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South Bay Magazine – June 2010

Totally Dude- Days and Nights on the Ranch
By Dianne Bates

It started in the middle of Jeff Bridges’ acceptance speech for Crazy Heart. Then I heard there was a remake of Big Valley in the works. A friend persuaded me to join efforts to save American wild mustangs from slaughter. I seemed to be nursing an inside longing to return from the blindingly instant world of tech relationships and business dealings to a simpler slower place.

I craved Western. I had to get off the speeding bandwagon and ride the horse.

I decided that a visit to the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort near the über-Danish town of Solvang might provide a good transition from the city/hotel/spa/party scene I’d been covering to the laid-back land of open hills and sing-a-long sunsets. So what if they had a spa!

What to wear, what to wear…I stressed over the fact that Alisal’s dining room has a no-jeans policy. What the…? I packed an assortment of cowgirl-punk-business clothes and decided to figure it all out when I got to the ranch.

I breezed through the alpine architecture that is Solvang and, you betcha, soon passed Alisal’s expansive rural golf course and pulled into an oak-lined drive with lovely cottages on one side and a pasture on the other. A canoe was waiting for me at Alisal Lake. A very large canoe. Big enough for an entire tribe. A cold wind blew across the plains (sorry, I had to write that), and the lake was choppy, so I switched to a paddleboat and happily made it to the middle of the lake before my legs gave out. I rested for a bit, watching the tiny lake birds (whose numbers, I later learned, were being diminished by resident bald eagles). I peddled back to shore where several fishing families enjoyed my several attempts to dock and tie my boat.

My room was in a lovely duplex cottage on the stream. The clean and modern western accommodations included a wood-burning fireplace, and that suited me just fine. I headed to the dining room for dinner, striding into the bar in a long dark skirt, Levi’s jacket and eggplant cowboy boots. Oh, and a blue silk calico scarf by Single at my neck. I was Barbara Stanwyck.

Everyone else was dressed in business attire. Except for the staff, I was the only person thematically attired. Ouch. A glass of wine at the bar alleviated my fashion pain. In the Ranch Room, I enjoyed a luscious dinner of horseradish-encrusted salmon and greens, then strolled through the starry, dark bullfrog night to my room, wondering if ALL western-style dining rooms were required to hang red-checkered curtains.

There are no TVs or phones in the rooms so I built a fire, donned my P.J. Salvage stagecoach-and-cowboy jammies and poured myself a glass of 2003 Alisal Santa Barbara County Syrah. Produced by Lucas & Lewellyn winery, the lush 14.5% wine was a perfect finish to a long day. The full-bodied wine burst with a berry rush, and then revealed herbal notes. The long finish was velvety with hints of vanilla. Perfect.

It was never this good on the trail.

7:30 am. Too early, but I’m on a schedule. I threw on some jeans, a man-shirt by Fashion Week’s Seth Wellington, Levi’s jacket, boots and black bowler and headed to the barn for the breakfast trail ride. The corral was crowded with wranglers and families dressed in everything from English riding helmets to hoodies. I, of course, was the only one dressed like Butch Cassidy. It was refreshing to note that no one felt obligated to whip out an iPod.

We all rode in small groups along green trails and valleys filled with deer and cattle. The beautiful ranch was given to actor Leo Carrillo’s grandfather by the king of Spain and is currently used to fatten up cattle for market. I admit it made me a bit sad to see all those cows walking in lush open pastures, eating all that green grass, thinking they must be in heaven, unaware of their fate.
I hadn’t been on a horse in years. The horse knew it, I knew it, and my legs would know it the next day.

We arrived in a clearing where we were served a huge outdoor breakfast cooked on-site. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, biscuits and gravy, hash browns and various breads were piled on plates as cowboy poets and singers entertained the riders. Then another hour ride back. I was beginning to understand the logic of having a beautiful luxurious spa at the resort.

But I had to get home, so I bid the Alisal a fond farewell and headed into the sunset. Was it fun? Yeah, pardner. Real fun.

A few days later, when I got the full use of my legs back, I decided to get a refresher course on horsemanship. I’d seen the look in my mount’s eyes when I disembarked. It was sarcasm. I drove to the Palos Verdes Peninsula for a session at Cowboy Boot Camp. Jim Moore and his wife Lori Barnett own and operate two camps in California. The one in Rolling Hills Estates is located in a horse-owner community filled with miles of horse trails.

I felt Jim sizing me up as he introduced me to various horses. He stressed his emphasis on horsemanship and told me he often trains actors to ride for film and TV. His horse was a huge mustang, and he chose a smaller, older Arabian for me (go figure). As we hit the trail behind his house, he politely advised me about small things I’d forgotten: correct boot placement in the stirrups, posture, and the importance of communicating with your mount.

“Horses know they are just food for predators,” Moore told me. “You have to be in control so they feel safe.” By the end of the ride, I felt I’d regained my former skills as a horsewoman.

