By Alexi Holian
Nestled in the storied Santa Ynez Valley, The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort has drawn guests for generations with its 10,000 acres of sunlit hills, majestic valleys, and authentic experiences from backcountry horseback riding to acclaimed local wine tastings. At the heart of it all is tradition, and for one family, that tradition began 45 years ago.
“I was 10 years old,” says Sandy Gates, reminiscing on her first trip to The Alisal in the summer of ’73. She was then accompanied by her parents, Sarah and Clark Bertrand, and younger brothers, ages 7 and 5, and a summer getaway for the Bertrand family quickly turned into a beloved annual trip.
“A lot of it now is the familiarity and the traditions that are there,” she says as she names the friends who have become like family and the activities, like horseback riding, that the group just has to do each year, even after their 45th visit this summer. “We stay in the same four cabins when we come, and we’ve gotten to know so many families over the years.”
Today, seven members of the Bertrand family, including Sandy and her husband Dennis, brothers Mark and Paul, sister-in-law Gina, nephew Nick, and niece Noelle, travel to The Alisal for 10 days in late July and early August, and next year, Sandy’s stepsons and their families will join in for the first time. Each summer the group is reconciled with the same three or four other families on the first weekend, followed by another seven or eight in the week that follows. “You get to know them so well,” says Sandy. “We’ve all been to each other’s weddings and baby showers.”
They’ve also become close friends with many of The Alisal’s staff members. “Even after 45 years, there are two people who are still there,” says Sandy of the team members who were around during her family’s first summer. “Dick Silva is a wrangler who has been there the whole time we’ve been going, and Bill Powell is the pianist in The Oak Room [Lounge].”
To begin their annual stay at the ranch – and each day that follows – the Bertrands and the other families gather in one end of the Ranch Room restaurant before splitting up for activities like horseback riding along 50 miles of trails, boating on the spring-fed Lake Alisal, mountain biking, archery, and birdwatching. Then in the late afternoon, everyone gathers by the pool to catch up whilst swimming and playing games.
“Really, there’s something for everyone here,” says Sandy, recalling hiking with her husband, her nephew fishing and golfing the resort’s two 18-hole championship golf courses, and her niece taking part in arts and crafts. “If you want to be active all day, you can do it. If you just want to sit under a tree or on the porch with a book, you can do that too.”
The Bertrands make sure to always spend a day in Santa Ynez, the Danish Village of Solvang, or artsy Los Olivos to shop and taste wines from the Santa Barbara region. They love their games with friends, from the annual game of Trivial Pursuit to tennis tournaments to Alisal bingo, a staple since Sandy’s first summer at the ranch. And of course, some of the best memories are unplanned moments like a friend falling in the mud during the Monday night lakeside barbecue or Sandy missing the hay wagon back from the barbecue and catching a ride with the staff instead.
But perhaps the most looked-forward-to is the Saturday morning breakfast ride, which takes early risers to the resort’s Adobe Camp for homemade pancakes.
“A lot of people go horseback riding at different times during our stay,” says Sandy, “but we all make sure everybody goes on the last Saturday for the breakfast ride. Everybody learns to ride [at The Ranch] and goes out to the breakfast ride.”
During their stay, one of Sandy’s favorite aspects of the ranch is the independence that kids can enjoy. Tucked away in such an idyllic, safe location, she and her family feel comfortable with the kids going off with new friends and taking part in activities on their own. They love the family-friendly evening programming, like the Saturday night poolside barbecue with live entertainment in the summertime.
“[But] I also think that it’s a very romantic setting,” says Sandy, who was engaged to her husband on the property. (The Bertrands have celebrated many milestones here, from her brother’s engagement to two surprise 50th birthday parties to her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.)
As evening falls on The Alisal, the day ends in the same place it started: the Ranch Room. Despite the casual nature of daytime adventures on the ranch, the Bertrands don blazers and evening attire to enjoy one last tradition. “What we really like is that we still dress for dinner,” says Sandy. “It’s a really nice way to wrap up the day that everybody looks forward to. It makes it special.”
While the stay never feels quite long enough, Sandy and her family always have something to look forward to: The same traditions will be waiting for them next summer – and for many years to come.
*All photos courtesy of the Bertrand family.