf resort amenities include a Kohler Waters Spa (the only other is associated with The American Club in Kohler), described online as “one of Europe’s most advanced concepts in total well-being.” The property also contains The Duke’s Course, 18 holes designed by five-time British Open champ Peter Thomson and open since 1995.

St. Andrews, dubbed The Home of Golf, has 10 courses in town and more than 30 within a half-hour drive. No hotel, including the Kohler property, has privileged access to the Old Course, where the game was first played in 1400. Access and tee times are determined by a daily lottery.

Prices? The Duke’s Course green fees, without cart, are roughly $95-180. Lodging rates during this time of year are around $475 to more than $1,200 per night. For more: www.destinationkohler.com, 01334 474371.