There are myriad ways to satiate your western self. Rancho Oso near Santa Barbara is a bit more rustic than the Alisal, and families can even sleep in covered wagons. Marble Mountain in northern California features white water rafting. Most ranches offer riding, fishing and family activities. Many have golf courses and spas. Ranches in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico offer a change of vistas and different versions of cowboy food. If you’re a couch cowboy, there’s always the Autry Museum.

I wouldn’t advise a single person to visit a ranch with the hopes of meeting a potential date, though. Ranches appeal to groups and couples, and most of the horse wranglers and staff are married. I know this because I asked. All those single cowboys of my fantasies — Flint McCullough, Little Joe Cartwright, The Sundance Kid, and Wyatt Earp — returned to my memories. At least the married horse wranglers I met all politely and gentlemanly said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and I guess that will have to do.

Well, technically east, for us Californians, still you can’t get more authentic than Colorado’s Vista Verde Ranch. YES, it’s a luxury ranch and you get to sleep indoors, but as a guest to Vista Verde once told them, “We were treated like royalty, but made to feel like family.” The facilities are rustic yet romantic, the setting breathtaking. Hosting no more than 40 folks at a time, the atmosphere is intimate and accommodating, the staff a joy to interact with. Check out the property in the glorious white winter, riding-friendly summer, or my favorite, autumn, when Steamboat Springs’ explode in seasonal color. You just don’t get that same experience in the Sunshine State.

Top 10 Family Resorts in the US


Thank you to and Gayot for including us in this story!

Top 10 Family Resorts in the US

Geographically diverse, the U.S. offers an overwhelming range of destinations when it comes to planning family getaways. From Wild West ranches to laidback beaches to urban escapes, this list will help you hone in on a place for every interest. It also takes the adult factor into account. You may be a parent, but this is your vacation too, which means you want more than just water slides and bingo nights. What's wrong with a great wine list, spa treatments and golf for mom and dad, along with circus activities, scavenger hunts and fire truck rides for the kids? Understanding the needs of adults and children, these properties are not only for staying together, but for playing together — and apart — while on holiday.

Ojai Valley Inn & Spa 
Popular as a weekend spa and golf escape for Angelenos, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa offers an ideal retreat for both adults and kids. Dating back to the 1920s, this sumptuous property features kid-oriented adult activities such as biking and fishing, as well as Camp Ojai (ages five to twelve), where offerings include animal yoga, Chumash rock painting (based on local Native American traditions) and history hikes. Teens also enjoy dedicated programs, ranging from Friday night "dive-in" movies at the kid's pool and Latin groove dance classes to tennis clinics, golf clinics and special spa treatments. Accommodations are residential in style, with comfy, contemporary ranch décor, and dining celebrates California produce and products. In short, this is the place to go when you want to combine luxury with an enriching experience for all ages. For more information, read a complete hotel review of Ojai Valley Inn & Spa

Steamboat Springs
Vista Verde 
You gotta love a place that boasts its own Kids Wranglers. No, these babysitters in boots don't round 'em up and rope 'em in. Instead, they teach horseback riding basics, host powwows in teepees and fill tiny bellies with nutritious food while you enjoy a wine tasting class or dinner by candlelight. From the welcoming day hayride to the marshmallow roast on the last night, Vista Verde's all-inclusive getaways are filled with traditional ranch activities and a few unusual extras, such as gold panning, hunting for animal tracks and fire truck rides — complete with sirens blaring — into town for hand-cranked ice cream. The ranch has separate programs for younger children and teens, so the older kids can play it cool while taking an adventure ride or embarking on an overnight campout. And if you'd like to come in the winter, kids will find just as much to do, with skiing, snowshoe outings and igloo building. Just outside Steamboat Springs, this working ranch offers lodge accommodation and private cabins with up to three bedrooms. For more information, visit VistaVerde.

Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge 
Antelopes, gazelles and giraffes, oh my! Leave it to Disney — creators of "The Lion King" — to bring the savannas of Africa to Orlando. Four tropical savannas, to be precise, separated by guest room wings. Make sure to ask for a room with a balcony overlooking the wildlife … and don't be surprised when a zebra or wildebeest strolls by (at a safe distance). African style pervades this resort and 43-acre wildlife preserve, from the thatched roofs to handcrafted artifacts to regional cuisines. Kids are invited to participate in cultural safaris, night vision animal viewing and junior research projects; as well, they can hit the waterslide at Uzima pool or check out the flamingos while they play at Hakuna Matata Playground. Adults who want a night out on their own can entrust kids aged three to twelve to Simba's Cubhouse, featuring supervised activities, Disney movies (big surprise) and dinner. Read a complete hotel review of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa 
Kids' clubs are an art form at luxury resorts in Hawaii, but the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa offers more than just a few youth-oriented activities. Everything about the property feels as if it was made to accommodate parents traveling with their offspring, from Atlantis submarine tours (check out the sunken coastal freighter and old passenger plane) to the Friday night fireworks show with hula dancing. This 22-acre beachfront "village" in Waikiki also offers more than a dozen restaurant options, daily wildlife feedings on the grounds and Camp Penguin for ages five to twelve. The half- and full-day programs (for a fee) include diversions such as supervised Hawaiian crafts, lei-making, Hawaiian storytelling and outside visits to places like the Waikiki Museum.

