California culture today is mostly glossed over by Los Angeles glitz, car culture individualism, surf culture stoke and medical cannabis toke. That’s new California, not old. The Alisal Ranch, in the Santa Ynez Valley, is the way California was, and it’s a dose of the good life this rich land once offered.
This land is ranch land, and it has been since 1843. Back then, the cows rolled in when Raimundo Carrillo inherited a 13,500-acre land grant from the Mexican government. A century later, Charles Pete Jackson Jr. bought the land and decided to turn the cattleman’s quarters into dude-ranch accommodations, opening the Alisal Ranch to the vacationing public in 1946. The Jackson family still owns the Ranch. And, despite the frequent pock of a tennis ball off a racket face and the crisp ping of the occasional golf ball, most reverberations are of the Western sort: a horse’s whinny, the clang of the dinner bell, the slow melody of cowboy poetry and the murmurs of a singer with an acoustic guitar in the main hall’s bar.
The Ranch holds 73 suites and studios, two golf courses, a large pool, around a dozen buildings and a handful of tennis courts. As it stands today, the property widens to 10,000 acres, which can be explored on horseback, mountain bike or meandering hike. The best time to come is the spring, when it’s still cool in the morning and the fog lingers past daybreak.
The Alisal Ranch, in the Santa Ynez Valley, is the way California was, and it’s a dose of the good life this rich land once offered.
Rooms don’t have television or telephones. They have wood-burning fireplaces, Pendleton wool blankets, and furniture made from raw wood. In the Select Suite I stayed in, there was no A/C, so I left the windows open and let the cool western evenings regulate temperature. Turndown service includes a note with weather info and the next day’s activities, eliminating the need to check your phone (there is wi-fi, upon request) and encouraging further disconnection. Breakfast and dinner are included in the daily rate, and meals take place at the Ranch Room, where a no-jeans and mandatory-jacket rule retains the vestiges of ranch propriety from times long past. Adjacent to the dining area is the Oak Room, with local beer from acclaimed Firestone Walker and Figueroa Brewing on tap.
The Western way of life, mixed with mid-century luxe vacation activities (tennis, golf, massages, horseback riding) makes for a worthwhile-enough transportation back to a California that’s long been forgotten (or kept hidden away by families who still own private ranches). Yet the thing that sells the Alisal is not just a vestige of times past. It’s the stillness of the night, when the crickets’ song wanes and the fog rolls in, and you can rest warm underneath a wool blanket as the fire dies down beyond the foot of the bed. It’s the long hikes on a property that’s preserved some of California’s most premium landscape. And it’s the feeling of pride in coming to a place that won’t succumb to the way that California has now become — or at least not until the new California can be as good as the old ways of the proper West.