The Big Red Barn. Old MacDonald Had a Farm. Baby at The Farm. Let's Go to The Farm. If you've got kids, chances are one of these books is on your bookshelf right now. But when was the last time you actually went to a farm?
If you're a city slicker like us, it's probably been a while. Or maybe never. But here's a way to get immersed in farm life with your kids, if only for a weekend.
The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, Calif., just 40 minutes north of Santa Barbara, is actually a working cattle ranch rather than a farm but it's got all the main characters of a children's story book. Horses? Check. Cows? Check. Goats, pigs, chickens and roosters? Check. Turtles and parrots? Believe it or not, check. But that's just the barnyard.
There's so much more to do at Alisal--most of it ranch-related but surprisingly, much of it is just good, old-fashioned family resort fun. Oh yes, Alisal is extremely family-friendly. Here are some of the activities for you and the kids to try out:
The Lake: The Alisal boasts a 100-acre spring-fed lake where guests can go fishing, boating or kayaking. The lake is stocked with fish so chances are pretty good you'll catch something. Not in the mood to fish? There are peddle boats to take too.
Horseback Rides: There are 50 riding trails at Alisal, all with crazy beautiful views of the Santa Ynez Valley. Scenic trail rides are offered twice daily and evening rides are held in the summer months (June through August.) You can also sign-up for horseback lessons, which are offered in the summer months for kids ages four and up.
Hay Wagon Ride: On Tuesdays and Saturday mornings, guests can ride the horses up to the Adobe, the ranch's historic house, for breakfast. But for those who don't want to ride a horse, or are too young (under 7), you can hitch a ride on the "wagon", which is a open-air truck stuffed with hay bales. Once at the Adobe, a big breakfast buffett is served with eggs, bacon, pancakes, and biscuits and gravy. Cowboys at the Adobe sing songs, recite poems and even lasso up your wild ones.
Lead Around Horse: Available at certain times throughout the week is Bullwinkle, a 31-year-old horse for lead around rides. Just untie Bullwinkle when your kid is ready to ride and then lead him around the small corral. Helmets are provided. Cowboy and cowgirl boots are optional. Riders must be seven or younger.
Egg Gathering: Kids can help gather the eggs from the chicken coop daily at 1:15pm in the barn yard. Before you depart the Alisal, you can even take home a few of your own eggs. The chicken coop is part of the barnyard where kids can roam around petting the animals and feeding the chickens.
Arts & Crafts Room: This was probably the highlight of the stay for our two toddlers--an entire room devoted to arts & crats. The kids made paper bag puppets, beaded key chains for our room key, traced all different kinds of stencils and played with Play-doh. The room also has a Wii, along with a few toys and books. Equipment for outdoor play is available as well.
Pool: If the lake, horseback rides, barnyard animals or arts & crafts don't tire your kid out, the pool should.
Playground: And there's even a playground next to the pool. Amazing! (That little city slicker you see there arrived in a tutu and sparkly shoes but left in jeans and cowgirl boots.)
A Civilized Dining Experience: Included in the room rate at the Alisal is both breakfast and dinner at the Ranch Room. Breakfast in the mornings is casual, with either a buffet or a full menu to choose from but at night, dinner is much more civilized. The Alisal forbids jeans at dinner and requires that gentlemen over the age of 16 wear jackets (they have some on hand if you forget yours.)
We actually welcomed the opportunity to get a little dressed up for a three-course meal with kids. There were also several entree options for kids beyond mac n' cheese and chicken fingers while choices for grown-ups included sea bass, salmon, prime rib, and chateau sirloin. And understanding their clientele very well, the super-friendly dining staff had food on the table in a prompt manner.
After Dinner Activities: These vary depending on the day but typically, the Alisal has after dinner activities for the family to do. During our stay, we played an intense game of musical chairs with a few other families, followed by line-dancing lessons. A great way for the kids to burn off that excess energy (and the sugar rush from ice cream at dinner.)
Solvang: The city made popular by the movie "Sideways" is just five minutes away from Alisal and the kitschy Danish theme makes for a fun (and funny) sojourn into town. Put these on your Solvang To Do list--Paula's Pancake House and any one of the Danish bakeries for--what else?--danishes.
Adult Activities: There are two golf courses at Alisal as well as a fitness center and spa. And don't forget about the wineries of Santa Ynez. You can bring the kids along to some of those wineries but Alisal has a trusted babysitting service on hand to use, if you want some time alone.
NOW, ABOUT THE ROOMS...
There are 73 individual guest units, spread throughout the ranch, ranging from studios to one-bedroom suites. All the units are on the ground-floor so you can roll your strollers right up to the room. And there are parking spaces behind the units too.
These rooms were recently remodeled but they've retained a simplistic California ranch vibe, thanks in part to the wood plank walls, fireplaces and the giant Pendleton blankets that hang from the ceiling (and which are also on the beds.) Families will be most comfortable in the one-bedroom suites which have a sitting area with two daybeds that turn into real beds at night, along with a master bath and a half-bath. But you should know, the rooms have no TVs or telephones. However, there is free WiFi and it’s a speedy signal too.
WHY WE LOVED IT
Even though many hotels and resorts are upping their family offerings beyond a stuffed animal in the room and a kids menu at the restaurant, it's still rare to find an independent property that embraces families the way that Alisal does. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left, we could do everything as a family without hassle. And we're not the only ones who felt that way.
During our time at the resort, we spoke with other families--some vacationing together--who have been returning to the Alisal year after after because the ranch is so accommodating. Another thing we noticed? The staffers often remembered the families from their previous visits.
And it felt really good to get back in touch with nature. If your family is a little too dependent on email, text messaging, apps and social media, a trip to the Alisal is the perfect digital detox. Also, you get to take home this.
WHEN TO GO
Peak time for the Alisal Guest Ranch is the summer when more activities for kids and adults alike are offered. Fall is a much quieter time to go but the cool mornings and evenings at the ranch, as well as the morning hay ride gave us the fall experience we've been missing in Los Angeles.
WHAT TO KNOW
Rates at the Alisal start at $515 a night for studio room while the one-bedroom suites, which we recommend for families of 4 or more, start at $625 a night. That rate includes breakfast and dinner for two people. Children under 3 are free while children ages 3-5 are an extra $50 a night and children over 6 are $85. Those prices include breakfast and dinner for the little ones too. Visa and Mastercard only.
Disclosure: The Alisal Guest Ranch hosted us for the weekend but we took care of all our own food, alcohol, activities and boat rental, along with a few journeys into Solvang for bakery delights. Have a specific question about the resort? Send it to us and we'll answer it for you!
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