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Here in Southern California, we're particularly unequipped to deal with changes in the weather. At the first hint of rain, freeway drivers seem suddenly possessed, dogs begin their boycott against walks, the trees on my lawn come crashing down due to 8mph winds (yes, that's actually happened).
But maybe that's just us Angelenos — because the staff at Solvang's Alisal Ranch handles storms with unbelievable grace. As California's premier luxury dude ranch, a sort of elevated summer camp spread across 10,500 acres, a wide swath of their amenities is vulnerable to sudden showers.
Having just spent a rainy weekend there, however, I can attest that their pivots are both speedy and satisfying. E-bike tour canceled? Check out the fireside whiskey tasting instead. Horseback trail ride postponed until tomorrow? The concierge can seamlessly rebook you at the spa. Though my experience at Alisal was relatively anomalous, given that it rains about once a quarter in these drought-ridden parts, it provided an extra spotlight on the property's exceptional level of service. Their unfussy attentiveness meant I wanted for nothing, even when the day's programming shifted along with the weather. And though the price tag for that level of care is significant (more on that below), for families in particular there's no denying the value.
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THEN AND NOW
Alisal Ranch boasts a storied history that's rare among resort properties, having originated as a Spanish land grant in 1843. Those grants were famously massive in size, and Alisal is no exception: in addition to the rambling trails available for guests to explore, there are rolling hills full of virtually untouched wilderness. By the 20th century, it was well up and running as a cattle ranch, with thoroughbred horses added to the mix before the ranch was open to the public in 1946.
The lodgings, thankfully, are a touch more modern. Even the smallest room type (which averages around $1,025 a night, with its lowest nightly rate of $625 in mid-winter) boasts a king bed, vaulted ceilings, in-room fireplace and outdoor patio seating. That's not to say they're a study in opulence either: guests who are craving state-of-the-art finishings may not want to shell out for such a rustic aesthetic. Still, once I took in the full scope of the operation, from the shuttle service to the private lake where fishing boats and archery courses awaited, to the full-time equestrian staff and daycare team at the Kids Club, it became clear that at Alisal you're paying for far more than a roof over your head.
By all accounts, Alisal truly comes alive during spring and summer, when the treetop ropes course and outdoor rodeos kick into full swing. Most of its amenities, though, were available to me in wintertime, like the tennis and pickleball courts that thrummed with activity mere hours after the rain paused. Along with turndown service, the housekeeping staff also provided a schedule of the upcoming events (both indoor and outdoor) for the next few days ahead. But there's perhaps no outing more magical – or more Alisal – than a horseback excursion, which ranges from an ultra-beginner lead around in the corral to a 4-hour long advanced trail ride through the hills.
Luckily I was blessed with blue skies for most of Sunday, so I opted for a 2-hour group ride up to Alisal's hundred-acre, spring-fed natural lake. I'm historically not super confident on horseback, but my adorable and very steady steed Opie, along with our knowledgeable guides Artemio and Nick, made every minute a delight. The views were simply breathtaking, with jagged green hilltops more reminiscent of Kauai's Na Pali Coast than anything I'd expected out of Santa Barbara County.
For the saddlesore, a trip to the spa afterward is always on the table. I'll admit I was hoping for more amenities like a steam and/or sauna, but I thoroughly enjoyed my Cowboy Facial chock-full of Kerstin Florian skincare products. My treatment provider Jessica did a fantastic job taking my sensitive skin into consideration, and left me glowing instead of inflammed (unlike far too many facials I've undergone in the past). To send me home with a bundle of samples of those Kerstin Florian products was just the icing on top of a supremely relaxing, 60-minute-long cake.
DRESSING THE PART
Even if you come to Alisal to relax and unwind, dinnertime at the Ranch Room is still a "country formal" affair. I loved having the opportunity to dress up for dinner, to indulge some of the old-school glamor from the days when Clarke Gable and Ava Gardner counted themselves as guests. Since gentlemen were encouraged to wear a jacket, but a blazer felt too stuffy for the occasion, I made great use out of my Pleated Denton Jacket from Percival. The dignified, Western-inspired aesthetic would also make a great fit for anything from Buck Mason, like the Chore Coat I broke out for the next evening's cocktail hour.
Speaking of libations, also included in your room fee is the lion's share of Alisal's food and beverage offerings. Not only were breakfast and dinner fully taken care of each day, so were my cocktail and wine options outside of separate, clearly marked reserve lists. To enjoy a pre-dinner Old Fashioned at their Oak Room bar and not have to sign a check was an unexpected perk that didn't go unnoticed. Getting to bring an after-dinner glass of Amaro Nonino back to my room (and my fireplace) was even better.
The real beauty of an Alisal stay is that there are so many ways to do it. That was immediately evident for the several multi-generational families I saw gathered during my stay. Most if not all were returning guests, coming back year after year to take advantage of a property that offers something for all ages — where the adults can make tee times or wine tasting plans while the kids take in movie nights or arts and crafts.
That much of the staff, from the pro shop to the front desk, has also worked on the ranch for over a decade (and have all kinds of stories if you're keen to listen) is a testament to the land's magical pull. It's the kind of place that's difficult to visit only once.
As a new inductee, I hope to be back soon.
If you stay at Alisal Ranch, make sure to…
- EAT at Bar Le Cote in nearby Los Olivos: their Spanish-inspired take on California seafood was hands down the best meal I've had so far this year.
- SEE the Danish-inspired architecture in Solvang village. What at first glance feels like Disneyland only becomes more charming the more you stroll around.
- DO take advantage of the many incredible wineries in spitting distance from Alisal, like Andrew Murray Vineyards on the picturesque Foxen Canyon Road.