Wining, Dining & Touring in California’s Central Coast

I had previously made a journey from the San Francisco Airport south through San Jose, Santa Cruz, Gilroy, Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, Paso Robles, Hearst Castle and then returned back north to the San Francisco Airport. Less than three months later I was on my way to Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Solvang, Santa Ynez, San Luis Obispo & back to Los Angeles. At my farthest point in San Luis Obispo I was only 27 miles from my farthest point south on my previous trip that began in San Francisco.

As a savvy travel shopper I rarely rent cars from companies using airport locations. Someone has to pay for that valuable space, taxes and shuttle buses. Searching the internet I found “OK Rent a Car” which has only 1 location, next to the Hilton Hotel on Century Boulevard, about 5 minutes from the airport. Their price for a PT Cruiser convertible (this was California) was almost $425 cheaper than any rental agency at LAX. Do your homework. Because “OK” had only one location I had to agree to pay for any towing if the car broke down outside the greater LA area. I also supplied my own insurance. My auto policy covered me; my corporate Amex card covered my insurance deductible and my AAA Plus policy covered towing up to 100 miles. True, my farthest point was 200 miles from LA but there was never a problem with the car.
My hosts always ask me what type of accommodations I prefer. My answer is a bed, air conditioning, a TV & internet. I ask for unusual hotels, B&B’s and Inns that I can write about. I did stay at two brand name chain hotels, but each was distinctive. My other nights were spent at an historic inn and one of the most unusual hotels I have ever seen. Read on for all the details.

This trip started and ended with a visit with my friend Geoff whom I have known since he was 13 years old. I spent the first and last nights of my trip with Geoff and his wife Tara at their condo in West LA, just 20 minutes from LAX. After dinner I was introduced to Yogurtland. For 30 cents an ounce, with lots of flavors and toppings, I was in heaven. When will they come to NYC?

My first stop was less than an hour’s drive at Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard. They specialize in artisanal winemaking and special reserve wines that happen to be kosher. I ate lunch at the Tierra Sur restaurant on property that serves seasonal Mediterranean cuisine. The city of 200,000 is the largest in Ventura County and is California’s largest strawberry producer. With 20 miles of mostly uncrowded coastline Oxnard serves with adjacent Ventura as the Gateway to the Channel Islands, famous for hiking and 2,000 plants & animals. The 5 offshore islands have no hotels or restaurants but Channel Island Harbor has a dive center, kayak rentals, boat charters, a yacht club and 9 marinas. There is also the Ventura County Maritime Museum, a small venue but well worth the stop with free admission. Oxnard is located near the 130-store Camarillo Premium Outlets and has a brand new California Welcome Center. We visited the tasting room of Rancho Ventavo Cellars located in a 1902 house within Heritage Square. This city block has relocated historic houses, which are now used for business and fun, and also has free Friday night concerts. I stayed at the 248-room Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Hotel & Resort, directly on the water. This is southern California’s only all-suite beachfront resort. It was unlike any Embassy Suites I had ever seen. A free evening reception, including alcohol, and a fully cooked free breakfast were included. I had a relaxing dinner at Capistrano’s, located inside the hotel and overlooking the pool. There is an arcaded courtyard, 50-foot ceilings and windows around the top.

The next day I had a short 30-minute drive to Ventura. This city of 107,000 is one of the best sites in southern California for surfing. It sits in the foothills of Los Padres National Forest. The visitor’s center in downtown is the recommended first stop. On the way into town I stopped briefly at Ventura Harbor filled with restaurants, shops, fishing areas and the headquarters of the Channel Islands National Park, referred to as “America’s Galapagos.” The ornate city hall has the obligatory statue of Father Junipero Serra, the founder of California’s mission system. The early 1930’s Majestic Ventura Theater holds many concerts. Nearby is the headquarters of Patagonia. I tried to find time to get to their annual 50% off sale but only had 4 hours in town and chose touring over shopping. We did have time to taste wine at Old Creek Ranch Winery and watch their skateboard-riding dog. It is located 7 miles north of Ventura on a working cattle ranch in Ojai Valley. Lunch was on Main Street at Jonathan’s located in a building built in 1877. The menu was a blend of cooking styles from many Mediterranean countries. I stopped for a glass of wine at The Wine Rack, and also Paradise Pantry, both of which have a large selection of Ventura County wines.

