Retreat to the Ranch

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Luxury travelers take to the Wild West for horseback riding and resort amenities.

By Lauren Matich | Photos courtesy of Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

There’s an unexpected symmetry between the rhythmic plodding of a horse’s hooves and the cyclical surf of the ocean. The same similarities can be found looking out over the expansive swells of the Pacific and facing the rolling hills of lush, green grass in open country. Taking a Western-inspired adventure at a guest or dude ranch seems a world away from the coast of Laguna Beach, but in many ways, it’s not; there’s an inherent appreciation for nature, magnificent vistas, quaint accommodations, activities morning through night and delicious food to keep a cowboy—or girl’s—tank filled, just like the many amenities of the vibrant beach town.

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort is an interesting juxtaposition of peaceful tranquility and exciting experiences—which could also be said of Laguna. The idyllic grounds encompass 10,000 acres of land with miles of horse and hiking trails, a 100-acre lake and two golf courses. The ranch is nestled just outside of the Danish town of Solvang, Calif., making the three-hour, coastal drive just right for a long weekend escape. Whether your idea of heaven is a hay wagon ride to a full brunch spread, a massage after a tennis match or horseback rides along hilltops and sycamore groves, Alisal has it all.

Rustic, cozy cottages at Alisal invite guests to unplug.
Rustic, cozy cottages at Alisal invite guests to unplug.

The destination opened to guests in 1946 and is now one of the most-lauded ranches in the country. Alisal has been noted for offering an otherworldly retreat for Hollywood celebrities and, accordingly, offers visitors touches of luxury to balance the two elements found in its name: ranch and resort.

Guests are welcomed into cottages made cozy by Southwestern decor and wood-burning fireplaces, complete with instructions for city slickers. The rustic accents offer a sense of comfort in fully updated amenities and views of grassy pastures with fog-covered hills in the background. The abodes are also the place to embrace unplugging from the world with no phones or televisions, but it’s assured that guests rarely miss either with a full schedule of ways to stay busy.


Ranch-Style Recreation

Perfect for a family escape, the ranch is outfitted with countless opportunities for all ages to get moving and learn together. Shuffleboard, volleyball, horseshoes and fishing are a few year-round favorites, but there’s also a chance to find excitement on a ropes course or to visit a weekly country fair. Younger guests enjoy getting an up-close look at the many animals on the property. A trip to the barnyard reveals cattle, miniature horses, goats, birds, reptiles and hands-on activities such as feeding animals and gathering eggs laid by the hens. Kids can also participate in the cowboy lifestyle with a variety of lessons such as riding horses and roping steer.

The 18-hole golf courses are open year-round.
The 18-hole golf courses are open year-round.

The fun isn’t limited to pint-sized visitors. Adults can hit the trails with mountain bikes and guided nature hikes, and try their hands at fly-fishing, air rifles or playing a few rounds on either of the ranch’s two golf courses. There is also entertainment every evening, from live music and dancing to movie showings.

Like any dude ranch, the familiar whinny of horses at Alisal beckons guests to the stables for rides of all kinds, which start at 7:30 a.m. Returning guests know not to miss the breakfast rides that take place three times a week during the summer. The spread includes a ranch-style buffet where guests socialize over buttermilk pancakes and more before being captivated by Western music or lines of cowboy poetry recited from memory.


Culinary Adventures

Once guests work off breakfast in the saddle, lunch can be found at any of the resort’s four eateries, but everyone gathers in the Ranch Room for dinner nightly.

Departing from the casual daytime schedule, dinner is the time to put your best foot forward for a gourmet meal prepared by the resort’s classically trained French chef, Pascal Godé. Adhering to tradition, the resort’s affinity for finer things is embodied in the dining room’s upscale dress code, which requires jackets for the men and dressy options for women and children.

Dinner is a fine-dining affair at Alisal.
Dinner is a fine-dining affair at Alisal.

Fresh specials are always available, but the menu’s staple comes from the grill. Selections of meat and vegetables are prepared on Santa Maria-style barbecues, cooking devices that are specific to the region and use a crank system to control the heat applied to ingredients. Summers warrant special, more casual alfresco affairs with the unique culinary equipment as the main star, and Alisal is happy to oblige.

