Circle Bar B Proves Some Places Are Better than Home
by Michelle Drown • Photographs by Jeff Cable
“There’s no place like home,” the saying goes, but after spending two nights at Circle Bar B, I beg to differ. The staffers are so friendly and hospitable; the accommodations so cozy and comfortable; the homemade food so delicious — it’s better than being at home. It’s more like staying with your best friend, who just happens to have 18 guest houses, a pool and hot tub, a game room, a sitting room with a huge stone fireplace and saloon-style bar, a stable full of horses, and a dinner theater.
I didn’t know as much until a few weeks ago, when the Circle Bar B invited me up for a little getaway. To make the trip authentically family-like, I brought along my sister, her husband, and my seven-year-old nephew and four-year-old niece to spend two nights there. Founded by Florence Brown in 1939, Circle Bar B sits nestled in a canyon three miles inland from Highway 101, a mere 25 miles north of Santa Barbara on Refugio Road. As we drove inland from the 101 through avocado and lemon orchards, over creek crossings, and beneath oak trees, the smell of hot earth and spicy chaparral filled my nose as that feeling of escaping the city enveloped me.
When we arrived at the ranch, we were greeted by the sweet scent of hay and horses. After we registered, Brian Harwell, Circle Bar B’s director of sales, gave us a tour of the grounds and graciously answered all our questions. For the past eight years, the guest ranch has been under renovation, upgrading the 60-year-old buildings while also constructing four new cabins. The result is unassuming, aesthetically pleasing structures that have the look of old ranch homes. The main house consists of a central gathering space — where stag heads on the wall overlook cushy couches, a fireplace, and cowhide chairs that hug the long bar — and an adjacent dining area. A stone’s throw away is the game room and a bit farther, the swimming pool stands ready for hot-day dips.
A short walk up the hill was our cabin, a newly built one-bedroom that smelled of pine and remained cool despite the outside heat. The place was spotlessly clean and the décor was a perfect mix of modern pastoral and age-old elegance with its cream-colored walls, leather chairs, log door and window frames, and wrought iron accents. The bedroom was inviting and the bathroom’s shower was large enough to accommodate the lot of us at once, had we been so inclined. A vase of freshly cut flowers and a bowl of candy — chocolates and hard candies of the tastiest kind — made for a warm welcome. This attention to detail is trademark Circle Bar B; although Florence is no longer with us, her kin, who now own the place, stay true to her dream.
When Florence started Circle Bar B in the late 1930s, she had a vision of the type of guest ranch she wanted to run, one that offered “all the security and remoteness of pioneer life surrounded by beautiful scenery, in an ideally healthy climate and happy homelike atmosphere,” as the original brochure reads. “Rustic cabins — large, homey dining room where excellent home-cooked meals are served family style. Just a clean, healthy, friendly place where you can really relax and rest.” Florence, who was born and raised in Ojai, still achieves this more than 60 years later thanks to the determination and dedication of her son Jim, granddaughter Kathy, and grandson Pat.
At Home on the Range
After settling in, we headed to the pool. The kids had a great time swimming with their parents while I relaxed in the sparkling clean hot tub. (The pool is open indeterminably as there is no hard and fast policy on swim times.) At 5:30 p.m., we headed back to the cabin and changed clothes for dinner. Meals at the ranch are served family style and the long tables are set with placards with guests’ surnames, inviting mingling with fellow vacationers.
The food was excellent — we had a choice of chicken tarragon, catfish, salad, sun-dried tomato pasta salad, freshly baked bread, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and steamed vegetables. I asked my nephew how he liked his dinner of nuggets (his favorite food) and mac and cheese (his other favorite food) and he replied, “It’s good. Tasty,” adding that they were better than the ones from Trader Joe’s, his staple. Plates were cleared to make way for the chocolate raspberry mousse cake, which was the cherry on the dinner sundae, so to speak.
Bellies stuffed, we moseyed down to the nearby stables to pet the horses as they ate their meals. Soon, other guests joined us and chit chat ensued. As many other kids gathered ’round, my delighted nephew exclaimed happily, “There are so many new friends to make.” We grown-ups had the same reaction as we exchanged “Where are you from?” and “How’d you hear about this place?” while the kids played.
