Deep in California’s Santa Ynez wine country, the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort — celebrating its 75th anniversary this year — is treasured by generations of families.
Once we roll past the ostrich farm, we’re getting pretty close.
As we drive through Buellton, a small gateway town into California’s famed Santa Ynez Valley, a flock of monster-size birds collectively glares in our general direction from the tourist-bait grounds of OstrichLand USA like an imported welcoming committee that could use some extra hospitality training.
“Please don’t pull over,” says my wife, Jemma, sort of reading my mind, and sort of not. Anywhere else, I might be suckered in by this feathered roadside anomaly plunked just off Highway 101 in the heart of Santa Barbara County wine country.
After a trafficky drive out of Los Angeles, not even the roadside charm of leggy landbirds can divert this weekend warrior mission: vanishing for two restorative nights at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort — a long-cherished hideaway with even deeper, if lower-key, Western roots than all of those splashy vineyards sharing the same picture-perfect Central California Coast valley.
Entering the valley’s bucolic oak-sprinkled coastal foothills — home to the Danish-style tourist town of Solvang, over 120 wineries, an eternal marketing campaign as the place where the movie Sideways was shot (nearly 20 years ago already), and, yes, ostriches and emus too — we’re just a few miles and a short parallel universe away from our firmly targeted destination.
Over the next 48 hours, we’ll be checking our type-A tendencies at the gate to engage in one of the Alisal’s most time-honored activities: lazing around with no concrete plan besides resting in a supremely peaceful and gorgeous spot, eating too much good food, sipping fine Santa Ynez wine and, at some point, climbing onto a horse because how could you not here?
The word alisal (I know from Googling) is Spanish for alder grove or alder tree, a birch-family species that favors coasts and streams. That sounds about right: The Alisal’s land is bound by a river on the northeast and by a coastal mountain range on the southwest. Horses and cattle have been grazing on its pastoral palette — a former Chumash hunting ground — since the days of California’s Spanish vaqueros.
Generations of American ranchers and cowboys would follow, refining the property’s pedigree with a Kentucky Derby-winning thoroughbred (1925’s Flying Ebony) raised in the very stables you still can saddle up at nearly a century later. The Alisal’s next phase, as a rustic-luxury guest ranch for urban escapees, would begin in 1946 and would see the property welcoming Old Hollywood A-listers like five-time groom Clark Gable (he tied one of his knots in the Alisal library) and Doris Day (a low-key regular), as well as generations of families from all over who can trace annual Alisal holidays back to the Eisenhower days.
“We have people who’ve been coming here since the ’50s,” says a chipper silver-bearded, cowboy-hatted Alisal staff member named Ron who ushers us into a lovely pine-paneled suite with high-peaked ceilings, wallfulls of Western art, a large stone fireplace with Alan Le May novels, and a complimentary bottle of local syrah within easy reach — and, not the least bit accidentally, no phones or TVs. “I’ve seen kids return here year after year after year,” Ron says. “First when they were 4 years old and now they’re finishing up college, so that’s pretty neat, too.”
Ron is the guest ranch’s affable night manager, though he’s clearly just as personable and informative during the day. He’s worn a “whole lotta hats at this place” over the last umpteen years, he tells us — and it seems pretty clear he’s enjoyed donning all of them. “This is just one of those very special spots,” he says genuinely, before briefing us on a laundry list of offerings to keep us happily occupied here. Tennis, golf, biking, paddling, pickleball, fly-fishing, riflery …
We may go for a short hike in a little bit, I feel unnecessarily compelled to reassure Ron. And we’ve signed up for the Breakfast Ride before checkout.
“Good, good, good,” Ron says. “You will not want to miss the Breakfast Ride. That’s a must. Now, if you’ll allow, let me steer you toward a real nice walking trail.”
Ron points the way to a trailhead tucked behind the resort’s manicured main grounds. It winds up a grassy hillside dotted with a few stray cows. If we’re lucky, Ron says, we might even spot a mountain lion along the way.
