Checking In and Checking Out

Whoa, Horses! A Guest Ranch Vacay in Santa Barbara Wine Country

by Deborah Schoeneman
All photos courtesy of Alisal Ranch.

Some of the best travel secrets can be discovered close to home. A working guest ranch (and long-held California secret) in Santa Barbara wine country provides a memorable experience for a family looking for rest, relaxation, and plenty to keep the kids occupied.

SANTA INEZ VALLEY, California – My family was thrilled to be invited to a friend’s house in Jamaica over the holidays. It was just what we needed to escape the constant terror of Covid and the climate crisis that has become our Los Angeles lifestyle. To prepare, my kids (ages 7 and 9) read up on Bob Marley. We bought new swimsuits and sunscreen. We even packed our bags early. Then we heard that our host tested positive with Omicron — like most everyone else we knew. Bye-bye Caribbean getaway. Hello, rainy and cold LA.

When we tried to book another trip, we spiraled into a decision tree hell. Flights were f*cked. The roads to the ski resorts were closed after crazy snowstorms. How could we escape?

Alisal, a luxury guest ranch and resort in the Santa Inez Valley. It’s deliberately called a “guest ranch” instead of a “dude ranch” because the staff hardly consider their clientele dudes. Turns out, this means the service is extraordinary. For example, my kids seemed to magically manifest an elaborate s’mores kit that was delivered to our room, along with extra firewood.

We only spent two nights at Alisal but it felt like much longer in the most fun and relaxing way. I had never taken my kids somewhere relatively all-inclusive before. Now that’s all I want to book. In this sweet spot when my kids want to hang out with me but also need to be constantly entertained, it was an ideal getaway. I could even cede planning and prep responsibilities.

Located near Santa Barbara, Alisal is a perfect drive-to destination, under three hours from Los Angeles. The ranch's roots reach back to 1810, when the valley was occupied by the Chumash people. The ranch opened for guests in 1946 but remains largely under the radar and family-owned. They don’t need to advertise because they’re almost always booked with a loyal clientele (which includes Hollywood people wanting to stay low profile). I first heard about it from some Californian friends who grew up vacationing there and still return every year, now with their own kids and grandparents. (Sorry for blowing up the spot!)

Cottage exterior.
Decor steeped in Western culture.
Photo by Victoria Pearson.
Photo by Nicki Sebastian.
Autumn horseback ride.

As we drove up to the luxury ranch’s 10,500-acre property, we were greeted by grazing horses and cows. After we parked, my kids practically ran to the petting zoo to meet the goats, pigs, chickens, bunnies, and mini horses. The kids loved brushing the animals who seemed genuinely excited to interact — unlike every other pet hostage situation I’ve encountered. One day, a zookeeper from the famed Santa Barbara Zoo brought exotic animals to play on the lawn: a crocodile, a kangaroo, and a porcupine. The kids went nuts.

Horseback riding is the big draw, though it costs extra. Trail rides are scheduled all day, depending on level, and you can book privates, too. Even if you’re not into horses, it’s worth taking a trail ride for the scenery alone. The property is incredibly gorgeous, with stunning old trees, rolling hills, and mountain views. One vista is called “Engagement Point.” You can guess what often happens there.

My son loved shooting bows and arrows at the archery range and my daughter always wanted to return to the arts and crafts barn where there were new projects every day. There’s also tennis, volleyball, shuffleboard, bikes, and pretty much anything else you’d want to keep your kids occupied. Meanwhile, I got a massage at the spa — with a mask, and it felt safe.

A shuttle — in the form of a pickup truck with hay bales for seats — leaves every hour for a quick ride down to the lake to snatch a boat or stand up paddle board. You can book a guide for fly fishing (we didn’t because the fish haven’t been biting lately). There’s also a large, heated pool and jacuzzi. While it was too cold for us to swim, I’d like to return in warmer months to get the full water activity experience.

