by Trina Hendry

Growing up in Canada, I spent a good many hours of my teenage years at the barn with my beloved quarter horse, Lady.  Much to my parents' relief, I was way too busy mucking stalls and horseback riding to care about getting into trouble in the typical ways a teenager might. The reason I bring this up is because I have always had a passion for horses. Fast forward a decade or two to where I am now, living in the "wild west" metropolis that is LA, and I am happy to say that I have rediscovered my inner cowgirl via the Alisal Guest Ranch Resort & Spa, located in Santa Barbara wine country on the outskirts of the traditional Danish, yes I said Danish, town of Solvang, California.

This gem of a dude ranch, while unique in its own right, reminds me of the set of Dirty Dancing with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray. No, the movie wasn't actually set on a ranch, rather a resort in New York's Catskill Mountains, but the feeling is the same.  As I drove down the Alisal's driveway, lined with sycamore trees and quaint, white-washed cottages to the left, and horse pastures and endless rolling hills to the right, I began to feel as if I was stepping back in time, perhaps the 1960's, when only the simple things in life mattered. 

The Alisal, which is located on 10,500 glorious acres, has been a respite for families for more than 40 years. I can understand why, with its old-world charm, connection with nature, and endless activities for guests of all ages, from its culinary programming to leisurely sports like tennis and golf, and my fave, horseback riding! 

On my first visit, I was lucky enough to attend their twice-annual event called BBQ Bootcamp, where the resort's executive chef, along with Frank Ostini, chef-owner of the Hitching Post II (made famous in the movie Sideways) turn an exclusive group of guests into BBQ aficionados. From spice blending to grilling lessons, and everything in between, this event is the best thing since beef brisket. 

One of my favorite things to do every time I visit is the Breakfast Ride., an Alisal tradition. Cowboys and girls wake up at the crack of dawn to the sound of the resident rooster, congregate at the barn, and saddle up for a glorious trail ride to the Old Adobe, where a hearty cowboy breakfast awaits. Serenaded by a cowboy singer/poet, guests feast on secret-recipe pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns, quesadillas, fresh fruit, and more, before making the hour-long journey back to the barn. For those of you who prefer not to ride, you can load up on a hay wagon. Watch out for the tarantulas sunning themselves on the hot pavement. So cool!

On another occasion, we visited the Alisal with a different intention in mind - to explore the region's burgeoning wine scene. Located in the heart of this culinary hotspot, the Alisal is the ideal place to rest one's hat while taking in the wineries, restaurants and gourmet shops nearby.  

We ventured into Los Olivos, a small town in the Santa Ynez Valley, where a number of the local wineries have set up tasting rooms. A simple stroll down the main street and you'll be tempted by at least a dozen places, including Carhartt Vineyard, the  Bubble Shack and Larner Vineyards. If checking out actual wineries is your thing, I would recommend Sunstone Winery, where you can can cozy up to the olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting bar, and Stolpman Vineyards, which makes award-winning syrahs along with some of the most unique wines in the region. 

We ended our wine country tour at Global Gardens, where we tasted the yummiest organic California olive oils around.

It is fair to say that the Alisal is one of my favorite places in the entire world. It's where I rediscovered my love for horses, after all.

Insider tip: Just down the road from the resort, right off US 101, is a little farmstead called Folded Hills. You must pop in there for fresh-farm produce, local preserves and provisions, and a gander at the heritage pigs.