Less than an hour from Santa Barbara, the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort had been on our radar for some time. Located 3 miles south of Solvang, a quaint Danish town complete with a windmill and themed shops selling everything from handmade clogs to aebelskivers (traditional Danish ball-shaped pancakes), it is set on a 10,000-acre estate in the Santa Ynez Valley. Originally a working cattle ranch, the property of 73 rooms and studios was purchased in 1943 by Charles Pete Jackson Jr., who opened it as a hotel in 1946. The property is still owned by the Jackson family, but the guest experience has been enhanced by the addition of two 18-hole golf courses, a full-service spa, an equestrian center and a kids’ club.
Time seemed to slow down as we turned onto the hotel’s long driveway, flanked by mature oaks and verdant pastures where quarter horses with shiny coats were grazing peacefully.
The charismatic check-in staff presented us with an extensive directory of activities offered at the estate from sunrise to sundown, plus a list of nearby wineries that offer complimentary tastings to ranch guests. A golf cart transferred us to our Studio Room. There, we immediately felt at home. The décor featured an earthy color palette; a thick, colorful Pendleton blanket set on a leather chair in front of a woodburning stone fireplace; and vintage artwork that brightened the tan-colored walls. A gratis bottle of the estate wine was a welcome touch, one that we appreciated later that evening as we lounged on a bench to watch the sunset.
Before dinner, we made our way to the library to enjoy a complimentary wine tasting offered by a local vintner, who introduced us to Santa Ynez Valley varietals. Generous pours, delicious appetizers and an informative presentation were a nice way to begin the evening. Dinner followed in the elegant Ranch Room, where guests are assigned a specific table for the duration of their stay. (Men over 16 are required to wear jackets.) My herb-crusted prime rib accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes and green beans in a horseradish cream was so tender that my knife remained untouched. And toasted walnuts added a delightful crunch to a wild-mushroom risotto topped with grilled artichokes. Also outstanding was the wild-caught halibut in a light lemon beurre blanc served over polenta and steamed rainbow chard with roasted figs on the side. Dinner is included in the room rates, so the waiters are happy to bring samples of other tantalizing side dishes and desserts. Their generosity made choosing a difficult task.
The following morning, we began with a dip in the pool before a game of tennis on one of the six courts. We then had to decide between golf, horseback riding through the property’s canyons and oak groves, or fly-fishing on the ranch’s 100-acre spring-fed lake. We chose the lake and enjoyed watching one of the staff members teach three young boys to fish. The teacher was just as excited as the boys when one of them began to reel in a medium-size bass. The kindness displayed by the hospitality team became more and more apparent during our stay. Alisal is intended for multigenerational family vacations, and a wide array of activities is available for children of all ages, from guided horseback rides, tennis lessons and tours of a barnyard housing rabbits, chicks and exotic ponies, to candle making and roping lessons.
One of the most memorable episodes of our stay was the time spent in the spa. The quality of the various treatments available, especially The Cowboy Cure, which combines an exfoliation session, a mud wrap and a massage, is exceptional. In addition, there is a fully equipped cardio exercise room. Other activities not to miss include guided biking trips up Figueroa Mountain, the Breakfast Ride excursion — either on horseback or aboard a hay wagon — for a hearty country breakfast and summer evening seafood barbecues at the lake.
Alisal was once a low-profile hideaway for Hollywood’s elite, a place where Clark Gable married his fourth wife and Doris Day vacationed regularly. Even now, it is still a relatively low-key retreat, where life moves at an easy pace, with outdoor activities steeped in Western culture and traditions centered on family.
The authentic feel of the Western frontier; the extensive list of daily activities for children and adults alike.
That lunch is not included in the room rate; available tennis court time slots were hard to come by.
The hotel has created partnerships with more than 20 wineries in the area, each of which offers free tastings for guests. Request the list of participating producers at check-in.