A perfect stop roughly midway between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the Santa Maria Valley blends its historic ranching and farming traditions with an ever-growing reputation as one of California’s top wine regions. Come to this northern Santa Barbara County region for succulent Santa Maria–style barbecue, which Sunset magazine honoured as the West Coast’s best, and tastings of premium wines along the Santa Maria Valley Wine Trail.
Step back into the past at La Purisima Mission
California history comes alive at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park outside of nearby Lompoc. The most fully restored of the state’s missions, La Purisima takes you inside buildings with rustic beamed ceilings and sacred art that dates to the early 19th century. Hike trails that explore the park’s nearly 2,000 acres, a landscape little changed over the centuries.
Tee off at a top golf course
Called “a total hidden gem” and honoured as one of America’s 50 Toughest Golf Courses by Golf Digest, La Purisima Golf Course near Lompoc is as challenging as it is beautiful. Play among the oaks on this hilly, wine country course as you test your game on the 18 holes designed by acclaimed golf course architect Robert Muir Graves.
Find that perfect something at a huge antiques mall
With more than 35 leading dealers, Deja Vu Antiques Mall in Old Orcutt lets you search for everything from traditional furniture to mid-century modern designs. Wander among the dealers displaying their wares in a cavernous loading-dock structure built in 1906. You never know what you’ll find while browsing through collections that include vintage clothing, classic lunch boxes and fine china.
Bite into a perfect steak at Far Western Tavern
Delicately seasoned and slow-grilled over red oak, there’s nothing like a steak barbecued Santa Maria–style. For more than five decades, the Far Western Tavern has been the place to go for this Central Coast delicacy. Order up a rib eye or the tri-tip while enjoying western art, stained glass and other decorative details brought over to the tavern’s Old Orcutt location from the original restaurant in Guadalupe.
Visit a dramatic, contemporary winery
Strikingly modern with a V-shaped roofline, Presqu’ile Winery is as surprising as its distinctive name (pronounced press-KEEL, it’s Creole for “almost an island”). Visit this breezy spot overlooking the Santa Maria Valley and you can sample the winery’s celebrated Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in a light-filled tasting room constructed of beautiful woods with walls of hand laid local stone. Check the winery’s events calendar and sip a Syrah while watching a live outdoor concert.
Also, don’t miss…
To experience the best of the local wine scene, follow the Santa Maria Valley Wine Trail, which leads to 15 area wineries. Take a ride on the Wine Trolley, which on Saturdays and Sundays makes a 75-minute circuit through the valley to reach both leading wineries and foodie destinations in the area. Speaking of food, you’ll want to pair some of that great local wine with a big plate of Santa Maria–style barbecue at valley restaurants that specialize in this regional tradition.
Your next stop, San Luis Obispo, may just be the perfect embodiment of the Central Coast. With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history, and a decidedly mellow vibe, SLO (as the locals call it) is a must-see. This college town also features a slice of ranch culture—thanks to the area’s Santa Maria-style barbecue—and has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.
The spirit of downtown SLO is captured in Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which dates back to 1772 and overlooks the plaza. Explore the mission and its museum or show up on summer Friday nights for live music on the plaza. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks, and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evenings, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for San Luis Obispo’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, craft beer (sample those at The Libertine Brewing Company), and the acclaimed clam chowder from Splash Café. Enjoy the locally sourced scene more intimately at Novo Restaurant & Lounge, which pairs a globally inspired menu with an idyllic creek-side setting.
Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds, and the Fox & Hound.
SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.
San Luis Obispo County—a.k.a. SLO CAL—is home to an array of cool small towns, too. On your way into SLO, try the epic tri-tip at Jocko’s steak house in Nipomo, explore the dunes at Pismo Beach, and then say hi to the lounging sea lions off the coast of Avila Beach. Other essential stops as you then head north toward Hearst Castle include the harbour village Morro Bay, beachy Cayucos, and picturesque Cambria, set on beautiful seaside bluffs.
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