Spa Review: Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

What spurred the owners of Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort to build an onsite spa for their rough-riding clientele?

Guests ride the range at Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort.

Your guests, many of them city folks whose faces you’ve seen splashed across the cinema screen, have spent the day riding on horseback over miles of trails at your resort. They’ve trekked up hills, around lakes, along 300-year-old oak groves and beneath soaring bald eagles on your property. Now they’re headed back to one of 73 rustic-chic guest rooms appointed with black-and-white gingham upholstered chairs, brick fireplaces, Pendleton blankets, and huge graphic photos of ranch hands and stallions. They don their evening jackets and heels for a gourmet dinner in the clubby dining room at the center of your 1,000-acre ranch resort that is so iconic, Clark Gable got married here in 1949.

There’s just one problem. Some of your guests—those weekend warriors who haven’t been on horseback since last year’s visit—are achy and sore, drained from three hours of bumping and trotting along the trails. Months of Stairmastering and treadmilling back in the city didn’t prepare them for this brand of suffering, and the in-room visits by massage therapists you’ve been providing won’t cut it. A simple survey of guests confirms it: The resort and its grounds are amazing, they say, but the one thing the property’s truly missing is a spa.

This is where the Jackson family, owners of Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, a 66-year-old guest property tucked into the coastal hills of Central California, found themselves just three short years ago. The resort’s remote locale and charming ambiance could carry it only so far in today’s spa-conscious world. Although guests visited primarily to ride horses, fish for wild trout, play some golf or ping-pong, and sing Western ditties around the campfire, the absence of a proper spa had become as obvious as a city slicker in a room full of cowboys.

Horse Sense

Alisal's Main Lobby

“We understood that our guests had brought the spa life into their daily lifestyle,” says Alisal’s director of activities, Marcy Payne. “We see a lot of the rich and famous here and, of course, they want to treat themselves. For these fast-paced folks, a stay at the Alisal should be slow and relaxed and include all those special treats they’re accustomed to having at home. Ultimately, we realized that a spa wasn’t just a trendy option—it was a necessity.”

Eight years later, the Alisal broke ground on the spa, taking over the land where one of the resort’s seven tennis courts had stood. As management envisioned it, the 5,500-square-foot Fitness Center and Spa would be replete with a 1,500-square-foot workout room offering cardio and weight-training equipment; a 1,000-square-foot group fitness room to accommodate yoga and Pilates classes; men’s and women’s locker rooms; and a spacious lobby with a comfortable sitting area, fresh juice bar and retail space.

Building took place at the height of the recession, when almost every vacation destination was suffering financially, but the decision-makers were not to be dissuaded. “We had done the research and knew that the spa and fitness offerings would really add to our existing activities,” says Payne.

If there was any residual resistance it came from the tension of blending a spa into the ranch’s predominant Western theme. But Payne helped to integrate the new building into the decades-old patina’d structures by working with the architect from the onset. She suggested, for instance, that the center be designed to look like a barn, with 12-foot ceilings for the common areas and gym, to instill a hayloft feel.

Horse Sense

Alisal's Treatment Room

Western Hospitality

Walking into the Alisal’s Fitness Center and Spa, you can tell that the planning team got it right. The spa’s barn-like structure looks as if it has stood there for decades. A check-in counter ushers guests into a living room showcasing a roaring fire in the stone fireplace. Leather sofas—swathed in blankets with Native-American designs—are flanked by weathered-wood tables displaying Remington-esque cowboy art and Mexican clay pots. A retail area features Alisal t-shirts, hats and sweatshirts, and an assortment of the spa brand’s soy candles and bath and body products, all infused with its signature Woodland Sage scent. “It’s one way our guests can take the Alisal home with them,” says Payne.

I’m aching to cozy up to that fire and crack open one of the spa’s picture books about the Wild West. But my therapist, Melissa, is already patiently waiting for me. Payne personally interviews each therapist to ensure he or she has had the required professional training (often from a top Santa Barbara massage school and then stints at one of the Central Coast’s leading hotels or spas) and lives within an hour’s drive of the spa. Therapists at Alisal must be professional and calm, but also personable and friendly. “Some of our guests have never been to a spa and they need to feel welcomed,” says Payne, who estimates a 70% female, 30% male client breakdown.

