Alisal Ranch Is the Best-Kept Secret in Wine Country

Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort is one of the best kept secrets in California wine country. Scroll through for more about the historic spot.
Courtesy Alisal
It takes less than an hour to get to Alisal from Santa Barbara.
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The Sip, Saddle, Spa package is a new offering at Alisal.
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The property spans 10,000 acres.
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Horseback riding is offered both for private lessons and group walks.
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There are multiple golf courses.
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The spa just opened last year.
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The western-themed rooms don't have any electronics.
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But all the lodgings are still super luxe.
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The 100-acre lake is right in the middle of the resort.
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And of course, there's the pool.
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The Jackson family has owned and operated the ranch since the 1940s.
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Alisal's new executive chef, Anthony Endy, is revamping the entire culinary experience there.
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There's a variety of spa offerings.
Courtesy Alisal

In many ways, Alisal is one of the best-kept secrets in Southern California wine country. The 10,000-acre guest ranch is just a few minutes away from the tiny town of Solvang and about an hour’s drive from the Santa Barbara airport.

Located in the midst of the Santa Ynez Valley, Alisal has long attracted travelers who are eager for an old-fashioned, yet still luxurious, vacation—one that combines adventure and physical activity, with the appropriate amount of relaxation. It also has a storied history; Alisal has been owned by the same family, the Jacksons, since the 1940s, and it’s where Clark Gable married his third wife, Sylvia Ashley, in 1949.

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But there is a desire for Alisal to be more visible on the map. “Younger people should know about this place,” Alisal’s general manager, Kathleen Cochran declared over a gourmet dinner in the Sycamore dining room. That inclination to reach a wider audience is partially what inspired their new Sip, Saddle, Spa package.

The Sip, Saddle, Spa experience is actually a combination of programs Alisal has offered in the past. It merges the best of the classic ranch activities, like hayrides to the Adobe campground, with luxe spa services and incredible regional wine, plus wellness and culinary offerings. For the latter detail, Alisal just hired a new executive chef, Anthony Endy. “We know that people aren’t just looking for meat and potatoes,” Cochran noted.

“Our packages were previously catered to larger groups looking for wine tastings and horseback rides, but Sip, Saddle, Spa was really developed for individual travelers or couples to experience the ranch,” Alisal’s sales director, Sherrie Fitzgerald, explained.

My three-day experience at Alisal began in the afternoon upon arrival, with outdoor yoga by the creek. Southern California was experiencing a heat wave in late September and this meant flies were at it with a vengeance. As such, the yoga session hosted by Cori Lassahn of Vineyard Yoga became a bit of a stressful affair, especially for those of us who admittedly just discovered what child’s pose is. I was struggling to balance in downward facing dog, while simultaneously swatting flies away, when Lessahn thankfully recommended moving to the ranch’s well-appointed indoor fitness facilities, making for a much more enjoyable experience.

The package is also ideal for those who don’t want a strict daily schedule, as there’s plenty of free time to explore the vast property and guests can customize their stay, as they see fit. I spent the morning of day two in Alisal’s spa, which opened just last year. While some chose to go horseback riding during this time, I was perfectly content enjoying my Swedish massage. Afterward, I did feel I should partake in a more athletic adventure, which led me to Alisal’s famous hiking trails.

Despite the fact that I’m not exactly outdoorsy, I’ve always appreciated a hike, especially one as scenic as this. I did mistakenly opt to begin just after 12 pm, when the sun was at its peak. The first hour went by smoothly, as I took in the dreamy views of the Santa Ynez mountains and nature in general. The trek is unarguably stunning, but I may have overestimated my own abilities, at least in 90-degree heat.

But two and a half hours later, I made it to the end, feeling excessively proud of my athletic ability and also of my Instagram-worthy pictures. The less welcome outcome was my complete and utter exhaustion, which I tried to sate by dining on a variety of three different sandwiches at the pool pavilion, where a full buffet lunch spread was offered.

Up next was the scheduled excursion to Alisal Lake. The two hours we were slated to spend at the 100-acre lake included classic ranch activities, such as archery and an air rifle class. I opted out of paddle boarding, due to my total lack of balance and proper swimming attire.

And of course, there’s the “sip” portion of the experience. In fact, wine lovers just might be the most attracted to this package, as the emphasis on wine pairings is a big part of the experience. Sip, Saddle, Spa was “created for wine lovers that love horseback riding and want the best of both all in one stay,” Fitzgerald explained.

We’d already gotten a sneak peek of the California wines Alisal offered at dinner the night before, but the big showing of vino came at the sunset wine tasting. It included a sampling of two whites and two reds, all of which were carefully poured and thoroughly discussed by the sommelier from Sunstone Winery. Afterwards, everyone helped themselves to an upscale barbecue in the formal dining room, plus another glass (or two) of wine with the meal.

A fitting last meal at Alisal, however, is the signature morning breakfast ride. You arrive at the Adobe Camp via a hay wagon or horseback ride, and it’s definitely one of the typical ranch events—there’s a cowboy, a campfire and a rather filling breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs and more.

At first, it wasn’t certain if Sip, Saddle, Spa would remain a permanent package at Alisal, but a number of positive responses have changed that. “It is gaining traction,” said Fitzgerald. “We want to provide our Sip, Saddle, Spa guests with the opportunity to experience the best of the region and benefit from our strong partnerships with our neighbors.”

But the most appealing part of the package might very well be that it truly does have something to offer everyone. The massive grounds include tennis courts, golf courses and hiking trails. You can opt to spend your day horseback riding, interacting with animals at the petting zoo (there’s a miniature pony, FYI) or relaxing at the lake. Or, you can have a more leisurely trip, putting in some quality time at the spa and lounging by the pool, all while enjoying a glass of local wine. It’s the perfect mixture of a relaxing trip to wine country, a traditional ranch vibe and all the resort-like amenities necessary for a luxury getaway.

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