“Don’t be worried about running into one of them on the property,” he then quickly assures us, gauging certain expressions. “I’ve spotted only two of them here over the past 16 years. You’ll never see them.”
Then he adds with a twinkle, “But they always see us.”
Wandering through the resort’s expansive grounds, which include 70-some luxury cottages and suites, tennis courts, a large swimming pool, spa facilities, a pair of 18-hole championship golf courses, a large spring-fed lake furnished with canoes and kayaks, and horse stables leading to 50 miles of backcountry riding trails across over 10,000 acres of coastal-Cal foothills, it’s hard not to experience numerous déjà vu moments — even if you’ve only been here just once before.
My first Alisal visit was years ago. I was attending one of the resort’s popular culinary events, BBQ Bootcamp, and reporting on stuffing my face with Santa Maria-style chops and local vino.Today, walking past a large oval of grass on the main resort grounds near the pool en route to our late-afternoon hike, my temporal lobe’s total-recall button suddenly lights up. There they all are: a bunch of gleeful young siblings and cousins tearing around the lawn with all the parents and grandparents contentedly looking on from chairs outside their cottage doors, swirling wine, and generally relishing life.
It’s precisely the scene I remember seeing the last time I crossed this lawn years ago. No doubt, in a few decades, these kids tumbling on the grass will be clinking their own glasses of chardonnay while watching the next tireless crop of Alisal youth navigate the green oval like mini human stock cars.
Déjà vu will shadow me around at every turn here. On recollected hiking trails that are just as I’d left them. In the stately Ranch Room (a former cattlemen’s grub quarters) full of chatty families in sport coats and dinner attire feasting by a crackling fire. On horseback in the property’s vivid backcountry, appearing out of the dawn mist like a favorite old movie scene. Just down the road, a busy wine tourism hub occupies the same valley, but you’d never know it at this place, which is exactly as you remember it year after year after year.
Our happy-hour hike begins at a gate beside a cattle fence where a pair of cautionary signs advises guests entering the trail that “rattlesnakes may be present” and “mountain lions are important members of the natural community.”
Never mind all that. The broad, sloped trail winding upward under old oak branches draped in strands of mossy lichen is every bit as genial as it looks, with the promise of a sweet hilltop panorama up ahead. Choruses of chirping crickets fade in and out, punctuated by the occasional squawk of scrub jays. The most fearsome silhouettes hiding in these trees will be a painfully shy family of deer with ferociously torqued ears at the ready. None of these benignities stop a couple who are approaching 20 years of marriage from blithely discussing which one of us would get eaten if a mountain lion did actually decide to formally introduce itself along the way, but that’s totally on us.
Half an hour later, we’re standing at the anticipated vista point with the Santa Ynez Valley spread below us like a European dreamscape reimagined by breezy California. In the foreground, there’s the Danish town of Solvang with its who’s-kidding-who windmills and Copenhagen Drive, all reduced to dollhouse size from up here. Beyond that, Ireland-worthy emerald hills dotted in oaks, red-berried manzanita, and Mediterranean scrub roll for miles and miles, blending with vineyards and additional thumbnail-size towns that could be at home in central France if you tossed in a few medieval castles. Beyond that are time-blunted mountains, and eventually the sea.
After our hike, we reverse whatever calories we burned with a rich fireside meal in the Ranch Room that includes a roasted lobster tail and my first-ever chicken-fried steak. There’s a moment’s hesitation when the dessert menu arrives. As much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, there’s simply no room left in either of us right now for freshly baked cobbler and a piece of “Alisal’s Yee-Haw Cake” chocolate cake with salted caramel, whipped cream, and a toffee crunch.
“I can pack it up and you can take it back to the room to enjoy a little later,” suggests our server, solving the day’s biggest problem just like that.
Two empty dessert plates, some syrah by our own private log fire, a peaceful night’s sleep, and a large ranch-style buffet breakfast with a couple of strong cups of coffee later, we tear ourselves away from the resort the following morning to take a spin through wine country. Along the two-lane highways, an endless watercolor of green floats by, accented by familiar-sounding vineyard signs (Sunstone, Firestone, Brander, Buttonwood …) and mild little towns with storybook names and interestingly varied vibes.
