Pony Up and Wine Down

The River Course at Alisal

Hop on an easy flight to Santa Barbara and take a 30-minute drive north along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway to the charming Danish town of Solvang and the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Here you can pony up to the trail rides, golf 36 holes and sip the local wines.

Alisal is the native term for sycamore grove. The mighty trees still guard the grounds and courses where generations of families make this an annual retreat to step back in time, slow down a bit and play together. Cabins have no TV and no phone but they do have comfortable beds and upscale amenities, situated by streams and cloaked with shade from the sycamores. Wood crackles in the fireplaces. Frogs croak a nighttime lullaby and roosters crow the morning alarm on this dude/golf ranch. 

Sashaying through the sycamore and eucalyptus trees around the hillsides next to Alisal Creek, the Alisal Ranch Golf Course is narrow. A shot making strategy is better than grip and rip. Long time resident and Golf Director, Dave Hartley knows everyone and says, “They all just want to know how to hit the ball straight.”

The River Golf Course at Alisal, celebrating 25 years in October, runs parallel to the Santa Ynez River. It has wider fairways, fewer trees and fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and the edge of Solvang. The River Grill and Proshop serves elevated panoramic vistas as well as great chow with indoor or patio seating. There we ran into Arizona’s own Shirley Furlong, LPGA Pro at Whirlwind Golf Club as she was teaching a travel group with Bird Golf. Brook Bell is the energetic Golf Director at the River Course. The new superintendent, Nick Smith has transformed both courses into championship caliber conditioning after a long, extreme drought. 

Hole #7 of the River Course was the set location for the golf cart chase scene in the 2004 Indie wine film, “Sideways.” The movie sparked a new interest in pinot noir and spurred an influx of wine tourism. Air warms one degree per mile inland from the coast and the warm days in the valleys give way to cool ocean breezes in the night, perfect for growing wine for the last 45 years. In the heart of central California wine country there were 67 wineries before “Sideways”. Hopeful vintners flocked to the area increasing the number to 132, but reality has whittled it down to a robust 83 total. 

While the area’s popularity is a product of destination evolution, the 10,000-acre Alisal Guest Ranch continues its traditional dude ranch allure with over 120 horses grazing the hillsides. Say ‘Howdy’ to Cowboy Blake, who breaks them in as lead horses. A whole staff of wranglers assists guests at the barn. Choose from several trail rides or lessons and saddle up next to the pigs, chickens and goats in the barnyard. Beginner rides take a slow pace through the wind-swept hills of flowing grass, dotted with oak trees and postcard views. Intermediate groups add a trotting gait past the grazing cattle. Advanced riders cover more territory since their speed includes galloping. Giddy up around Alisal Lake where eagles nest. 

Famous folks like Fergie and Kurt Russell come to the area to “wine down.” Halfway between Hollywood and Hearst Castle, stars and families alike find a retreat and count on their privacy. Clarke Gable was married in the adult library, which has the only TV on premise. 

Musicians entertain in the Oak Room Bar next to the Ranch Room where families and friends dine on fabulous food. Nobody cries over spilled milk but everyone dresses up for dinner. It’s tradition. So is family playtime on the grassy oval, the croquet lawn or horseshoe pit. Play Marco Polo or relax at the pool and soak bums in the Jacuzzi after riding. Kinks can be worked out at the full service spa or stretched at the fitness center. Cycle, hike or hit the tennis courts and golf courses. Shuttles transport to the lake for boating or fishing. Sign up for archery or air rifle, gather eggs or feed and groom the animals. Arts and crafts are another distraction to eliminate boredom from the ranch language. Enjoy yourselves intimately, without technology, how novel! 

The 73 accommodations are likely booked with repeat customers during the summer months. September-May, one nightly price includes meals and activities. Adult beverages and spa treatments are extra. Any time is a good time at the Alisal Guest Ranch. www.alisal.com

Alice and Danny Scott are known as America’s Golfing Couple and travel the world writing for many publications. Visit their website at www.americasgolfingcouple.com.