SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – About 20 miles beyond the red-tile roofs of downtown Santa Barbara, it begins: the rolling blond hills that go indecently green in spring, the massive estates and miniature horses, the sprawling vineyards and "Sideways" scenery, the dude ranch with 10,000 acres, the old stagecoach stop with boar on the menu and bikers in the parking lot. ... Santa Barbara County's wine country has a lot to offer. The nine micro-itineraries that follow are a quick introduction for newcomers, part of our ongoing series of Southern California Close-Ups. (To see others, go to latimes.com/socalcloseups.)
About 13 miles before the northbound 101 Freeway bends inland at Gaviota Pass, El Capitan State Beach and its neighbors offer places to splash in the Pacific and sit around a campfire before the wine country begins in earnest. The state beach is a rugged stretch of sand-and-rock coastline, and it includes a campground (which, in September, was afflicted by a behind-schedule construction project). Nearby, just inland from the 101, is El Capitan Canyon (11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara), a comfy, woodsy collection of cabins, fancy tents on wooden decks, "adventure yurts" and prices that are typically north of $150 a night. It's "glamping," some would say. There's also Ocean Mesa at El Capitan (100 El Capitan Terrace Lane, Santa Barbara), a more conventional campground (20 tent sites, 80 RV sites) that's also outfitted with a heated swimming pool and laundry room. At $40-$50 a night for a tent-camping spot, that's value.
San Marcos Pass
Cold Spring Tavern (5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara) may be the greatest throwback in Santa Barbara County – a 19th century stagecoach stop built from logs, where you can huddle by one of the stone fireplaces or dine on boar chops and rabbit medallions. If you take Highway 154, it's on the way from Santa Barbara to Solvang, and it's open for lunch and dinner daily. But the place truly comes alive on weekends. Breakfast is served, live music plays from afternoon into the evening, an armada of Santa Barbara bikers arrives, and lots of beer gets sold. Just a few miles north of the tavern, at the foot of the mountains, is Lake Cachuma, with fishing, boating and camping.
Don't pretend you're above Solvang. The city, founded in 1911 by Danish educators as a little slice of Denmark in the California outback, might be the global capital of windmill kitsch. Stroll down Copenhagen Drive, pause at the big red wooden clogs outside the Solvang Shoe Store (1663 Copenhaven Drive, Solvang), then nose around the Viking-themed restaurants and Nordic knife merchants, which are joined by neighbors such as the Thomas Kinkade Gallery and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.
Some people find Solvang irredeemably cheesy, but not you. You understand that this is a rare and endangered habitat. Others want to fancy up Solvang so that it fits better with the wine country and the horse properties. Meanwhile, the Chumash are buying real estate. Besides the wealth-generating Chumash Casino Resort (3400 E. Highway 246, Santa Ynez; hotel rooms closed for remodeling), the Chumash own the 122-room Hotel Corque (400 Alisal Road, Solvang) and the 71-room Hadsten House Inn (1450 Mission Drive, Solvang). So that windmill kitsch might not last. While sorting out your feelings about this, take advantage of the easy public parking and public restrooms. Get a snack at the Greenhouse Bistro (487 Atterdag Road, Solvang) or the Succulent Cafe (1555 Mission Drive, Solvang). Have a peek at Old Mission Santa Ines (1760 Mission Drive, Solvang) at the east end of town. Plan an upscale evening at the Mirabelle Inn (409 1st St., Solvang) or a cheekier, more affordable night amid the Danish Modern rooms of the Hamlet Inn (1532 Mission Drive, Solvang), where rates are often less than $100. If it's summer, check to see what's on at the Solvang Festival Theater (420 2nd St., Solvang), where PCPA Theaterfest typically stages several shows under the stars from June through September. (PCPA's home is in Santa Maria.)
You're not going to spend this holiday retracing locations in "Sideways." But you need to know that the Hitching Post II (406 E. Highway 246, Buellton), seen prominently in that 2004 film, is just off the 101 with a long list of steaks barbecued Santa Maria style over oak. It's a logical place to pause and get your bearings among the area's several distinct wine-growing regions, including the Santa Maria Valley to the north; Los Alamos Valley; and the long Santa Ynez Valley, which includes the Santa Rita Hills to the west; and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara to the east. (For details: www.sbcountywines.com.) But remember, you can also escape the wine world for a spell. Duck into Figueroa Mountain Brewery (45 Industrial Way, Buellton), where a sampler of beers goes for $6. If you're traveling with kids, do what your dad and his dad probably did _ save a few bucks and bed the family at Pea Soup Andersen's Inn (51 E. Highway 246, Buellton). Yes, it's next to the goofy old Andersen's restaurant. It's got clean rooms of reasonable size, a heated pool, a little putting green and rates that often are less than $80.
Then again, maybe you're better off. And maybe horses or golf courses inhabit your dreams. If so, the place for you may be Alisal Ranch (1054 Alisal Road, Solvang), tucked into the hills just outside Solvang. Born as a dude ranch in 1946, it has 73 rooms and suites set on 10,000 acres, with a 100-acre private lake, a busy corral, 50 miles of riding trails, two 18-hole golf courses, seven tennis courts, pool, spa and fitness center. Rates begin at $515 a night. The style is early California, with sepia-toned photos on the walls, Indian-patterned blankets on the beds and oak in every fireplace. Men are required to wear jackets at dinner (which is included in the rate), but for the most part, Alisal is designed to make you feel comfortable. In summer, scores of children join the guest population. Up on a nearby ridge, you can see the spot where President Reagan's helicopter used to land when he was visiting his Rancho del Cielo.
