With my chilly right hand clasped tightly around the reigns, our group of five riders on horseback sauntered around the bend. Oak and sycamore trees weighted by drapes of sage-colored lichen speckled the miles of lush hillside ahead. It’d been nearly 15 years since I’d seen the world from this perspective, but I was back in the saddle, taking it all in at one of California’s historic haciendas, the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort.
My last stint at horse camp in Bear Valley resulted in my best friend Gracey being bucked off her horse Rainbow, and me nursing a bumped noggin from a killer combination of heat stroke, learning to shoe a horse and a metal corral gate. It’s a shame it all ended so suddenly because I loved galloping through the dry high dessert terrain, wind blowing through my hair, experiencing the power and grace of equine animals and the nature that surrounded us. I felt that unbridled freedom again on the breakfast ride at the Alisal, and now I’m chomping at the bit for more.
The 10,000-acre property is best explored on horseback, especially during the verdant months of spring. The blanket of cool fog that covered the undulating hillside was slowly pulled back as we headed up the hill to the old adobe where our cowboy breakfast waited for us. Since my partner is a beginner and it’d been a while since I’d been in the saddle, we rode with the beginner group. The less advanced riders meet at 7:30 a.m., and the Alisal offered us hot chocolate and coffee to keep us warm while things got organized.
Our wrangler, Jesse James (his real name, I promise), has an affinity for this part of the Wild West reminiscent of his infamous counterpart. In fact, the notorious American outlaw laid low for a time in Paso Robles, just a stones throw away from the Alisal, which our more wholesome, modern Jesse James now calls his home.
Jesse explained that “Alisal” translates to “grove of sycamores” in the Chumash Indian language, and along the early-morning ride it’s easy to see why. Trees line the 100-acre man-made lake, where guests can go fishing, catching blue gill and largemouth bass. They also provide shade to the long wooden breakfast tables at the old adobe, which will come in handy in the summer months on the ranch.
The fare served at the end of the breakfast ride at the Alisal is thankfully more luxurious than the Wild Western diet of franks and beans; they pride themselves on having the best flapjacks around and it’s the doggone truth. Ladle some warm melted butter and maple syrup over the fluffy golden cakes as cowboys serenade with old Western tunes on their guitars and taste the truth. The buffet also serves scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, biscuits and gravy, fruit tea and coffee.
After the ride, my belly was full and my bum was sore. My weary bones needed a rest. And what better way to decompress than a spa treatment? The Alisal’s spa offers a variety of treatments and facials, but the Nojoqui mud wrap and sage bliss massage ($200/90 minutes) is not to be missed. It starts out with a tingling body brush down that stimulates the blood flow. Then, a blend of algae, Spanish sage and deep sea mud are applied to the entire body. Before the mud starts to dry, the masseuse cocoons you in a gentle plastic wrap so as to utilize your body heat. As the wrap works its magic, some reflexology and hand-scalp work is done.
Then it’s time to rinse off in one of their stone-lined showers and head back to the therapist’s room for round two: a therapeutic massage with sage lotion. The native sage aromatherapy works to ease sore muscles, and is also said to be good for rejuvenating the digestive system, liver and kidneys.
The Nojoqui treatment is named after the original title the Chumash inhabitants called the ranch before it was granted to Raimundo Carillo. The property continued to function off raising livestock until Peter Jackson transformed the property to a guest ranch in 1946. When it first opened, it was suited to house 30 guests at a time during the summer months. Today, the guest ranch is open year-round and can host up to around 250 guests in peak season. Though the property has shifted its focus to hospitality, the Alisal still raises between 1500-2000 cattle each year.
The charm of the ranch is that you never really have to leave to have a good time. Between the 18-hole golf course, lush hiking trails, fishing lake, and exercise center, there’s really no good reason to hit the road. During the summer months the Alisal hosts Wednesday night rodeos, and also offers crafts classes for children.
One afternoon I spent a few hours perched out on a chase lounge overlooking the golf course, bathing in the sun as chirping birds and the flowing brook provided a Brookstone-eque soundtrack to my leisure reading. Deer have been known to wander around the green, although I didn’t spot any while I was there. I did spot several little cottontail bunnies, frogs and butterflies, though.
When dinnertime rolled around, it was time to head over to the Ranch Room, the formal dining area where guests converge for supper. The ranch room offers upscale cuisine prepared by Chef Pascal Godè. Tender, slow braised veal osso bucco with creamy mascarpone polenta was a soul-warming dish on an early spring’s night. In a throwback to old American homestead-style vacations, both breakfast and dinner are included in the room rates, which range from $495-$650/night.
For all the excitement the day provides, there isn’t much to do at night aside from building a roaring fire in the wood-burning fireplace and sipping some red wine. There are no TVs or telephones in the Alisal guest rooms, making it an ideal place for urbanites to unplug and decompress. The only sound is conversation with the ambient background of crickets and a crackling fire.
However, if you want to make a journey into town for the evening, the Hitching Post II is an always-popular spot for steak lovers and movie buffs alike. Since its appearance in Sideways, the restaurant is always packed on weekends, so a reservation is recommended. If you haven’t planned that far out, the bar is a great place to meet other travelers and share stories (though there’s usually a wait for that too during peak hours). Follow up a glass of the house Pinot with a bowl of steaming hot mussels with one of their fine wood-fired, dry aged steaks that are prepared over a fire fueled by red oak. This technique of grilling over an open oak flame was used by the Spanish vaqueros that settled the region, and is another piece of California history that adds to the appeal of the area.
Visitors can also head into Solvang, where there are several wine tasting rooms, shops, quirky and kitschy Danish buildings and restaurants offering local flare. But really, if you’re into unplugged entertainment, the Alisal has it all.
In an age where mega-hotels and grandiosity reign, the ranch provides a humble old-world hospitality that’s often forgotten elsewhere. The property and its caretakers offer a peek into why Central California is such a truly unique place, and why the West has always been considered the promised land for travelers and explorers alike.