Get far away from the twisted highways of L.A. without going far at all. A two hour drive up the coast, and just off the beaten path, lays a world of relaxation called the Santa Ynez Valley. Originally made famous by the movie Sideways that featured the area as its backdrop, Santa Ynez received a slew of attention after the Oscar buzz. Though the buzz has dissipated, the region has not lost its appeal. The most blissful sensations remain and can be found in areas not even featured in what locals call "the movie." Desirable for its winding country roads, horse ranches, lavender fields, boutique wineries, and gourmet cuisine utilizing the freshest local ingredients, the Santa Ynez Valley is prime location to play. Don’t go Sideways, find your own way. Load up the car, pack a picnic basket, a blanket, and your cowboy boots, and get ready for an adventure.
Take the back way. From Los Angeles, drive up the 101 North to Santa Barbara. After your shoulders ease while admiring the coastline of Ventura, start looking for Highway 154, located just after the Santa Barbara downtown exits. Highway 154, the Chumash Highway, leads through the Los Padres National Forest on long curves around mountains with a golden view of rolling hills and the stunning crystal waters of Lake Cachuma. Once you catch your breath, you’ll need to make a choice, turn left on Highway 246 to find a little Danish charmer called Solvang, or venture a few minutes further to Los Olivos, a town of tasting rooms, art galleries and gastronomic pleasures. Since they are so close to one another, you may want to stay in the area in between and visit both.
Where to Stay:
Most accommodations in the region are small inns, and typically include breakfast and an afternoon wine and cheese hour. It’s important to note that most inn’s have a two night stay minimum on the weekends.
Meadowlark Inn: Situated off Highway 246 about a mile from downtown Solvang. From the outside, the Inn looks like a motor lodge, but inside the rooms are country French inspired and clean, and each named after favorite wines of course. In the middle of the single level complex is a fire pit and grills available for guest use in the evening. Stars abound in the night sky and peace and quiet is yours. The absolute best room for couples is the Cabernet Suite which has a serene backyard with hot tub, a fire pit, hammock, table and chairs; a private spot to relax together. Standard rooms at the Meadowlark range from $85 to $195 per night. Some include jacuzzi tubs and/or fireplaces. Cabernet Suite is $195 - $275 per night.
The Wine Valley Inn: A simple and affordable country Inn located squarely in the middle of Solvang. Choose from lodge rooms or small cabins,some with fireplaces. Grounds are quaint gardens and koi ponds. The Inn is walking distance from many shops, scrumptious Danish bakeries and wine tasting bars.
Hadsten House Inn and Spa: In Solvang, this European style inn boasts classic French furnishings and fireplaces in each room. Appears as a simple motel from the roadside, but the inside is well attended, clean and welcoming with luxurious touches. Cozy gourmet restaurant, mini vineyard and a heavenly day spa are all available on-site. Choose a jacuzzi mini suite if available. Room rates range from $150
Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa: Recognized as “One of the best resorts in North America,” Fess Parker is located on the quaint main street of Los Olivos. Visit their spa for the Wine Connoisseur treatment that includes a wine infused sugar scrub with your favorite varietal and a massage with organic grape seeds and oils.
Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort: Exclusivity is the key word when you stay on this 10,000 acre working cattle ranch where you’ll never have to lift a finger. The Alisal is the site of many a Hollywood wedding and if you can afford it, your next romantic adventure.
And if you want to rough it a little, try El Capitan where you can camp among the giant Sycamore trees, yet sleep soundly in your fully equipped cabin. El Capitan is located off the 101 Freeway, in between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Hike their fifteen miles of back country trails in the morning, wine tour during the day and kick back under the stars at night.
Where to Drink Wine:
Where Napa Valley is haughty and expensive, Santa Ynez wineries are charming and affordable. There is not an air of superiority, but rather a pride in the land and the process of producing quality wine. Merchants seem more than pleased to provide an open environment for you to explore, and stay a while. The options are many with over two hundred wineries in the county and over thirty vintners in the Santa Ynez region ready to entice you. Roll your window down, roll your sleeves up and chart your course. You may want to select three to four wineries to visit in a day. A wine map will help you find your way.
Note: Most wineries are open from either 10a-4p or 10a-5p daily. Tastings are around $8, but you can share a tasting with your mate. Some sell cheese, crackers and other light snacks, however, it’s best to stop at one of the gourmet market or delis in the area and choose your own array of eats and set up a picnic at a winery outdoor seating area or in an open field if you prefer.
Sunstone: A lovely stone villa pouring a delicious Syrah and a hearty Chardonnay. Outside picnic tables allow you to relax while taking in light music with your wine. Two tastings are offered. Their regular offerings right on the patio or in their sunny front room, and their reserves in the cool caves toward the oak barrels in the back.
Rideau: Panoramic view from their deck with plenty of large wooden tables and chairs to sit down and enjoy wine, cheese and one another. Try their Vigonier, a delicate flowery white wine. Look out for the Bison on your drive there.
Mosby: Taste their sultry Italian varietals, perfect for sensous moments. This is a simple tasting room in an old carriage house with a wine cask bathroom out back. The tasting guy is a riot and well informed to direct your palate. For more information on Mosby wines: Hidden Treasures off the 101
Beckman – Beckman is a superior producer of Rhone varietals. You'll swoon over their sensational Syrah and a Cuvee that is spicy and delicious. On your way here, you’ll pass horse farms, fruit trees, and maybe a wine dog welcoming you up the drive.
Foxen: As they say in the region, if you don't know Foxen, you don't know Dick, or Bill, the guys who created this treasure of a wine collection. If you are looking for a good Pinot Noir, you have found the spot. Foxen is a bit out of the way (30 minutes down Foxen Canyon Road) but the drive is gorgeous back country. This is a small place with lots of charm. Their dogs wander around and there is a fantastic view from the back where humming birds zip around a feeder.
D’Alfonso Curran: A small tasting room with bold taste right in the middle of Solvang on Mission Street (Hwy 246). This newer blend of two celebrated wine makers showcases a lovely collection of limited production wines you’ll want to get a hold of. Try their five dog Syrah, named for their five German Shepherds whose photo is proudly displayed in store. Ask any local, this is the place to taste.
Where to Dine:
Here are some local favorites serving the freshest fare. Dress is casual in most places. Cowboy boots and a collared shirt are standard wear for men, and women too. Be who you are, wear what you like would be a fitting motto here.
In Los Olivos:
Mattei's Tavern - Steaks and Seafood
Patrick's Side Street Café - A little bit of everything gourmet
Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café – A feast for all the senses.
Panino – Delicious sandwiches to go
Los Olivos Grocery: Try their deli for lunch or to take some snack items back to the room. You won't be disappointed.
In Solvang –
The Vineyard House: Charming Victorian House with a heated verandah. Steak and seafood dishes.
Quality time and taste is not so far away.
Check out my favorite examiners:
Andrea Kittleson, LA Comedy Examiner
Mona Holmes, LA Healthy Dining Examiner