By Katie McElveen
My first introduction to The Alisal came, oddly enough, from my taxi driver, a septuagenarian who had grown up in this area outside of Santa Barbara when lemon groves still covered the hills. And although he admitted to spending more time riding a surfboard than a horse, he was clearly in awe of the place. “I love going there because it’s just so beautiful,” he said. “It’s family-owned and they’ve kept the land the way it was meant to be.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. The long drive from the main roadway is lined with mature elm trees, creating a lacy canopy that allows glimpses of golden hills, fenced paddocks, and open meadows.
Upon arrival I was greeted like family: Not only did the front-desk staff know all about me—when my plane had come in, what activities I had planned, how tired I must be from my long journey from the East Coast—but the cat, Tom (or was it Jerry), twirled about my ankles like a long-lost friend.
Accepting a golf-cart ride to my cabin, I was literally awestruck by the beauty of the place; as we passed over a dry creek bed, we entered the heart of the resort, a massive green lawn encircled by mature elms that dropped shade onto the snug cabins lining the perimeter. Flowers tumbled from between large shrubs and the scent of freshly-cut grass perfumed the air.
It was the first of what would be many examples of how The Alisal offers an authentic Western experience but with all the hallmarks of the legendary resort that it is: newly renovated rooms with both high-style bathrooms and working fireplaces; a new chef bringing farm-to-table cuisine to the dining room; a well-curated wine list featuring a plethora of wines from Santa Barbara’s renowned wine country; a pampering spa; a state-of the-art exercise facility; and access to top-level trainers as well as yoga and Pilates instructors.
After a restful night, I started my first full day on the ranch with a trail ride, trotting along a high ridge aboard Jake, a hulking gelding whose ears perked up when I asked him to canter as if he’d been waiting for days to lope through the tall grass. Our group of four—two guests and two wranglers—was headed to breakfast at the resort’s Adobe Camp, where we would stretch our legs, rest our horses, and feast on homemade pancakes.
But first we had to get there. Before heading out, I had been asked about my riding ability. I had assumed this was to help the staff match me with the right horse, but I was only partially correct. The Alisal’s wranglers are given great autonomy to evaluate riding ability on the fly and create a perfect ride. Before long, we had left the beginners and intermediates behind, cantering and trotting the long way around the lake to the camp site. After breakfast, we returned via a completely different route, this one over mountains, through fields and past an ancient grove of sycamore trees—alisal to the land’s original Native American inhabitants—that became the namesake of the ranch. Along the way, our wranglers shared ranch stories, pointed out plants and animal tracks, and gave us choices about which trail to take back based on how tough the riding would be. They watched us carefully, too, not only to make sure we were safe, but to ensure we were doing everything we could as riders to take stress off the horses. Instead of a resort trail ride, the experience felt more like a ride with horse-loving friends, albeit friends equipped with a treasure trove of stories and access to a 10,000-acre ranch.
After saying goodbye to Jake, I returned to my room to discover that that the box lunch I had ordered the night before had been promptly delivered, giving me time to grab a bite before heading to my next activity: a much-needed massage.
Entering the lavender-scented treatment room, I was greeted by my therapist, a warm, generous woman who seemed to genuinely care about my health. As she expertly kneaded, stretched, and pummeled my muscles, she even asked if she could spend a bit of extra time—at no charge—to work out a few knots that she’d discovered. It was yet another example of The Alisal’s big-hearted spirit and kind professionalism.
My morning ride and post-ride massage were part of The Alisal’s Sip, Saddle & Spa package (since discontinued), a brilliant combination of activities I adore: outdoor adventure, luxurious recovery, and, as I was soon to discover, world-class wine.
Located about 45 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort is tucked into the Santa Ynez Valley, one of the stars in Santa Barbara’s diverse and well-respected wine region. Over the years, The Alisal has forged partnerships with more than a dozen producers, each of whom offer free tastings to Alisal guests. We chose to visit tasting rooms in Los Olivos, a pretty village where the each of the five blocks is lined with shops, galleries, restaurants, tasting rooms, and flowers spilling over white-picket fences.
Our first stop was Larner, where Christina Larner took us on a tasting tour of her husband Michael’s delicious and varied Syrahs while explaining how the region’s east-west running mountains affect the wines. After a stop at SAMsARA, a pinot noir-lover’s paradise, we finished our tour under Stolpman Winery’s shady persimmon tree wowed by La Caudrilla, a Syrah-based blend that returns profits to the workers who produce it.
Since much of the wine experience involves the partnership of food and wine, The Alisal also offers guests a bottle of Santa Barbara wine to enjoy with dinner. In our case, a supple red had the backbone to stand up to a hearty skirt steak on chef Anthony Endy’s new dinner menu, but enough finesse not to overpower the walnut-studded risotto. Dinners at The Alisal are comfortably formal: Men are required to wear jackets in the main dining room, but no one is snooty. Instead, servers are poised and friendly, with deep knowledge of the food, the wine, and the area. Most have worked here for years and are happy to share tales of this legendary place.
Too sore for more riding—one should practice up a bit before hopping into the saddle for three hours—I started the next day with an outdoor yoga class, which gave my muscles something else to think about while allowing my mind to take in the cool grass and soft breeze. A guided nature hike then took me past bear tracks to the massive aerie where The Alisal’s nesting Bald Eagles have lived for years. Later, we watched the magnificent female survey her surroundings from her perch on a large tree, as the male circled above. A final, solo, trip around the lake aboard a stand-up paddleboard gave me a different perspective on the mountains I’d cantered over the day before. At every turn, staff members surprised me with their welcoming attitude, offering everything from sunscreen (which was pulled out of a personal backpack) to facts about the ranch’s wildlife.
Surrounded as it is by a landscape so wild it feels untouched, The Alisal is anything but remote. For me, that proximity to civilization provided a good balance between off-the grid adventure and the shopping, dining, and urban exploration that I don’t have time to enjoy at home. I was charmed by Solvang, a Danish town set with windmills, boutiques, restaurants, and 22 tasting rooms devoted to handcrafted beers, wines, and spirits. Settled in 1911 by three educators from Denmark looking to preserve the cultural heritage of their homeland in the U.S., the city is also home to five authentic Danish bakeries, a scale reproduction of Copenhagen’s round-tower and storefront cafes offering Danish specialties like medisterpolse (Danish sausage), aebleskiver (apple puffs baked in a cast iron pan), and open-faced sandwiches on hearty pumpernickel. It was a great contrast to artsy Los Olivos, and more authentic than I could have imagined.
Driving along that long driveway toward the main road on my way to the airport, I was sad to be leaving, but happy to have discovered a place that left me calm, energized…and eager to return.
About the Contributor
Travel and lifestyle writer Katie McElveen discovered the joy of wandering when, as a teenager, she made a wrong turn in rural South Carolina on the way to a family vacation and ended up taking back roads nearly all the way to the beach. Since then, she hasn’t stopped exploring, although she now travels with a map and more than $3.00 in cash. Based in Columbia, South Carolina, Katie has shared her discoveries through her work in magazines such as Real Simple, Business Traveler, Modern Bride, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Town & Country, Southern Living, Spa and Tennis.