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During our breakfast ride at Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, I found out that Josh, my wrangler, grew up in the middle of nowhere (his words) in the greater Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., tending a farm with his mom.
When he wasn’t telling us to loosen up or tighten our reigns, he regaled us with stories of his country life, such as the time he ended up with cattle feces in his mouth. Josh revealed this after a group member gazed incredulously at horse dung placed precariously on top of a tall fence.
“That takes some serious skills,” Josh said.
I might have been only three hours from my home in LA, and in a valley known for its fine wines and Danish pastries, but I felt like I had entered an alternate universe.
Alisal’s Old West draw dates to its history as a cattle ranch founded in the 1840s. But that’s not to say that the guest ranch is impervious to California’s more modern seductive lures.
The first time I realized this was at dinner. My partner and I were not seated at a communal bench, like we had been at other dude ranches. Instead, we were led to a window-side, corner table that would remain “our table” for the duration of our stay.
Once seated, we weren’t told to “have at it” at the buffet. We were given a menu, with multiple choices for appetizers and entrees — made with organic vegetables when available — and always including at least one vegetarian option. And Alisal’s executive chef, Anthony Endy, is not a typical dude ranch chef: He has a respect for barbecue, cobbler and other ranch staples, but he’s not afraid to serve elevated cuisine with a sense of place (think seafood and some extra-good Mexican food).
Our wine menu was even more extensive, with nearly all options sourced from local wineries in the surrounding Santa Ynez Valley. Meals began with a fresh bread basket and a surprise appetizer course, such as a cheese plate or homemade onion dip.
Our fellow guests helped to elevate the scene by complying with the longtime Alisal tradition to dress formally for dinner, while a pianist set the mood with live renditions of beloved songs from The Beatles’ discography and the soundtrack of “The Wizard of Oz.”
It’s no surprise that Alisal has perfected this unique style of homey, yet sophisticated hospitality: It has functioned primarily as a guest ranch since the 1940s when it was purchased by Charles Pete Jackson Jr. (though Alisal still does raise some cattle). Since then, it’s hosted numerous celebrities from Clark Gable and Doris Day to some of today’s equivalents — which, in true Hollywood style, Alisal keeps hush-hush.
Californians — famous and otherwise— have also clearly influenced the ranch’s decor. Interiors throughout the ranch strike the right balance between authentic Southwestern vibrancy and Californian cool. Guestrooms and public spaces feature a neutral palette achieved by white and dark wood and rustic white-slated ceilings, accented by red and patterned textiles.
Our 620-square-foot one-bedroom, two-bathroom suite was ample space for just the two of us (it could fit a family) but cozy all the same. We loved our king bed, but we spent plenty of time on the living room daybeds facing the fireplace. Refreshingly, all rooms at Alisal are phone- and television-free.
But as homey as our room was, my partner and I did manage to craft a schedule full of tasty food and nature activities.
One such occurrence was with Josh the wrangler for a breakfast ride that included trotting through the some of Alisal’s 10,500 acres of land studded with oak and sycamore trees to reach an outdoor fireside breakfast feast, complete with the property’s famous buttermilk flapjacks.
During the journey back, we rode past the property’s 100-acre spring-fed lake, where guests can fish, kayak and more. (From the main property, guests can hitch a ride to the lake, as well as to areas designated for archery and air-soft gun shooting.)
Though Alisal offers more inclusive packages, an average stay at the ranch includes some activities, as well as breakfast and dinner. For lunch, guests can pay an added fee for an on-site or picnic lunch. We did the latter, opting for massive roasted vegetable sandwiches, a homemade peanut-butter cookie, chips and fruit.
To work up our appetite, we debated whether we should try out the hotel’s tennis courts or take a hike on the property’s loop trail. The hike won, but if we had a longer or warmer visit, we probably would have also taken a dip in the pool or tried to hit some balls on one of Alisal’s two golf courses.
There’s really no shortage of activities — especially with the addition of items such as private horseback riding lessons that are offered for a nominal fee.
New for this year, the Sip, Saddle & Spa package provides a good idea of the various options available: Guests receive complimentary wine tasting at nearby tasting rooms and wineries, scheduled morning and afternoon group horseback rides, inclusion in Alisal’s horsemanship program, a spa treatment and more.
Before our last dinner at the property, I headed to the spa for a Swedish massage. Somehow my masseuse could intuit that I was not a Swedish-massage-kind-of person and asked me if I would be okay with digressing from the plan. The result was one of the most multifaceted, personalized massages I’ve ever received, featuring deep-tissue and acupressure work exactly where I needed it.
I exited the spa dazed, but not confused. I was clear on one thing: I liked this other world, and I’d happily travel past wine tasting rooms and Danish pastries to experience it again.
The DetailsAlisal Guest Ranch & Resortwww.alisal.com