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
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