The Alisal has eight part-time therapists and each performs no more than three services daily. “Giving a massage is exhausting, and we want to ensure that our therapists are always at the top of their game so our guests have the best experience,” Payne says. “Each one of our therapists is an employee, not a subcontractor, and whatever they might miss in terms of quantity of work they make up for in quality of employment.” The strategy pays off in guest and employee loyalty, she adds. “Guests come back year after year with their families, and many will now call ahead to book a therapist with whom they’ve had a great treatment. And many of the employees say to me, ‘Thank you for the opportunity to work here.’“

Horse Sense

Alisal's Spa and Fitness Lobby

Melissa leads me into the women’s locker room, where I wrap myself in a beige, cashmere-blanket-like robe with the Alisal A-shaped cattle brand on the breast. There is no sauna, steam room or hot tub at the center. “We had limited space and had to prioritize our guests’ needs,” Payne explains. Not a single guest, she says, requested a sauna. What’s more, the Alisal planning committee wanted the spa to be a place for pampering, but not for spending an entire afternoon. “We wanted to complement our existing offerings on the ranch, not distract from them,” she says. Treatment durations are limited for the same reason.

Melissa takes me into one of the spa’s four treatment rooms, charmingly decorated in the resort’s rustic-chic theme, with mustard-colored walls, Pendleton Native-American blankets and pillows on the massage beds, and big wooden stars (like those found in the Central Coast sky) gracing the wall. Soothing acoustic guitar sounds float through the air.

I’m here to receive the Alisal Spa’s signature Nojoqui Mud Wrap & Sage Bliss Massage (90 min./$200). The treatment, named after an iconic local waterfall and featuring many botanicals found in the region, was created to relax fatigued muscles and balance the body and mind. Melissa brushes onto my body a handcrafted blend of algae, Dead Sea mud and sage, then wraps me in a Mylar blanket. The distinct aroma of the mud is soothing and invigorating. As I lie steeping in my mud cocoon and listening to the transporting music, Melissa performs a scalp, face and neck massage. She then plies my feet with a reflexology massage and steamed towels, then steps away to prepare a just-right shower and steam experience for me. After I’ve rinsed off the mud and (partially) come back to earth, she slathers me in the spa’s signature Woodland Sage lotion and gives my back a Swedish massage. I breathe deeply, inhaling the scents of California’s ancient valleys and canyons.

Horse Sense

The 1,000-acre Alisal property is unmistakenly reminiscent of a simpler time and place.

Easy Ride

Payne and her team worked with a Santa Barbara-based spa consultant, Julie Menicucci, to develop a spa menu that features the essentials—Swedish and Thai massages, facials, teen skin treatments, and scalp and hand treatments. The spa’s individuality reveals itself with Western-themed treatment names such as the Trail Blazer and the Sundowner. In general, however, the menu is kept manageably low-key. “Our guests are multi-generational, so we’ll see a grandmother, mother and granddaughter all coming to the spa together,” Payne says. “We didn’t want to offer so many treatments that it gets difficult to choose—just a range of treatments that everyone could get excited about. They book their treatments together, they talk about it throughout their stay, and then they all come in together. The spa experience is something they share. It’s a chance for more memories to be made.”

Not surprisingly, Alisal’s marketing is decidedly understated. The resort’s website includes spa photos and a treatment menu, and there are spa menus placed in private guest rooms. And, even though neighboring Santa Barbara residents would no doubt love to be pampered here, for now the spa is available to resort guests only. “We want to make sure that the spa doesn’t become so overbooked that our guests aren’t able to partake in the services,” Payne says.

Less than three years from its inception, the spa has fared well, with guests now calling ahead of their stays to book favorite therapists and treatments. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in business,” Payne reports. “I’ve gotten a lot of guest responses and they all say they’re very happy that we now have a spa.”

I’m pretty happy to have spent the weekend at the Alisal, riding the trails on a shiny brown horse named Apache, wandering around the 100-acre, spring-fed lake and petting pot-bellied pigs, rabbits and Indian cows in the children’s yard. And just like the afternoon I spent catching wild trout and placing their shimmering bodies out for the nesting bald eagles to feed to their newborns, my sage-scented visit at the spa felt like a luxury, a necessity and an indelible memory rolled into one.

Alison Singh Gee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author.


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