New York City
Four Seasons Hotel New York 
We have always loved the Four Seasons hotel group for its efforts to pamper little ones. Call before you arrive, give the names and ages of your kids, and they will be welcomed with special amenities, appropriately sized robes, board games, coloring books, children's DVDs and complimentary toiletries (for babies). Kids' dishes are offered in the restaurant and on the room service menu, and the range of freebies is seemingly endless: childproofing, cribs and rollaways, Diaper Genies, bottle warmers and even strollers for perambulating Park and Madison Avenues. Take advantage of babysitting services while you hit the spa, and ask the concierge to help arrange carriage rides, museum tours and helicopter excursions. Best of all, there's no extra charge for kids seventeen and under to share a room with their folks. Read a complete hotel review of Four Seasons Hotel New York

Lake Toxaway 
Earthshine Mountain Lodge 
All-inclusive, Earthshine Mountain Lodge introduces kids and parents to an eclectic range of experiences. On Pioneer Mornings, you can apprentice in a blacksmith shop, press apple cider and make candles. And on Cherokee Mornings, you can learn the traditional ways of the Cherokee tribe, with activities that include making pottery and throwing tomahawks. Educational opportunities include the Destination 1840 immersion in living history, and Earth Explorers, where folktales become reality as kids discover their natural surroundings. Because the resort believes that family vacations are about more than just dropping your children off at the "kids' club" and then heading to the spa and golf course, activities here are made for the entire family — creek hikes, turtle tracking and zip-lining are just the beginning. There are even Hunger Games weekends for fans of the popular book. Storybook rooms are available in the hand-built cedar lodge, while the Sunrise Cottage offers a selection of larger family suites. For more information, visit

Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch 
With its scenic championship golf and pampering Spa Avania, this 27-acre Hyatt Regency knows how to meet adult needs. And if those adults happen to be traveling with their youngsters, they can rest assured that they can actually get some R&R while their offspring are entertained at Camp Hyatt Kachina (with two programs for ages three to five and six to twelve). Heavily influenced by Native American culture, the camp offers a wealth of activities, including arrowhead arts and crafts and Apache relay races, as well as desert scavenger hunts, mining at the Lost Dutchman's mine, cactus garden tours, Western sand art and Mexican bark painting. Enhancing the resort's draw for families even further is a 2.5-acre water playground with ten pools and a sand beach. For more information, visit

The Hotel Hershey 
When it comes to product placement, it doesn't get more scrumptious than this. Willy Wonka, eat your heart out. Just one aspect of the Hershey, Pennsylvania experience, The Hotel Hershey pairs adult pastimes such as golf and spa treatments (chocolate-themed, of course) with the Cocoa Kids Club, a daily supervised program (for a fee) featuring tennis, basketball, swimming and arts and crafts. For guests thirteen to seventeen years of age, Club Adventure sessions include hiking and woodland exploration, team-building activities, skating and scavenger hunts. Nearby Hershey Park boasts eleven different roller coasters. And the hands-on, interactive Hershey's Chocolate World will tempt sweet tooths of all ages with an inside look at chocolate making: take a simulated ride through the Hershey's factory, create your own candy bar (including packaging) and save your appetite for a chocolate tasting adventure. Surprisingly — and pleasantly — the hotel itself avoids kitsch; Spanish in style, it was built in the 1930s (though it has been renovated and expanded) and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. For more information, visit

Barton Creek Resort & Spa 
From the Kids Club (six months to eight years) to Camp Barton (with no more than five kids per counselor), Barton Creek Resort & Spa will keep your offspring entertained. Swimming, nature trail hikes and scavenger hunts are just a few of the standard activities on offer, while fishing excursions and Friday Field Trips offer new experiences for young guests. During the summer, weeks at the camp are themed — for example, Buckaroo Blow-Out Week focuses on cowboy activities, while Party with the Planets Week gives kids the chance to discover the mysteries of outer space. Although this property has all of the expected kid-centric amenities, they have a hard time competing with the outdoor allure of this 4,000-acre Texas Hill Country resort. As for mom and dad, relaxation comes in many forms: unwind in the spa, play a round on the golf course or curl up with the kiddies for family movie night on weekend evenings. For more information, visit

Highgate Springs 
The Tyler Place Family Resort 
Since 1933, Tyler Place Family Resort has been specializing in family vacations. Unlike many resorts that focus on the kindergarten and grade school crowds, this one caters to all ages, from newborns (musical games, bikes with baby seats, a fleet of strollers) to teens (water skiing, ropes courses, campouts). Those who came as kids when Tyler Place first opened now bring their great-grandchildren. It's hard to name an experience you won't find at this 165-acre lakefront property: it offers lake trampolines, circus activities, family field days and pontoon boat rides. There are special weekend and weeklong family retreats, and plenty of adult pursuits, like meditative yoga, pottery classes and Champagne cruises. With a picturesque setting on Lake Champlain, the resort features a selection of cottages and suites, all with separate parents' bedrooms. Though they're rustic rather than swanky, the accommodations are just right for a casual family escape. For more information, visit