Swaying back and forth in our front-porch rocking chairs, we look out across the manicured terrain in front of us, which included twisting mesquite trees and yuccas and live oak trees shading a small pond. Out farther past our cabin and ranch paths, raw, wild, West Texas emerges with tall grass, prickly pear cacti, and clumps of trees coming together to create one large canopy far off in the distance. It's amazing that every speck of land we can see is part of JL Bar Ranch, Resort and Spa, and we sit in awe as we watch the landscape turn from tangerine to pink to maroon as the sun sets.
Located in Sonora, Texas, JL Bar Ranch, Resort and Spa offers solitude and luxury on almost 14,000 sprawling acres. You'll find plenty of room to roam around and explore — a treat for those looking to escape the hustle of the city or for anyone looking to vacation while staying safe during the pandemic. An array of activities appeals to both nature enthusiasts and epicureans. My husband and I zipped across dirt roads and rocky fields on ATVs, down through the rock quarry and past herds of black angus cattle. We squished cacti with our tires and pointed out deer scurrying off into thick juniper stands. It felt like we'd left Texas and were in a vast, foreign savanna. "We've had guests say that if you close your eyes, don't think about where you are, and open them again, it looks like you could be in South Africa," says Ollie Bushula, a consultant to the ranch.
We were pleasantly surprised with the horse psychology class, which consisted of learning about being comfortable around horses and the basics of their behavior. Equine experts Jon Joseph and Sydney Béïque brought out two of their world-class horses, Josephine and Chexamillion, for us to meet. After petting them — and taking a quick trot around the round pen with Chexamillion — we left feeling a little less like city folk and a bit more Texan, despite both being born and raised in the state.
On a chilly and windy afternoon when we'd planned on doing skeet shooting and archery lessons, we requested to swap to an indoor activity to get out of the elements and warm up. General manager and director of happiness Kylie Fitzgibbons quickly put together a wine tasting for us at the bar, again with Jon and Sydney — did I mention that before moving to the ranch, they lived on a 500-acre vineyard in Napa, and that Sydney is a level 2 sommelier with connections at the some of the best vineyards and wineries in the country?
Aside from the wine tasting, one of our other favorite ways to unwind turned out to be a visit to the spa, where we went completely Zen during massages that worked out all of our knots and stress-induced tight muscles. I recommend visiting the spa early on, to loosen up for outdoor adventures and really enjoy activities like sunset UTV rides. Our ride consisted of rambling around various areas of the ranch, where we spotted wild turkeys and baby cows and searched for deer sheds (bucks lose, or "shed" their antlers every year) and the elusive Bucky — an exotic blackbuck that likes to sleep near the horse pens.
And in true Southern hospitality, we never went hungry in between all of our exploring. Breakfasts meant everything from yogurt parfaits and smoothies to bacon and sausage breakfast tacos and divine chicken-fried steak benedict. Lunches were hearty salads, brisket and chicken sandwiches, juicy burgers, and even a spread-out pizza party on the pavilion where we built our own pizzas for the brick oven. Dinners were a luxurious experience, with themed nights like Butcher Block Thursdays and Fajita Fridays, plus regular menu nights where we splurged on Akaushi beef tenderloin and Chilean sea bass, chicken-fried quail, and desserts like crème brûlée and sopapillas, all paired with impressive wines and cocktails. Our nights weren't complete though until we had post-dinner cocktails back in the bar, followed by s'mores roasted by the pool. During the pandemic, all guests are spaced apart according to social distancing guidelines.
New to the resort is Archer's Nest, a private villa on 700 acres with its own private pool and pool house, theater room, and space for up to 12 people. Away from the resort's other accommodations, Archer's Nest is a great way to relax in a socially distanced manner. "We're finding high demand on Archer's Nest," says Fitzgibbons. "It's far enough away for independence but close enough for comfort and convenience." Archer's Nest has its own gourmet kitchen, but guests are able to hire a private chef or dine at the main lodge if desired. They also have access to all of the ranch and spa facilities, plus the option for a private butler.
Additional measures being taken everywhere at the ranch right now include mandatory masks in public spaces, hand sanitizer stations, and temperature checks at the front gate and private airport. Employees' temperatures are being checked at least once a day, and outdoor group activities have been adjusted to allow guided small groups plenty of room. The breakfast buffet is also on hold, and instead team members are serving while wearing gloves and masks. You can also take advantage of the ranch's text messaging service, where guests can text requests during their stay. Want a snack delivered to your door or an afternoon glass of wine? Just send a text.
The private, fixed-based operator airport is another great perk to consider, especially if you're wanting to avoid commercial air travel and busy airports. Upon landing at the ranch, guests are escorted to their accommodations with a private satellite check-in that bypasses the front desk and includes a welcome packet with property orientation and a map, a personalized itinerary, safety forms, and room keys.
They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and at JL Bar Ranch, that sentiment certainly rings true in the form of adventure, grub, and hospitality, even during times of social distancing and a global pandemic. As we loaded our luggage for our ride back home, we bid adieu to every staff member — we were now all on a first-name basis — while promising to return and making plans for our next trip down. "Come back soon for the wildflowers and animal babies!" said Kylie. "Next time we'll go stargazing," Ollie affirmed. I looked in the rear-view mirror as hands waved through the air, giving us one more Texas-sized goodbye. "Hey," said my husband, "Isn't our anniversary on a weekend this year?"
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