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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, Solvang

Have you ever thought about going back - back to those days when you were a kid, when play was the most important thing in the world? I mean long, long ago, before TV became a recreation, before "video" could be called a game. Maybe you went to a "sleep-away" camp and remember waking each morning to run across a dew covered lawn to the dining hall for breakfast, before you and your bunkmates headed out for a day of adventure. Well, there is a place, tucked away in a corner of the Santa Ynez Valley, minutes from Santa Barbara along Highway 246, just past the quaint Danish village of Solvang, where you can rediscover those pleasures. It's The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort (805-688-6411) - a place to escape "business as usual."

Enter through an archway of giant sycamores and check in at the office cottage. The warm hospitality of the ranch begins there. They'll shuttle you across a bridge, over a creek, to a collection of bungalows surrounding a large central lawn. There might be children and adults playing on the lawn. Wave and someone's liable to throw you a Frisbee. Your hosts will point out the Ranch Room dining hall to one side, and the library, arts and crafts, and recreation rooms on the other. Further on, there's the pool, the volleyball court, and tennis courts. Down the road, there's the golf course. Though the Alisal's business today is catering to its guests, it is still a working cattle ranch - with stables and horses and, during grazing season, a few thousand head of cattle. This is land best traversed atop a saddle.

There are 73 bungalows at the Alisal. There are no electronic entry key cards, no TV's, no phones, no faxes, no mini-bars. The rooms are comfortable with high-beam ceilings, wood-burning fireplaces, and outdoor patios. As dusk arrives, the setting can be strangely reminiscent of small town U.S.A. circa 1950, with well-kept homes, parents sitting on porches, children playing, neighbors waving to neighbors.
Alisal is a Chumash Indian word meaning "grove of sycamores," and the Alisal's 10,000 acres of rolling hills are rife with oaks and sycamores. The land was purchased in the 1940's by the Jackson family as a cattle ranch and in 1946, they opened the guest ranch. It's called a "guest ranch" rather than a "dude ranch." A guest ranch generally provides more amenities, more activities, and more services than a dude ranch, which primarily offers horseback riding.

At the Alisal employees are treated like family. There are wranglers and waitresses that have worked here for decades. And its guests are treated like family as well. For many, The Alisal has become a yearly vacation destination. The Alisal experience is so valuable that popular summer dates have been passed on in wills and divorce settlements.
Rates are about $400/night on a Modified American Plan, which includes breakfast and dinner for two. Breakfasts are sumptuous and dinner requires men to wear a jacket, appropriate to the quality of service and cuisine. While summers are often booked years in advance, the Alisal's best deal is called the "Round-Up Vacation." On weekdays, September through mid-June, and on weekends, November through March, the price of the room with meals also includes unlimited golf, horseback riding, tennis, and fishing.
There are two 18-hole golf courses - the private Ranch Course with fairways dotted with majestic old oaks and sycamores, and the scenic River Course, close to the town of Solvang. There are seven tennis courts with pro clinics available. On the 100-acre private Alisal Lake, you can learn how to fly fish for big bass or enjoy the serenity or romance of gliding about the lake in a canoe. And, of course, there is horseback riding. There are more than a dozen experienced wranglers ready to help you choose the right stead and, based on every level of expertise, guide you through miles of scenic terrain. Especially wonderful is the breakfast ride, where your early morning ride is rewarded by a hearty breakfast prepared for you on the trail. Most of the wranglers are ruggedly handsome, bushy mustached guys. But there are a few charming and experienced cowgirls as well. Georgy was our wrangler on the two-hour ride we took one day. "Don't tailgate, treat your horse the way you would like to be treated, and the wrangler is boss." After those simple rules of the trail, she led us off. A walk, a trot, but to preserve my bottom, rarely a gallop, along wonderfully scenic valley, hill, and lakeside paths. Give Georgy credit for knowing how to handle both horses and city slickers.

The Alisal is not a place for lolling about. It is a "get-out-and-do-something" kind of place. Here companies come to unify. Families come to play with their kids and dine together. Young couples come to grow. Seniors come to grow young. Without the distraction of phones and TV, this is a place to bond or fall in love.
If you choose to slip away from the Alisal during your stay, it's just a short drive to the village of Solvang, to a multitude of Santa Ynez wineries, or to gambling at the Chumash Indian casino.

There are few places that can truly be called idyllic. I think the Alisal Guest Ranch is one. Find a cushioned bench underneath a grove of huge sycamores by the creek. Look out toward the stable and watch the ponies gallop. Listen to the croaking bullfrogs. Look up at the lush green rise of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Inhale the waft of the next wonderful meal being cooked in the Ranch Room dining hall. If you're interested in daytime adventure and nighttime serenity, this is a place worth a visit.