In Solvang, we browse the quasi-quaint blocks of Scandinavian-ish shops where the valley’s thickest tourist clusters chow down on aebleskiver (puffy doughnut-hole-style Danish pancakes), stock up at Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolates, and purchase “It’s Wine O’clock” T-shirts. Five miles down the road, the no-nonsense cowboy town of Santa Ynez is a study in contrast with its giant feed store, local saloons, roadside hitching posts for horse traffic, and an easily overlooked Santa Ynez Valley Historical Society Museum and Parks-Janeway Carriage House, where one of the finer collections of Western stagecoaches and horse-drawn vehicles hides in an unassuming bungalow.
Another 5-mile hop leads to the tiny oenophile magnet of Los Olivos, packing a healthy supply of tasting rooms, art galleries, olive oil shops, and promising-looking bistros into its few mercantile blocks. Also here: the area’s best one-stop cowboy emporium at the venerable Jedlicka’s Western Wear & Saddlery — in business since the 1930s — with its rows of big-name boots, silver belt buckles, walls of horse tack, and my favorite new Wrangler workshirt.
Back at the ranch, we beeline past the Alisal’s golf courses, tennis courts, and private lake shuttle. We have no destination and no plan other than to resolutely stick to our original strategy: just being here.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love living down in Orange County,” says our neighbor, lounging with a book outside the cottage next door. She seems to be sharing the same game plan — and a decent chunk of her life — with us. “Newport is very nice and all, but this,” she says, waving her Daniel Silva paperback in a contented arc across the immediate firmament. “Heaven on earth.”
We have no destination and no plan other than to resolutely stick to our original strategy: just being here.
Soon enough, it’s time to walk the green oval at dusk. Past the laughing kids playing Daytona 500, to the Ranch Room for another lovely evening meal for two by the fire. Soon enough, it’s also time to nod again gratefully when our déjà vu server from last night offers to pack up our desserts to enjoy in our room a little later.
On our final crisp morning, we’re saddling up before the sun for the Alisal’s most unmissable rite of passage: the Breakfast Ride. Gathering at the resort’s stables with clusters of bundled-up families, we’re introduced to our horses. A palomino for Jemma and a character named Rocco for me who sounds like he could be going home with a note today.
“Rocco can be a little cranky at times,” our wrangler guide casually warns. “If he gets ornery, just remind him who’s boss.”
In the dim, dewy predawn, we ride off in small posses, promptly vanishing into the Alisal’s lovely, lively backyard. Big dark shapes (cows) stare back at us curiously from working pastures that will be home to over 1,400 head of cattle grazing here until late spring. Crows perch on fence posts, already complaining incessantly about the day. A coyote lopes by, on stealth business. Somewhere in the distance, a wild turkey gobbles its brief sermon. And, repeatedly, Rocco reminds me who’s boss.
Up we go into foggy green hills furnished with towering trees, one of which houses a couple of bald eagles who’ve been together for nearly 20 years and have made a hundred babies — “or thereabouts,” our guide tells us.
“That’s at least 98 more kids than we’ve raised in the same amount of time,” I whisper to my wife. Anyway, good for them.
When the sun rises with the mist, we reach a hilltop below a glassy lake, a setting of pure, giddy beauty that, like clockwork, hits me just as it did the last time. Even Rocco appears to be momentarily stirred by equine déjà vu.
Somewhere down the back side of these hills at a historic adobe near a thick grove of sycamores, a big country breakfast is being prepared for us by a doting staff. A hot oak campfire is being lit. A local guitarist is warming up with some sweet morning accompaniment. One more round of “Blackbird,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” for the books.
Who isn’t looking forward to vividly remembering all of that the next time?
From our October 2021 issue
Photography: (Steak image) Sarah Range/courtesy Wagstaff; (All others) courtesy Wagstaff