Fresh, grilled seafood is served near the lake on Monday nights, but the backyard experience is elevated with a full bar, live music and boating. Wednesdays are marked by a rodeo, where brave guests can show off their riding skills and work up an appetite for a Southwestern-style cookout with country music and dancing. On Saturdays, all of the guests enjoy a poolside dinner cooked on the Santa Maria grills and, in addition to the full bar, a summer wine list from the nearby Central Coast is curated to complement the smoke and spices of barbecue flavors of the night.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that there’s something for every traveler at the ranch. Sophisticated, regional cuisine attracts the culinary minded, while those looking for a restful retreat can indulge in spa treatments and leisurely nature walks. Art lovers will find their own version of paradise in the real-life vistas, and even the most inexperienced cowboys will be masterfully commanding their horses by the time they check out. At Alisal and across the country, the age of rustic luxury has arrived by the bootstraps.




Colorado: C Lazy U Ranch

The 96-year-old Granby-area ranch outside of Denver—and a two-hour flight from Orange County—calls itself Colorado’s original luxury guest ranch. Those looking for an equestrian experience will delight in its offerings: In addition to the regular rides, the ranch has special clinics with guest instructors, lessons in horsemanship, advanced work with cattle, and a weekly “Shodeo,” where riders of all ages show off the skills they’ve acquired. General Manager David Craig credits the success of the horsemanship programs to the head wrangler Bill Fisher. Bill is an industry veteran and ranch employee of more than 50 years; David explains that he does assessments of all of the riders, matching each with the perfect horse.

Photo Courtesy of C Lazy U Ranch
Photo Courtesy of C Lazy U Ranch

Beyond the corral, C Lazy U seems to have found the magic combination of amenities to suit the interests of nearly every guest on the property. The resort offers guides for Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing in a private 2-mile stretch of the Colorado River, mountain biking, trap shooting and even “glamping” (glamorous camping). To soothe tired muscles, a spa strikes the perfect balance between cowboy and comfort with massages in nature, wraps, scrubs and copper-tub soaks.

Another successful aspect of the resort, David adds, is the thought put into the kids’ programs. Children are chaperoned by counselors who are never short on activities for play, and adults leave the stress of child care behind. “What happens is adults and kids have great vacations, but they’re not necessarily the same vacation,” he says.

The extra touches have paid off for the resort. In 2014, it was named No. 31 on Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards for the world’s 100 best resorts and hotels.




Montana: Mountain Sky Guest Ranch

If you can spare the time it takes to trek to Emigrant, Mont., you won’t be disappointed to end your journey at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch. Located in a small inlet of land cut out of Yellowstone National Park, the ranch has been open since 1929 and boasts a return visit rate (87 percent) higher than its average occupancy (85 guests). The ranch is broken up into independent cabins, but Yancey Arterburn, Mountain Sky’s general manager, promises that you won’t be cooped up inside too much.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Sky Guest ranch
Photo courtesy of Mountain Sky Guest ranch

Days are often spent on horseback—it’s the best way to see the surrounding terrain, a highlight of the ranch. Mountain Sky welcomes guests for weeklong-minimum stays during summer. “We do an orientation on the first morning that guests arrive to get them comfortable with the horses,” he explains. “It’s always helpful to start that way.”

From there, rides operate for all skill levels, from led trail outings to daylong rides with picnic lunches, loping and working with cattle for experienced riders.

Guests also have the opportunity to enjoy a golf course designed by former pro and famed architect, Johnny Miller, as well as white-water rafting, sporting clays, fishing, yoga twice daily and endless hiking destinations.

Kids have the option of attending programs with activities that include treasure hunts, sports competitions and learning about the environment. At 7 p.m., guests gather in the main lodge for dinner, which is followed by a rotating schedule of evening entertainment. The wide array of activities, riding and beautiful surroundings make the ranch a destination for many different groups of travelers, the general manager says, be they multigenerational, riding-oriented or individuals looking to explore a new sort of country. “It’s a special place and something I think [Mountain Sky] does better than anyone in the industry.”

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