An hour away I arrived in Santa Barbara for my two-day visit. Again, I heard the word Ramada Inn and wondered what was in store for me. This one featured a tropical garden complete with freshwater lagoon. Filled with water lilies and home to ducks and koi fish, I sat out on my balcony and watched the sun set. Santa Barbara is called “The American Riviera” and is home to 93,000. If you include Montecito (check out the Four Seasons Hotel) and Carpinterra there are over 200,000 in the Metro area. The waterfront area along Stearns Wharf (the west coast’s oldest operating wharf) has the famous Dolphin Fountain up front. I took a 1 1/2 hour tour with the Santa Barbara Trolley Company that leaves every hour right next to the wharf. We stopped at the SB Mission built in 1786 that is dubbed the Queen of the Missions.” I returned, after the tour, for a visit to the SB Courthouse built in 1929 in the Spanish-Moorish style. I had dinner the first night at Downey’s on State Street, the city’s main drag. I had the best duck I have tasted in the past 10 years. I wished I had time to see a concert at the 2,000 seat Arlington Theatre located a few blocks from my dinner location. I also stopped at the Moreton Bay Fig Tree, the largest in North America.

The next day I had lunch at Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro and learned that there really is a Pierre Lafond. He and his wife own several high-end fashion boutiques and he operates the Santa Barbara Winery as well as a market in Montecito. His winery was originally opened in 1962 and was the first opened in the county after prohibition. Dinner was at Stella Mare’s in the Greenhouse overlooking the Bird Refuge featuring casual French Country Cuisine. I was there for live jazz Wednesday(s). I took the self guided Red Tile Walking Tour throughout downtown and visited several tasting rooms on the Urban Wine Trail.

I drove along the narrow and winding San Marcos Pass Road (State Road 154) through the Santa Ynez Mountains with large portions of the mountain range in the Los Padres National Forest toward Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley. I stopped in the town of Santa Ynez to have lunch and a tour of the area with Jim Fiolek, the Executive Director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. We stopped at the Chumash Casino Resort and he pointed out the various wine trails I could visit. I stopped to admire the Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch in Ballard. Even though I was not a Michael Jackson fan I could not resist stopping at Neverland Ranch. It is named after Neverland, the fantasy island in the story of Peter Pan, a boy who never grows up. The ranch is located about five miles north of unincorporated Los Olivos, and about eight miles north of the town of Santa Ynez. I picked up a Sideways Map and decided to visit several of the locations featured in the 2004 movie. I stopped at The Hitching Post & Ostrich Land, both in Buellton; Los Olivos Café, Foxen, Firestone & Fess Parker Wineries in Los Olivos and Kalyra Winery in Santa Ynez.
I overnighted at the Hadsten House Inn in downtown Solvang. Newly renovated with classic French furnishings this 71-room boutique inn offers wine & cheese from 3-5PM and a full American breakfast. We also had dinner in their restaurant. After dinner we drove to meet celebrity chef (is there any other kind? think super model?) Bradley Ogden (I have eaten at his restaurants in Las Vegas and San Francisco). Root 246 in the renovated, Chumash Indian owned Hotel Corque, (remember this is wine country) demonstrates his farm-to-table style of cooking. The only thing kept in the freezer is ice cream.
He told me he spends at least two weeks a month here. Solvang is the Danish Capital of North America and means “sunny fields” in Danish. It features more than 200 European-style shops and bakeries and several wine tasting rooms. Tastes of the Valley Wine Bar had 140 wines from the area available for purchase. I spent a few minutes at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum a block from the Little Mermaid Fountain. Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills appellations are the three AVAs (American Viticultural Area) in Santa Barbara County. There are over 100 wineries in the county and five existing wine trails. I visited the Foxen Canyon Road, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Santa Maria Valley, Solvang and Santa Rita Hills trails. In 1782 Father Junipero Serra brought grapevine cuttings from Mexico to be planted in the fertile bottoms of Sycamore Creek. The largest mission vineyard, about 25 acres, was located in the San Jose Creek area, and an adobe winery, built nearby in 1804, is now Goleta’s oldest landmark. In 1884, Justinian Caire imported grape slips from France and planted a 150-acre vineyard on Santa Cruz Island. A grapevine planted in 1842 on a farm in Carpinteria has a trunk measuring nine feet around, an arbor covering two acres and an annual yield of ten tons of grapes.

