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Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Romantic and Family-Friendly

Tucked away in the gorgeous Santa Ynez Valley -- a fertile area that boasts weather balmy enough to grow wine grapes and beckon travelers from around the world intent on soaking up the splendor of life by the California coast -- is the sleepy hamlet of Solvang, population 5,000. Solvang isn’t your typical road-trip stopover. Founded in 1911 by a group of Danish educators, it’s filled with architecture reminiscent of Copenhagen’s cobbled streets and quaint European charm. Solvang is also where you’ll find Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, a getaway that has become a rustic home away from home for harried city dwellers, especially of the LA variety.

The Ranch
Established in 1843, Alisal has grown from a horse and cattle ranch to a multifaceted R&R outpost. Whether you have a taste for adventure or drowsy relaxation, there’s truly something for everyone here. You can take advantage of the resident wranglers’ expertise and go horseback riding through over 50 miles of riding trails, play golf on one of two sprawling courses, go fishing on Alisal’s 100-acre spring-fed lake, or lounge by the pool with a cocktail after a decadent treatment at the spa. Personally, I was content to spend time on our cottage patio, sipping wine and nibbling on Alisal’s delectable signature oatmeal pie, while watching woodpeckers flit around the sycamores (trivia tidbit: in the local Chumash Indian language, “Alisal” translates to “grove of sycamores”).

Part of the charm of Alisal is that it doesn’t attempt to affect the chichi feel of an upper-crust resort. The architecture is as rustic as the locale. Each of the units contains a wood-burning fireplace, high-beamed wooden ceilings reminiscent of a barn loft, local Western accents, and a tranquil environment free of unnecessary distractions like TV (although, given the romance of a fireplace at night, a sound system might have been welcome).

The resort’s 73 guest units, sporting a classic California Ranch design and clustered together in an open plan, resemble an impeccable gated community more than a fancy resort. Factor in things like a cozy arts and crafts room and playground for the tots, an onsite library, and the occasional faint din of kids kicking around a soccer ball on one of the sprawling lawns -- and you’ll understand why Alisal attracts so many families in search of comfort rather than “resorty” exclusivity.

The Food
Of course, a visit to Alisal would be incomplete without sampling some of Chef Pascal Godé’s hearty California cuisine at the Ranch Room. Breakfast buffets and picnic lunches will keep you fueled for the day, but it’s the dinner menu that’ll make you slaver into your napkin. The menu changes each evening and features over 10 entrees, ranging from thickly cut steaks, to pastas, to the catch of the day. You might find it difficult to choose, but you can never go wrong with the 10-oz. Black Angus New York steak (although Chef Godé’s seared boneless lamb dishes come with hearty recommendations from the friendly dining staff). For a first course, try Alisal’s tortilla soup, a mouth-watering yet light concoction peppered with chicken, avocado, cilantro, and crispy tortillas. Vegetarian options also abound, and the stuffed Portobello mushroom (brimming with spinach, pine nuts, and dry jack cheese) easily cuts an impressive figure next to all the heaping meat dishes. Of course, don’t forget wine pairings; the wine menu’s many varietals (many from the Santa Ynez Valley) will make it necessary to ask for a recommendation or two. Heading over to the Oak Room next door for a post-dinner cocktail or live piano entertainment will be just the beginning of a romantic evening, if that’s what you’re after.

The Spa
Relaxation is Alisal’s middle name, and its fitness center and spa provides a nice reprieve from muscles achey from all the outdoor activity. The 6,000-square-foot facility, outfitted with a variety of charming Ranch-style accoutrements, is home to an assortment of treats -- from group and individual fitness classes, to a state-of-the-art cardio/weight room, to the spa. Although I was a bit disappointed with the commodious spa’s lack of essential amenities, such as a steam room or well-equipped locker area to hang my wet bathing suit (as I’d come directly from the pool), I was definitely impressed with my treatment, the “Sun Downer,” a two-hour massage and facial combo that included plenty of hot towels and skillful kneading.

The spa uses two product lines: Cell Renewal Systems (blended with natural and botanical ingredients) and Pharmacopeia (an organic body care line that includes yummy creams and other beauty palliatives). While my facial left me somewhat blotchy and red, the massage was restful and efficiently administered. And given the destination spa environs, it’s probably more likely that clientele will be seeking relaxation over results, anyhow.

The Bottom Line
I had few complaints about Alisal, but there were some factors that made me somewhat dubious of its “resort” moniker. Although it was the middle of January during my visit, the weather was temperate enough to warrant having the poolside snack bar and Chuckwagon Grill restaurant (which boasts outdoor seating) open; neither were. In addition, the uninspired patio furniture that dots the pool area and the perimeter of the property was a little too homespun for my liking, and persnickety visitors might appreciate a more discriminating eye paid to such details.

Granted, I found the family-friendly aspect of Alisal refreshing (places that combine romantic rusticity and fun for the kids are rare, after all); however, honeymooners and childless couples in search of a more exclusive getaway might wish to consider other options. But overall, it’s hard to hold on to your criticisms once the spirit of the place grabs you. The lush backdrop of the Santa Ynez Valley (best experienced on one of Alisal’s horseback rides), the hospitality of the staff, and the unpretentious aura of the place will have you wishing, upon departure, that you could lounge on the grounds of this SoCal hideaway just a little longer.

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort
1054 Alisal Road
Solvang, CA 93463
(800) 688-6411
www.alisal.com