There’s inspired Western-style, and I strongly suggest springing for one of the larger rooms over the standard style. It’s pricey but worth it. Our luxury one-bedroom suite had been recently remodeled by celebrity designer Nathan Turner and had more than enough room for a family of four.

Alisal’s a place where you can feel busy or bored, depending on your mood. The range of activities means there’s something for everyone even if you’re the person who just wants to read in bed. However, with no televisions or phones in the rooms, be prepared to be relatively off-grid. WiFi service is spotty, though it's always available in the library, which is also where Clark Gable married Lady Silvia.

It would be fun to visit Alisal with a group of friends or family, but it’s also a great place to meet people. On the morning hayride to the pancake breakfast at an old adobe house on the property, we met another family and quickly realized we had good friends in common. Our kids happily played sports together for hours on the lawn. (Kids can roam fairly free as the rooms and activities are mainly clustered in one area.) The clientele isn't just local. We saw plenty of international families, some who were pairing the experience with tourist destinations like Disneyland and wine country.

When I heard that dinner and breakfast were included, I was a tad concerned that meant playing it safe with club food. (See: steak, Caesar salad). I was pleasantly surprised to find out that breakfast featured an impressive buffet, and you could also order off the menu, which had all the staples we wanted like waffles and huevos rancheros. Dinner was fancy! The food was better than it had to be to keep us happy and the included cocktails and wine were a delight. (The kids had never experienced bottomless Shirley Temples before and are spoiled for life now.) Desserts were particularly excellent.

The dining room is elegant but not stuffy. They give kids crayons at the table, but men must wear jackets. Only “dinner dressy” jeans are allowed — no frays or holes. The holiday décor was festive with roaring fires in the fireplaces. They had outdoor dining in a tent, which hardly seemed any more Covid-safe than the dining room where tables were spaced far apart.

The Oak Room, a pretty, wood-paneled place, opens at 4 p.m. every day and features a full bar and snacks. Before that, a more casual bar offers free coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and ice cream all day. There’s also live music at night. Something for everyone.

Lunch is where you could get bored. It’s not included, and they’ve only got a relatively limited menu from a casual café called the Chuckwagon Grill. You'll find burgers, quesadillas, and grilled chicken salads — but it all starts to taste the same after a few days.

Fortunately, the ranch is near Solvang, a cute town with Danish-style architecture and lots of bakeries and cafes, like the famous brunch spot Brekkies. I found decent shopping too, particularly the Solvang Spice Merchant, where I picked up truffle salt and chili powder. Foodies (with a reservation) should venture out for a 20-minute drive to Belle’s.

That said, we were so happy at the ranch, we didn’t care much about what was for lunch. We were so happy that we didn’t care about anything but reserving next year’s room for our new tradition.

There's a working cattle ranch, rodeo fields, and plenty of horseback riding.
Kid bliss.
Fishing on the lake.
BBQ Bootcamp. Photo by Sara Range.
Photo by Sara Range.
Ride on, cowboy.

Main Takeaways

It’s hard to get a reservation on the website, which always seems to show little availability. It’s also tricky get anyone to answer the phone. The most efficient way to book a room is to email the concierge, which gets a swift response. They do get last-minute cancellations, and it’s easier to book during the colder months.

It's important to book trail rides and spa appointments weeks in advance, as those fill up. (Also easiest by emailing the concierge.) Kids have to be at least 7 for beginner trail rides and 12 for advanced ones. There's a cute playground and pony rides in the corral for younger kids. You can also hire a babysitter.

The ranch has two private golf courses for guests. Occasionally, you'll find cookout dinners on the lawn with celebrity chefs that you can attend, even if you’re not staying at the ranch.

What to Pack

Ranch attire. There’s a legit Western theme and people dress up for dinner. Anything Ralph Lauren fits right in.

Cowboy boots! Or any boots that can get muddy in the corral and petting zoo.

In colder months, bring layers and long underwear. It gets chilly on the trail rides.

Getting There

It’s an easy drive from LA and SF. A local airport is not far. You don’t need a car, unless you want to venture out for lunch.

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