The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in Solvang, California is a rare place in our world where you can enjoy a vacation adventure exploring the coastal hills of central California in the luxury of a quiet cottage surrounded by ten thousand acres of the greenest, plushest countryside you could ever imagine.  The resort takes you back to a time where you rode high in your saddle, cowboys strummed their songs around campfires, and families shared stories.

Our cozy cottage.

If you’ve longed for a vacation that truly allows you to relax and enjoy your family without the distractions of 21st century stress, The Alisal Guest Ranch should be on your “bucket list.”  I was mesmerized by it’s mysterious mist of quiet elegant beauty. 

For the first time in months, I was able to hear the sounds of nature’s beauty.  The moist country air filled my lungs with adventure’s anticipation.   The rushing stream outside our room gurgled and flowed with fun.  Our cottage with its high-beamed ceiling and wood burning fireplace sang the notes of a “peaceful, easy feeling.”

This unassuming resort has been enjoyed by generations.  Established as a cattle ranch over 150 years ago, Alisal opened its doors to families in the summer of 1946.   Everyone I met was with their extended family of grandparents, parents and little ones.  One couple from Connecticut brought their blended family because the husband’s grandfather had taken him yearly on vacations to Allisal.   This was his fiftieth trip and the smile on his face beamed like he was still eight years old.

Alisal is home for your inner cowboy.  A cowboy is defined as a hired man, especially in the western United States, who tends cattle and performs many of his duties on horseback.  He is also called a cowman, cowpoke, cowpuncher, buckaroo, vaquero, waddy or an adventurous hero.  Author, Will James said a cowboy is a man with guts and a horse.  Living a weekend without cell phones, cable television or radios awakened my inner cowboy.

Ziggy is waiting to meet me!

I’ve never vacationed at a Dude Ranch. I was never a girl who fell in love with horses.  In fact, I have a fearful respect for these large skittish creatures.  So when it came time to “saddle up” my stomach turned a flip.  The cowboys at the ranch smiled at me and as they handed me the reigns belonging to Ziggy, I stood back and sized him up.  Ziggy was brown with four white feet and a star on his forehead.  He had a dashing stature with a stance about ten hands high that matched me perfectly.  No reason to be afraid I reminded myself.

An early morning trail ride...WOW!

Ziggy didn’t mind my apprehension.   He knew his job and was happy to do it.   He welcomed me with a gentle shake of his long, brown, coarse-haired mane, whinnied a hello and waited calmly for me to saddle up!  Tony expertly cinched my stirrups tighter and reminded me I was the boss of Ziggy.  “Hold the reigns firmly and don’t let him eat,” he instructed. Ziggy was a hungry horse and I had my work cut out for me.

I gave Ziggy a friendly pat and gently giddy-up nudge with my cowboy boots.  Reins held gently in hand, we started towards the fifty miles of riding trails working our way to a Cowboy Breakfast!

Riding high in my saddle with Ziggy,I felt a freedom that doesn’t exist in our high tech world. The impact of the land seen on horseback is unimaginable!   The beautiful views of the Santa Ynez Mountains are an astonishing backdrop for the tall oak trees dripping with moss.  The clomp clomp clomp of Ziggy’s hooves and the gentle sway of the saddle beneath me, made me want to sing a cowboy song.  As if on cue, the rider behind me, a high school theatre arts student, burst forth with her rendition of “Back in the Saddle Again.”  How does it get any better than this?

I looked up at the color of the sky and watched the gray rain clouds play tag with the sun.  Ziggy and I gently maneuvered through the gushing springs, as each of his four legs found firm footing amongst the rocks.  A few raindrops played hide and seek over the misty morning. The rolling green mountain side was dotted with wild flowers, deer, rabbits, coyotes, bears, and “grooves of sycamores”.  (The definition for Alisal.)   No rush, no hurry, just riding, singing, laughing, and listening to the beginning rumblings of my stomach.  All this fresh air and exercise was making me hungry.

The lushest country side I've ever seen,

We dismounted at a clearing that was filled with picnic tables and the tantalizing aroma of a fresh cooked breakfast. 

Golf below the St. Ynez Mountains.

A triangle bell sounded and our breakfast “grub” was served.  We ate around a campfire that chased the cool dampness of the impending rain away.  I had never tasted pancakes and warm maple syrup so yummy.  The eggs were fluffy, the sausage hearty, and the bacon off the grill was crunchy crisp delicious.  Cowboy coffee strong and hot, warmed my hands.  California orange juice with fresh fruit and homemade pastries assuaged and satiated my sweet tooth . . . cowboy style.  We had time to eat and visit with the other guests that had come from all over the world.  What a treat to to go back to that “Cowboy time.”  Then, true to Cowboy Culture, an original, swarthy, sun wrinkled wrangler named Chris Henrich,  commanded our attention and recited a poem. 

