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Oct 29, 2007
The Alisal: Horse for the Holidays - Forbes

California Vacation Package Specials

Santa Ynez Valley: There are few things more worth getting out of bed for thana horse waiting to carry you over the oak-etched Santa Ynez mountains before the morning sun has yanked the Alisal Guest Ranch out of the shadows.

All right, there are a few other things, like the stroll across the Alisal's broad lawn for huevos rancheros before a few rounds on one of the two golf courses, the shooting and archery ranges, the horseshoe court and all the other opportunities to channel your inner John Wayne.

Nestled in the coastal highlands 38 miles north of Santa Barbara, the Alisal is a retreat more akin to a club than a hotel. At least a third of the staff have been here for over a decade and know the repeat guests by name.

"These guys raised me during the summers," one annual guest told me as her own kids were being led around the paddock by one of the Alisal's affable old-timers. It's easy to tune into the anachronistic charm of the place, where there are no phones or TVs in the rooms and a bundle of red oak is delivered to your fireplace every day. Oh, and save the ten-gallon hats for Disneyland; this is a sport-coat-for-dinner type of ranch.

The Alisal has been a hallowed institution for four generations of city slickers, including a lot of Hollywood heroes--Clark Gable got married here in 1949, and modern screen cowpokes like Kevin Costner and John Travolta are sometimes seen galloping around the ranch.

A stately alley of ancient sycamores ("alisal" being the local Chumash Indian word for sycamore grove) off the highway leads into the 10,000-acre spread. Thank the Mexican government for the ranch's enormous size and pristine condition. Back in 1843 it granted the land to one of its loyal officers. Only three other families have owned the ranch since then, and each in turn kept almost all of the original land grant intact, a great rarity in California.

I felt like a dashing officer myself the first day when, having moved into one of the Alisal's comfortable bungalows, I brought my sons down to the 100-acre lake for some shooting practice with Dale Combs, the ranch's resident Air Force sharpshooter. OK, so we only used air rifles, but after an hour with Dale we all felt ready for the Battle of Stalingrad. Fly-fishing lessons, mountain biking, tennis and wine tasting were all on that afternoon's schedule--where were these people when I was sent off to summer camp?

But the ultimate reason to come to the Alisal is to ride its famously well-trained, purebred American quarter horses on its 50 miles of trails. Riding is taken very seriously here--this is, after all, where the legendary trotter Lou Dillon and the 1925 Kentucky Derby winner Flying Ebony were raised. During dinner the wranglers wander amongst the tables discussing next day's ride with the same earnestness as the wine steward hawking selections from the Alisal's excellent cellar--the Santa Ynez Valley has been on a grape high ever since the oenophile movie Sideways was shot hereabouts three years ago.

And so, shortly after sunup, I found myself on the back of a tolerant critter riding up the side of the Santa Ynez Valley. The Technicolor landscapes of gnarled oaks and dry hills could have been painted by Van Gogh. The riding itself was pure Clint Eastwood, with relaxed sauntering up through the hills punctuated by brisk gallops along their crests. Frankly, up until then, most of my knowledge of horses had been gleaned from glue labels. Now I'd say I'm good for at least another two generations of annual cowpoke get-togethers at the Alisal.--Finn-Olaf Jones

The Setup

Alisal Guest Ranch, (805) 688- 6411, Rates are $465 to $595 with breakfast and dinner, double occupancy.

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