As a city woman whose family is unaccustomed to "roughing it," I planned our family vacation to involve a lot of nature but no sleeping on hard ground. That's what made El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara the perfect place for us: It's camping for people who like staying in Hiltons.
A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, El Capitan Canyon is a former private campground that was transformed five years ago into a plush nature resort on 65 acres heavily populated with oak and sycamore trees. It allows guests to savor a rustic environment, but with down duvets and gourmet coffee for the coffeemaker.
Upon arrival, we took in the sweet, clean air gently blowing through the canyon. We had booked two cabins for our party of seven: a king suite with a bedroom, a living room with a pullout sleeper sofa and kitchenette, and a bunk cabin (which could have slept six) for our three sons. All cabins have bathrooms with showers, as well as refrigerators in kitchenettes -- an important consideration for kosher consumers like us who bring our own food.
For more rustic tastes, El Capitan Canyon offers canvas safari tents on raised wooden decks, with screened windows and zip-down flaps. Bathroom facilities and showers for the tents are located in nearby buildings. Though our boys were at first disappointed at the absence of TVs, the beauty and calm of the campground environment assuaged them.
Cabin rates range from $135 to $345 for their brand-new canyon loft, which has a king-sized bedroom, living room with a sleeper sofa and stairs leading to a sleeping loft that can sleep up to four. It also has a full bathroom, gas fireplace and kitchenette. Safari tents range from $115 to $135 for a deluxe tent. Midweek pricing specials are available.
Cars are not allowed in the canyon, but a shuttle brings guests from their cabin or tent to the entrance of the facility, where the El Capitan Canyon store and deli are located. We preferred walking the half-mile or so from our cabin to the store, spotting vibrantly colored scrub jays and woodpeckers along the way.
Visitors can be as relaxed or as busy as they want. Our family borrowed complimentary bikes from the front office and rode for several miles on the bike path along El Capitan and Refugio beaches, just five minutes from the campsite. Water-lovers can kayak or surf, though rentals are not available directly on the premises. My husband and I hiked along the paths in the canyon, on the lookout for snakes, bobcats or mountain lions, which signs at the trailhead warn live in the mountain. (Fortunately, we didn't meet any.) Our less adventurous kids preferred to swim at the pool or play catch on the large grassy area adjacent to the cabins. Our favorite time was after dinner, when nearly everyone dined at picnic tables outside their cabins or tents. We met our neighbors, our kids met other kids and we had fun roasting 'smores in our fire pit.
The campground management at El Capitan Canyon also offers a ropes challenge course, wagon and carriage rides, guided hikes led by a naturalist, and horseback riding at the adjacent El Capitan Canyon Ranch. Live concerts are performed Saturday nights through September, and feature jazz, blue grass, oldies rock 'n' roll and more.
But if that sounds too ambitious, telephone the front office and reserve a massage, facial, mud treatments or other spa services. After all, you're there to relax!
The hit movie, "Sideways," has made visits to the nearby wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley more popular than ever. We toured the Firestone Winery, which offers tours every hour, and while we could not partake of the wine tasting, it was fascinating to learn about the complex and delicate nature of wine making. For those who keep kosher, Herzog Wine Cellars is now open in Oxnard. Plan to make this kosher winery part of your trip on the way to or from El Capitan Canyon.
If you are traveling with kids, make sure to drive to nearby Solvang for seasonal apple picking. A stroll through Solvang and a quick stop at Ostrich Land in Buellton can help round out a family-friendly day.
El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara. For more information, call (866) 352-2729 or visit www.elcapitancanyon.com.
For help planning your trip, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce at www.sbchamber.org or the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors' Association at syvva.com.
For a list of area wineries, visit santabarbara.com/winecountry. For more information about Herzog Wine Cellars, call (805) 983-1560.
For fruit picking, try Apple Lane Farm, 1200 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 686-5858; or Morrell Nut & Berry Farm, 1980 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 688-8969.
Judy Gruen hopes her next vacation will include a trip to at least one outlet shopping center. Subscribe to her regular "Off My Noodle" humor columns at www.judygruen.com.