The one time my family of native Angelenos tried to go camping together, it turned out like Troop Beverly Hills or The Parent Trap—an embarrassing comedy of errors. After trying to take one for the team, my city slicker dad got overwhelmed by outdoor noises, lack of heated toilet and low sleeping bag thread count. He checked us into a hotel after he patted himself on the back for making it through two DIY campfire meals. Instead of trying that again the following year, we checked into The Alisal, the classic guest ranch in Solvang, where turndown service, nearby wine tasting, and 10,000 acres of trails to hike and ride got us hooked; a trip to The Alisal became an annual family escape during my childhood years.
It's been nearly 20 years since I last visited The Alisal as a kid on a family trip, so when I heard there had been a large renovation to the spa and a healthy menu upgrade, I grabbed my mom and headed to the ranch resort, located 40 miles north of Santa Barbara. The footprint is the same as it was on my last visit, and just as it was in 1949 when Clark Gable was married on the property; just as it was when the Jackson family opened the property to guests in 1946. A long driveway lined by sycamore trees ends at the barn and a row of cottage-chic guest rooms. At first glance, the only thing that had really changed was the itch that the ranch would scratch for my modern adult self: With nary a bar of network coverage, this trip obliterated any resistance I had for a total digital detox.
There's no major signage or dramatic foyer with sophisticated floral arrangements to receive you upon arrival, just a low-key front desk and a couple of college-age staff to hand over keys and a map of the grounds. The historic ranch, which has hosted the likes of Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck, has been wooing people with simple creature comforts and a five-star ranch experience for generations.
Of the many ranch-appropriate activities offered daily, including archery and air-rifle target practice, morning and sunset horseback trail rides remain the biggest draw. Offered three times per week, a classic Alisal breakfast ride is an hourlong trek across the ranch's stunning acreage.
The wranglers are experts on everything Alisal, from its history to the way they track local animals such as bears, owls and two resident bald eagles. Wranglers will point out things that might otherwise go unnoticed—bald eagle nests and their feathers on the trail. The breakfast that takes place halfway through the ride is a traditional continental affair, featuring pancakes, cereals, fruit and other usual suspects. While a slam dunk for those who prize hearty and classic over healthy and organic, they do their best to accommodate dietary restrictions and the ride itself is so rewarding that breakfast is really just fuel for the way back.
Opened in 2016, the ranch's 6,000-square-foot spa has been designed to feel like a zen-style barn, with exposed beams and cozy Pendleton blankets in the central lounge, in addition to a fitness center and treatment rooms. Go-to services for the saddle weary include the Trail Blazer, a scrub/massage combo, and a deep muscle massage that gets right down to business post-afternoon activities—there's tennis, hiking, swimming and one-on-one yoga and Pilates classes. The nearly endless options help ameliorate the urge to open your Instagram app. If non-hotel yoga is what you're after, nearby Bloom yoga offers creative and challenging flow classes (and cell service!) - a real delight during my visit.
Alisal's bar and dining rooms are classic California ranch-style: stonework and fireplaces and horse bridles and repurposed barn gear. The nightly live music and bottomless chips and guac make it easy to forget about inboxes and Netflix queues. New chef Anthony Endy is refreshing the food and beverage program with more plant-based fare. Vegan and vegetarian options will be offered nightly in late 2017, with a full refresh appearing in spring of 2018. Until then, the staff are happy to prepare something delicious off-menu to accommodate dietary preferences.
After a traditional ranch-style dinner featuring beautiful seasonal produce from the Santa Ynez valley—a memorable heirloom tomato salad was inhaled in about three seconds, and hearty dishes included fried samosas and luscious risotto. There are no late-night dessert bars or DJs or anything to disrupt the perfect quiet here—just open space and the best excuse to stay in: cozy cottages (35 of the 73 have been recently redone) with cowboy-cool furnishings, Pendleton coverlets, wood-burning fireplaces and gorgeous views from every one. // Studios start at $550/night; The Alisal, 1054 Alisal Rd (Solvang), alisal.com