As the sun set, people migrated to the main house for drinks and conversation, to the pool for a nighttime swim, or to the game room, which is where we went. My niece and nephew played Foosball and billiards with their new pals, while we engaged in some fierce ping-pong matches. Meanwhile, the staff was tirelessly and cheerfully working behind the scenes to prepare for the next day and ensure each guest’s experience was special.
The ranch’s pervasively intimate atmosphere struck me as uncommon, but it’s of the utmost importance to the Browns. Kathy does a smashing job running the guest ranch and lends a hand in the kitchen; Pat has been overseeing renovations and runs the stables; and patriarch Jim regales guests with tales of the ranch’s history and mans the weekend barbecue, cooking up tri-tip for dinner theater patrons.
Back in the Saddle Again
At four years old, my niece has been a horse fanatic half her life. So when day broke, our thoughts turned equestrian. We’d inquired about the chance of her and her brother trotting horseback around the corral, and stables foreman Jack Roe said no problem. As another cowboy named Adam Shute lifted her onto the saddle, her face beamed with pure delight. She hung on tightly, grinning all the while, as Adam walked the horse back and forth the length of the corral a couple times. My nephew played it a bit cooler, but had an equally thrilling time. Then my brother-in-law took the kids to the pool, and my sister and I finally had our turn for riding fun.
In my youth, I’d been on the back of a horse a fair amount and had even felt confident enough in my skills to let my steed trot and canter. That was more than 10 years ago, however, and this time I was a bit nervous that the horse would immediately be hip to my fear and mess with me. When our trail guide, Adam, brought out the horse I was meant to ride, I was pleased that he was relatively small and had the innocuous name of Muffin. I was lined up right behind Adam, which was comforting, since I figured he could grab the reins when Muffin made a run for it. Adam entertained us with stories and jokes as our horses ambled along the trail, which cut through a canyon and up a hill to a high-elevation lookout point from which we could see the ocean. Muffin proved a good boy and did all I asked of him. But when I commented on Muffin’s good nature, Adam said he was one of the meanest horses of the bunch, pointing out a large scar Muffin had on his neck from fighting. Apparently Muffin was cranky with his own kind, but with me he was gentle, easy, and gave a delightful ride.
The stables at Circle Bar B are amazingly clean, evidence that the ranch’s 55 horses are well cared for. You can choose from several different rides — including a sunset outing or a four-hour jaunt with a picnic — that cut through nearly 1,000 acres of countryside. You don’t have to be a guest to go horseback riding, and it is well worth the 25-minute drive from Santa Barbara to spend time with these noble creatures amid the gorgeous landscape of Refugio Canyon.
That evening we had another fabulous dinner before meandering over to the quaint barn-like theater, the ranch’s main attraction for city folk. Although the theater is owned by the Browns, producers Susie and David Couch run the productions; the show that night was the musical comedy Suds.The play was so entertaining — there was singing, dancing, comedy, and other silliness — that even the children sat riveted. After the play, the actors milled around outside to chat with the audience. My niece, who had never been to a play before, wanted to meet them, not believing they were actual people. She hugged a few and shyly said hello to some of the others. On our way back to the cabin she declared, “I love actors.”
We checked out the next morning, much to our general disappointment — the kids wanted to live permanently at Circle Bar B. Still, we took comfort in knowing that the ranch is merely up the road from our homes in Santa Barbara and that we can return when we like. I’m already plotting a winter visit — I can’t think of anything cozier than sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs in the main house, sipping a warm drink, and talking with new friends as the fire crackles in the fireplace.
4·1·1 Circle Bar B, 1800 Refugio Road, is open seven days per week, year-round. Prices start at $328 for double occupancy, which includes meals. For guest ranch reservations or information, call 968-1113 or visit circlebarb.com. For horseback riding, call 968-3901 or visit horsebackridingsantabarbara.com. For theater information, call 967-1962 or visit circlebarbtheatre.com.