Live, and sing by the Cowboy Code.

There wasn’t a dry eye around the campfire as we applauded Cowboy Chris and his Code. I mounted Ziggy with the help of a wooden step stool, tilted my hat to the wranglers John Wayne style, and headed back to my cottage.

Thunder clouds gathered around us.  Large raindrops pelted my cheeks as we entered the stables. I gave Ziggy a pat good-bye just as the skies opened up and drowned the ranch in a huge torrential thunderstorm.  The bubbling brook outside our cottage became a raging flooding river.  We made it back to our cottage drenched and laughing hysterically.  What do you do when it’s raining cats and dogs on your vacation and there are no phones, televisions, or internet?

I looked out our wooden shutters and the other 72 guest units and wondered what they would be doing?  I watched the smoke rise from their chimneys and decided to light our fire, have some wine, play some cards, and perhaps take a nap.  But the rain subsided just enough for my husband to talk me into going fishing on the hundred-acre spring-fed lake.

My husband loves fly fishing.  I had never tried it.  He was surprised when I eagerly agreed to accompany him on this next adventure.   Secretly, I didn’t want to get left behind.  We took the van out to the lake, rented our boat, bought our bait and tackle, and I learned how to cast my rod for fish.  I wasn’t very good at it but the lake was serene and momentarily protected from the storm. 

Rainy day catch.

We motored around the lake in our little bass boat casting for a bite of blue gills or bass.  We sat among the weeds as the shallow waves lapped against the sides of the boat.  But, after about 30 minutes without a nibble, I didn’t believe there was a fish in this lake. Then I felt a tug and watched my rod bend in front of me from a huge weight beneath the water.  My husband laughed and said I’d just got tangled in the weeds.  I was sure it was a fish and  started to reel it.  I struggled with a 25 lb weight of something but since I hadn’t learned how to “hook” a fish yet, my bait was gone and the hook dangled empty at the end of the wire.   “The big one” had gotten away.

The wind picked up and turned into a storm and we headed back to shore just in time.   The torrential cloud burst nearly drowned us.  Soaked to the bone, we rode back with a six-year-old and his grand dad who boasted pictures of over 30 fish that they had caught.  The little boy had fish stories and the pictures to prove it!

A great place to do absolutely nothing.

We got back to our cabin soaking wet and laughing about all the fish that got away.   The rain hadn’t dampened our day at all.  Next was my adventure over to Alisal’s new spa. Their 6,000-square-foot full service fitness center and spa was perfect come rain or come shine.  I entered the spacious lobby greeted by a roaring fireplace and cozy lounging area.  They had a great gift shop filled with Alisal cowboy memorabilia for sale.

The Spa is large, rustic, and beautifully serene.  They have four single and one couple’s massage therapy rooms.  All locker rooms have steam saunas.  But it was the expertise of the masseuse that created the Alisal WOW experience.  His large skilled hands found every stress point in my body.  Within the hour, all the kinks from the horseback ride evaporated. 

With a relaxed smile on my face, I tip toed through the puddles back to my cottage to dress for dinner.

Our home is cowboy chic.

Everyone dresses for dinner at Alisal.  I love that elegant, respectful but casual tradition in dining.  There were more than ten entrees featured by Executive Chef, Pascal Gode’.  His culinary style is both tasty and filling.  The dinner menu changes daily and we loved it all.   The dining room is dressed with bright red tablecloths, with a huge brick open hearth fireplace the focal point.  The service is impeccable and friendly.  You have the same table for the length of your stay, which made us feel immediately at home.  The breakfast has fresh fruit from the local orchards, home-baked bread as good as Mom’s, the hearty breakfast staples of bacon, eggs, pancakes, and stick to your ribs oatmeal.

We came to play golf on one of their championship courses.  But the old adage, “it never rains on the golf course”, proved to be untrue.  So we can’t wait to go back and enjoy both the par- 72 Ranch Course designed by Bilky Bell Jr., which measures 6,500  yards of tight fairways, or the River Course that measures 6,830 yards with its scenic views of sycamore, oak, and elderberry trees.

The Alisal Guest Ranch was amazing come rain or come shine.  From sunrise to sunset, Alisal is a place you can make memories that will last for generations.  From hearty meals, to cozy cottages, horseback riding, Cowboy Codes, bass fishing, spa, golf, tennis, plain old fashion bingo games, and storytelling, Alisal has it all!

Dude Ranch adventures!

— Feature by Janice Wilson, Jetsetters Magazine Golf and Tennis Editor; photos courtesy of Alisal Guest Ranch.