Los Olivos is tiny but mighty – full of wine, art, equestrian accessories and countrified emblems of status and wealth. Choose among more than 20 winery tasting rooms. Browse the Bin 2860 Wine Shop in the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn (2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos). Get lunch on the patio of Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe (2879 Grand Ave., Los Olivos), where you can peruse a 37-page wine list while eavesdropping on gossip about quarter horses and real estate. Inspect Stetsons and boots at Jedlicka's Saddlery (2883 Grand Ave., Los Olivos) or crafts and baubles at Artisans' Gallery (2432 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos). Look at outdoorsy art at the Wildling Museum (2928 San Marcos Ave., Los Olivos). Consider spending $1,595 on a set of wind chimes the size of a pipe organ. (As of late September, the chimes were hanging in front of the J. Woeste nursery and garden shop at 2356 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos). Alas, you can't visit the late Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch (which is about five miles north of town). But you can park and marvel at the miniature horses just outside town at Quicksilver Ranch (1555 Alamo Pintado Road, Solvang). Or take winding Ballard Canyon Road to do some tasting on the oak-shaded patio deck at the Rusack Vineyards (1819 Ballard Canyon Road, Solvang). While you're at it, remind yourself that the modern wine trade took root here in the 1960s and early '70s, when pioneers such as Pierre Lafond's Santa Barbara Winery, Firestone Vineyards and Zaca Mesa Winery opened. Now, for a romantic, sophisticated dinner, try the signless Sides Hardware & Shoes restaurant (2375 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos). Then turn in for the night at the charming Ballard Inn (2346 Baseline Ave., Ballard) just down the road. If it's full, ponder the neo-Victorian Santa Ynez Inn (3627 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez) or the smaller, more eccentric ForFriends Inn (1121 Edison St., Santa Ynez), which has a Water Tower suite.
Long-slumbering Los Alamos, about 12 miles northwest of Los Olivos and 20 miles northwest of Solvang, is waking up. Start with breakfast at Cafe Quackenbush (458 Bell St., Los Alamos), then wander into the adjoining Art Brut Gallery, where the fetching California landscapes include Alan Freeman's boldly colored rural scenes. Then take a spin out Aliso Canyon Road to become one with the landscape, especially if the oaks are looming like gray ghosts in the dwindling morning mist. Or head straight to Gussied-Up Antiques (349 Bell St., Los Alamos), the Depot Mall (515 Bell St., Los Alamos) or Gentleman Farmer (363 Bell St., Los Alamos) to rummage through vintage merchandise. For a sophisticated sandwich or salad lunch, dip into the Bell Street Farm Eatery & Market (406 Bell St., Los Alamos), which opens only Fridays through Mondays. After a few more hours in tasting rooms or chasing antiques, you're ready for dinner at Full of Life Flatbread Pizza (225 W. Bell St., Los Alamos), another lively restaurant, open for dinner only Thursdays through Sundays. Then browse past the cool neon sign of the Alamo Motel (425 Bell St., Los Alamos) before casting farther back and claiming your room at the 1880 Union Hotel (362 Bell St., Los Alamos), with its 14 historic rooms, creaky floors, vintage lobby, restaurant and saloon. If your budget is really tight or you need a pool, head up the hill to the Skyview Motel (9150 U.S. Highway 101), where the 32 rooms feature hand-painted decorations and your tab is sure to be less than $100 a night.
Most wine country tourists stick to the east side of 101, but not you. You head west. At Lompoc (pronounce that LOME-poke), if it's late spring or summer, you'll be greeted by colorful flower fields. Enjoy, but keep going west and take Jalama Road, a two-lane country byway that will deliver you to underappreciated coastline just south of Vandenberg Air Force Base. If you time it right, you'll arrive at Jalama Beach County Park just in time for a breakfast burger (bacon and egg included) at the Jalama Beach Store. If you're a beach person, there's no need to go anywhere else, perhaps for days: Not only are there campsites at Jalama Beach, there are wood cabins overlooking the largely empty shore. If you're not so beachy, head back to Lompoc. Oenophiles should head for the Wine Ghetto, an industrial park now occupied by 19 winery tasting rooms (and a gunsmith, among others). If you've got kids in the car, head instead to La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, which has atmospheric old buildings (built in the 18th century, rebuilt in the early 20th) and historical exhibits, as well as a bull with crazy, big horns, several horses and a few pigs.
The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail (www.foxencanyonwinetrail.com) covers 16 wineries and lots of gorgeous ground. It's about 28 miles from the Andrew Murray Vineyards in Los Olivos to Cambria winery in the Santa Maria Valley, and much of the route follows Foxen Canyon Road, a curvy route that skirts low-lying vineyards along one stretch, then climbs elsewhere to follow oak-studded ridgelines with big views. Vintners advise tasters to expect more Syrah, Grenache and Viognier at the south end, more Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at the north. Tasting-room atmosphere can vary just as widely as the wine you taste. The Foxen tasting room (7600 Foxen Canyon Road, Santa Maria) is not only modern in style (completed in 2009), but the winery and tasting room are solar-powered. Meanwhile, just up the road, Foxen's 7200 "tasting shack" (7200 Foxen Canyon Road, Santa Maria) remains small and rustic. It also has several autographed copies of "Vertical," a 2011 sequel by "Sideways" novelist Rex Pickett. If you're lucky, they'll still have the one that Pickett inscribed with a no-Merlot quote, which can't be reprinted in a family newspaper. To cap off the day with some red meat, head to the original Hitching Post (3325 Point Sal Road, Casmalia) – the one that wasn't in "Sideways." It's a reminder of what this area was like in less glamorous days, a busy joint in the gritty hamlet of Casmalia on a half-forgotten road that stops (for civilians) at Vandenberg Air Force Base.