I grew up in California in the 1960’s, the place every clear-thinking kid on the planet wanted to be: 650 miles of sandy beaches, Disneyland, the "scene" in San Francisco. But my family didn’t take vacations to those spots. We didn’t even take vacations, strictly speaking. We took research trips to Ireland, which my historian father had dedicated his life to studying and writing about. Other kids whiled away their summers driving around our state seeking family-oriented fun. I was forced to remove half the comic books and Barbies from my TWA in-flight bag to accommodate stacks of note cards on the Land League and the Black and Tans. One year, my father decided to revive his journalistic career by filing a report on the anniversary of Internment, a vile process by which suspected IRA members living in Northern Ireland were thrown into prison without charges or trial. Whether it was his idea or Mom’s to bring the kids along I do not know, but I recall very clearly a night in the bar of the Europa Hotel, in Belfast, listening to gunfire and waiting for a mechanic to abandon the cause of a 32-county united Ireland long enough to repair the four flat tires we got while driving over shattered glass.
Related: America's Best Dude Ranches
Consequently, I have been obsessed not just by the notion of vacationing in California—Sunshine! Coca-Cola! Due process!—but by the idea of taking a holiday entirely given over to innocent pleasures. I want wholesomeness so aggressive it borders on the simpleminded. I want the child-centered getaways I was robbed of in my youth, and if my kids have a good time too, all the better. And so it was that the four of us—my husband, Rob, a toy-company executive who was looking forward to playing tennis and doing some fishing, our eight-year-old twins, Patrick and Conor, and I—set out from our Los Angeles home last winter break, bound for the Alisal, the most beloved dude ranch in the state.
Dude ranches, of course, are devoted to a self-conscious immersion in the Western experience of the Roy Rogers/Lone Ranger/"Happy Trails to You" variety. But they are equally devoted to the pursuit of a particularly American kind of niceness. The theory is that the debased urbanite will come to a ranch, be transformed by a Tom Mix code of optimism, self-reliance, and strenuous physical exercise, and return home not just revitalized but morally improved. And that’s pretty much what happens at the Alisal, where you play at being a cowpoke all day: riding trails into fog-shrouded mountains, gathering around campfires, sitting silently on horseback watching real cowboys herd cattle up through the passes. How much of a visitor’s experience is "authentic"? None of it. All of it. Who cares?
The Alisal is a two-hour drive from L.A., up north past the beautiful beaches of Santa Barbara, then east 13 miles into the Santa Ynez Valley. From the moment we turned onto the Alisal’s wide allée of sycamores—bordered by a tidy row of cream-colored guest cottages on one side and a dozen chestnut horses gamboling in a sun-dappled paddock on the other—I was a figure in a jerky black-and-white movie I’d been watching all my life. Surely I’d remembered to pack a red bandanna?
Ah, there it was, waiting for me for $4 at the front desk, along with a hearty welcome, a schedule of the day’s events, and instructions about where to find the wrangler who would arrange the week’s riding. My children—whose exposure to Western lore had been confined to Woody and Bo Peep’s romance in the Toy Story movies—fell immediately in line, behaving the way kids are supposed to: they struck up a friendship with two other children and proceeded to catch frogs in the stream while Rob and I checked in.
The guest operation at the Alisal (which has 73 cottages) is small in relation to the 10,000-acre ranch. It is also expensive and, in its way, fancy. The families who vacation here have been doing so for years, and they hail from tony, Sunset magazine locales: Pasadena, San Diego, and the nicer suburbs around San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle. They have much in common with one another, the most central of these commonalities being money. They may demand, as only the rich will, rooms that lack telephones and televisions, and they may desire to get up at 6:30 in the morning so that they can ride an hour through inclement weather to a pancake buffet, but don’t misunderstand: they also want good food, a decent wine list, king-size beds, a large, heated outdoor pool, and two championship golf courses. That the Alisal caters to each of these tenderfooted whims is not a violation of the dude ranch spirit, but rather its essence.
Dude ranching has its roots in the 19th century, when ranches began to offer board to Easterners intrigued by the romance of the American West. By the 1920’s—when luxurious train travel, in combination with Hollywood’s production of two-reel westerns, lured the wealthiest tourists—dude ranches were going great guns.
The Alisal, a cattle ranch since the mid 1800’s, opened to guests in 1943. Its spacious rooms are tricked out the way an indulgent mother of the 1950’s might have decorated the room of a boy deep in a cowboys-and-Indians phase. Wrought-iron broncobusters adorn the walls, along with sepia-toned photos of cattle drives and prize horses. The rooms have fireplaces, and the maids slip in to deliver wood in the morning and to turn down the blankets—thick wool in serape stripes —at night. Each family is assigned its own linen-covered table in the excellent restaurant, so an unforced camaraderie develops among the clans clustered together.
During our stay, I was often reminded to "remember the Alisal Way." The Alisal Way was never explicitly defined, but I caught on quickly. It meant not holing up in your room, reading; not using a cell phone in public, or crowding around the library’s two computers, or using coarse language. It meant being friendly to the other guests and making sure your kids don’t hog the shuffleboard. It meant taking the dress code for dinner (jackets for men, party clothes for children) seriously. It meant, in short, behaving yourself, which shouldn’t seem like an unusual requirement at an expensive resort, but in my experience is increasingly rare. If there is a golden time and place that the Alisal conjures, it is not so much the West of the 1880’s as it is a Sun Belt tennis club of the 1950’s, a place of excess matched in equal measure by restraint, where the pursuit of costly fun is held so closely in check by the old notions of decency and propriety that it never veers into vulgarity.
