We awoke to the bleating of sheep. My husband and I and our 23-month-old daughter, Evelyn, startled, got up and, bleary-eyed, made our way outside.

This vision greeted us: golden hills, graceful old oak trees and, beneath them, in the paddock across from our bedroom, scores of fuzzy white lambs, eyes blinking in the filtered morning sunshine.

As Evelyn stared in astonishment, the little creatures issued a cacophony of bahs and stared at us beseechingly.

Michael and I smiled at each other. What a great beginning to our vacation.

Then we turned our backs on the sheep and went inside to eat our breakfast. It was included in the price of our stay at the Rinconada Dairy, a sheep ranch and cheese-making operation tucked into the glorious hills northeast of San Luis Obispo.

The idea for the trip was born while we were stuck in traffic on the 110 Freeway. As our aggravation mounted and the precious afternoon ticked away, we fantasized about selling our house, quitting our jobs and chucking our hectic Southern California lives to make cheese for a living.

There was just one problem: Neither of us had ever made cheese -- except the horrible kind that turns up when milk is left out too long on a hot summer day.

Then we heard about the farm-stay run by Christine and Jim Maguire, who operate one of only two licensed sheep's milk dairies in California and whose award-winning cheeses have been popping up in such high-end places as Campanile and the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills. Despite the steep price of their cheeses -- one retails for $25 a pound -- they invite paying guests to stay on their 52 acres for added income.

This was our first clue that making cheese might not put us on the fast track to riches. Bad news for our fantasy, but not our vacation.

Which turned out better than we thought. We learned a bit about making cheese. (It's all about the mold, and we're not going to try it at home any time soon.) Even better, we got to relax in bucolic luxury, watching others cook organic meals for us while our daughter got a sense of where her food comes from. Plus, the ranch was an easy drive to the Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles and minutes from dozens of excellent wineries.

We arrived at the Rinconada Dairy just behind the setting sun. A new moon hung low in the sky, and under its eerie light, a shocking sight greeted us: Christine Maguire on her front stoop, surrounded by more than two dozen cats.

Our daughter, who has complicated feelings about cats, looked terrified. My husband shot me an accusing glare: What, exactly, had I gotten us into?

But within moments, everyone was happy again. The cats scattered as we approached. (Only six were pets; the rest were feral residents.)

Maguire greeted us warmly and led us to our room. Actually, it was more a suite at one end of their Spanish-style house that held a bedroom, reading nook and bathroom with an elaborate shower that would not have been out of place in a Vegas honeymoon suite. Everything was spotless; no cats, pets or otherwise, were allowed in the guest quarters.



An eye-opener

Saturday morning after our encounter with the sheep, we found Christine and Jim in the gleaming country kitchen, cooking for us. Among the ingredients: eggs freshly laid by their hens and bacon from their pigs along with homemade granola. They hadn't grown the fruit themselves, Christine said apologetically, pushing strawberries toward us, but they were from a nearby farmers market. Organic, of course.

We learned two lessons at breakfast. The first was that scrambled eggs newly gathered from healthy, coddled chickens are to grocery-store eggs what expensive Swiss chocolate is to plain old Hershey's.

The second was more sobering. Running a ranch is hard work and possibly even a money-loser. And you have to get up insanely early.

Though it was Saturday, the Maguires had been up since 5:30 a.m. They had already milked more than 100 sheep. Now they were taking a break to feed us. Then they would head back to the morning's other tasks.