The next morning I had an appointment with Brook Williams, the CEO of Zaca Mesa Winery on Foxen Canyon Road. Zaca Mesa is a Santa Ynez Valley estate winery, opened in 1973, dedicated to Rhone varieties. All the wines are made from grapes grown on 244 acres of vineyards and are designated as Estate Bottled. In an hour I arrived at my farthest point- San Luis Obispo- 200 miles north of LA. Lunch was at the Cracked Crab in Pismo Beach and I tried to have a light meal. Good luck with plate after plate of delicious seafood appearing on the table. I was ready for a nap but duty called, and we started a tour of Pismo Beach. It is known as the “Clam Capital” of California. The city holds the “Clam Festival” every October, complete with clam chowder competitions and a clam-themed parade. There was a 20-minute wait at the Splash Café to try their clam chowder. Yummy! Upon first entering Pismo Beach, a gigantic concrete clam statue greets visitors. In the Chumash Indian language the word Pismo means Tar. I have never traveled by RV but the Pismo Coast Village RV Park has room for 400 RV’s with a swimming pool, clubhouse and mini-golf.
We were running a bit late so I checked in at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo and changed clothes for my Edna Valley Chardonnay & Pinot Noir tasting at Tolosa Winery. How do I describe the Madonna Inn? Built 50 years ago there are 110 rooms each with a special theme plus pool, exercise room, spa and the largest convention center on the Central Coast. Choose a romantic honeymoon suite with European-style luxury, the novelty of a Western, Old Mill or Merry-Go-Round theme or a stay in one the famous, all-rock grotto rooms with waterfall shower. I loved my waterfall shower but had to watch out for the real hanging rocks. The late owner Alex Madonna was a local builder; hence much of the materials for the rooms came through his construction work.
Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the SLO (that’s what the locals call it) wine region is comprised of three viticulture areas: the Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande Valley and Avila Valley. The small, mostly family-owned wineries are well known for their bottling of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Zinfandel and more. The marine influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean provides a mild summer and warm fall, resulting in an unusually long growing season. Combined with the region’s rocky volcanic soils, these growing conditions produce fruit with intense varietal character and complex flavors. San Luis Obispo County is the fourth-largest premium grape-growing region in Coastal California, just behind Sonoma, Napa and Monterey counties but ahead of southern neighbor Santa Barbara County. Over the past 20 years, vineyard acreage in San Luis Obispo County has increased to 29,000 acres. By comparison Santa Barbara County has 18,000 acres, Napa; 44,000 & Sonoma; 58,000. As of my visit there were 220 wineries with the most Syrah acreage in all of California. Attending the tasting at Tolosa were: Baileyana Winery, Claiborne & Churchill Vintners, Edna Valley Vineyard, Ortman Family Vineyard, Stephen Ross Wine Cellars, Tolosa Winery and Wolff Vineyards. We managed to catch a few minutes of the free Friday night Concert Series at Mission Plaza and enjoy a cocktail at Corner View Restaurant on the way to dinner at Ciopinot Restaurant with Bob Schiebelhut, co-owner of Tolosa Winery and several other wine people. Bob and I spent most of the evening talking basketball (he played guard at Cal Berkeley). What I admired about the restaurant, besides the food, was the no corkage charge policy.

My last day in the Central Coast I was given a tour of Morro Bay. The famous Morro Rock was named in 1542 by Portuguese navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo who called the rock El Moro because it resembled the head of a Moor, the people from North Africa known for the turbans they wore. Much of Morro Bay is a state wildlife refuge. There is no public access to the rock itself because it is a reserve for the locally endangered peregrine falcon. A number of restaurants, shops and parks line the Embarcadero and shoreline. The combination of tourist-oriented businesses with a working fishing port and the dominant presence of Morro Rock makes for an attractive waterfront for visitors.
We did a walking tour of the historical district of downtown San Luis Obispo with Steve Akers, owner of SLO Walking Tours. The city has a population of about 45,000 and began in 1772 with the Mission SLO de Tolosa built as the fifth mission (out of 21) by Father Junipero Serra. By the way, his statue sits in front of all the missions. I got a chance to see the inside of the Fremont Theater with its Art Deco 1940’s style. It still plays first run movies. Sort of a junior version of Radio City Music Hall. I was really fascinated by Bubble. Started in the 1960’s by high school students leaving their bubblegum along the walls, it is now a tourist attraction. My last meal was at Old Edna’s where owner Petia Torrence showed me a painting of the topless Miss Edna who was rumored to be a prostitute that greeted men getting off the railroad where Old Edna now stands. This was also a tasting of unique & emerging varietals in the Edna Valley & Arroyo Grande AVAs. Attending were: Claiborne & Churchill, Sausalito Winery, Sextant, Tangent & Trenza. I asked if any of the wineries did a topless bottling. Don’t wait for the answer!

It took me less than 4 hours to get back to LA and dinner with Geoff & Tara. Also, another trip to Yogurtland. The next morning I returned my wonderful PT Cruiser Convertible and I was homeward bound. On both my trips, three months apart, I had great weather, never got stuck in traffic and tasted wines that would make Napa & Sonoma take notice.

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