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.