And so we passed our days, going on hikes and hayrides, fishing for big mouth bass, and collecting eggs from the petting zoo’s 10 laying hens. The boys joined in ad hoc baseball games, dipped into the art room, and played endless rounds of pool and Ping-Pong. Other than the riding, which can be as strenuous as you want it to be, many of the activities are the kind one finds at preschools and old-age homes. For the first time in 40 years (and perhaps the last time for 30 more), I was invited to water-color. After dinner, which is long and inky-drinky, accompanied by lashings of local wine and preceded, in country-club fashion, by a cocktail hour—one thing I noticed about the Alisal guests is that they can really hold their liquor—there are nightly events that children, parents, and ancient, footing-the-bill grandparents all engage in: bingo and dance contests and, throughout December, cowboy carolers. This is exactly the sort of intergenerational, hokey fun that my intellectual parents despised and that I adore. I didn’t miss a moment.
I never wanted to leave and might be there to this day—perfecting my shuffleboard game, doting on Samson and Delilah, the two miniature horses—had our bill not become stratospheric and our room in demand. By check-out time, the next lucky inhabitants of cottage 31 were alreadying bearing down on the resort. We rejoined civilization as soon as we left the gates—picking up cell-phone service when we hit the 101 and Radio Disney near Oxnard—and I realized that what I had escaped at the ranch wasn’t just the harassment of the everyday; it was the essential nature of adulthood, which has always seemed to me to be more about thinking than doing. It had been a holiday in which I had learned nothing, risked nothing, and discussed nothing of greater importance than the relative merits of the 10-ounce New York strip and the seven-ounce filet. I could have taken the family to Dublin for what it cost to spend a few days at the Alisal. But I didn’t want to go to Dublin. What I wanted was a second crack at childhood. And at the Alisal, that’s exactly what I got.
Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. Her late father, Thomas Flanagan, wrote a trilogy of historical novels set in Ireland, including The Year of the French.
Alisal Guest Ranch Resort 1054 Alisal Rd., Solvang, Calif.; 888/425-4725; www.alisal.com; cottages from $465.
Living the ranch life is a 12-month proposition at these spots. Care to spend a fun-filled winter week in the saddle—or on a Sno-Cat?
Hidden Meadow Ranch
"Miss Piggy," the largest Tucker Sno-Cat in the world, will deliver you to the backcountry for sledding, skiing, and snowshoeing. Or try your luck at ice fishing in the stocked pond. There’s Apache dancing and storytelling, constellation classes, and woodworking here, too. But horseback riding is the big attraction: kids have been known to wake up at 5 a.m. to groom and feed the team.
Greer, 866/333-4080; hiddenmeadow.com; adults from $525 per night, kids ages 4 to 7 $75, including meals and activities; note that the ranch is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays from Labor Day to May 15.
Peaceful Valley Ranch
If you’re on the pro side of the snowmobile debate, this ranch, surrounded by 800,000 acres of national forest, is the place for you. There’s snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sleigh rides. Or, put on your boots and stop by the dance hall, specially designed for hootenannies.
Lyons; 800/955-6343; peacefulvalley.com; adults from $165 per night, kids 4 to 12 $55, including meals.
Bar W Guest Ranch
Go for a bracing trail ride, or work on your barrel running, team penning, and pole bending in the indoor arena. Register for the Valhalla Adventures program (December through April 1; from $200 per person) for backcountry skiing and snowboarding in 35 square miles of powder—you’ll get there via a Häglund BV 206 army transport vehicle and can arrange to sack out in a yurt 18 miles from the closest road.
Whitefish, 866/828-2900; thebarw.com; doubles from $65, each additional guest $25, including breakfast and activities.
320 Guest Ranch
At this bonafide working ranch, founded by Montana’s first female doctor, guests celebrate the new year on a starlit sleigh ride, with a backcountry stop for chili and hot apple cider. By day, catch a snow coach tour of Yellowstone, or go snowshoeing, back-country skiing, or dog sledding in the Gallatin National Forest.
Big Sky, 800/243-0320; 320ranch.com; cabins for four from $156, including breakfast.
Resort at Paws Up
After the sun sets on BBQ season, the staff assembles an outdoor skating rink and a warming hut for hot chocolate. Young guests who join the "Kids Corps of Discovery" program get to go geocaching and roping with a wrangler. The Christmas package (December 22-29; doubles from $3,922) comes with a visit from Santa, a Christmas tree in your cabin, and wrangler stockings.
Greenough; 866/894-7969; pawsup.com; adults from $285 per night, kids 4 to 11 $65, including meals; note that the ranch is closed Nov. 1-18 and Nov. 26-Dec. 13.
Spring Creek Ranch
Go snowshoeing with the resident naturalist at this wildlife sanctuary resort 1,000 feet above Jackson, and schedule an astronomy night. Spring Creek can arrange sleigh rides through the National Elk Refuge, followed by lunch at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Book a room between December 4th and 17th and get two free lift tickets per night for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Jackson Hole; 800/443-6139; springcreekranch.com; doubles from $195, including breakfast.