The Santa Maria Valley in California’s picturesque Central Coast is the literal center of all things hospitality, food and wine when it comes to this scenic slice of The Golden State.
Geographically, Santa Maria Valley really is located halfway between Santa Barbara and the Central Coast’s most northern outpost of San Simeon (along Highway 1 just a few miles north of Cambria, at the foot of Hearst Castle and considered the Southern entrance to Big Sur).
It is unfortunate, but car loads of visitors to California’s Central Coast never make it to Santa Maria Valley because they stop along Highway 101 at Buellton or Solvang while exploring the Santa Ynez Valley. Or, they drive right through the Santa Maria Valley along Highway 101 on their way to San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay or Cambria. That’s definitely a mistake as The Santa Maria Valley has so much to offer the road trip traveler.
So why stop or even choose to stay in Santa Maria on a California Central Coast road trip?
Whilst the actual town of Santa Maria is rather dull and architecturally uninteresting, the fertile valley and isolated beaches that surround the city are most appealing. Firstly, Santa Maria sits on a relatively undisturbed coastline with miles upon miles of stunning beaches, including the world-renowned Avila Beach.
Plus, the Santa Maria Valley is home to some of Santa Barbara County’s best wineries, which can be best experienced while driving down country roads filled with tall grasses, gnarly oak trees, colorful wildflowers and hills upon hills of neatly organized grapevines next to charming winemaking and tasting rooms.
Santa Maria Valley Wines, Wineries & Nature
The Matador Travel Network perfectly summed up the wine experience in Santa Maria Valley as “a place for wine snobs minus the snobbery.” We definitely found an unpretentious attitude when it came to Santa Maria wineries and tasting rooms as well as the classic simplicity of Santa Maria AVA wine varietals.
Santa Maria Valley, which is both foggy and windswept, crafts distinctive wines that mostly feature rich red Pinot Noirs and creamy oak-filled Chardonnays. Just some of the region’s top wineries to discover are Cambria Winery & Vineyard, Ca Del Grevino Winery & Orcutt Wine Bar, Nagy Wines, Costa de Oro Winery, Foxen Vineyard, Golden Bear Winery, Rancho Sisquoc Winery, Riverbench Vineyard & Winery and Cottonwood Canyon Winery.
For tips on Santa Maria Valley wines and wine tastings, visit www.winecountrythismonth.com.
Staying at The Historic Santa Maria Inn
There are lots of affordable hotels in Santa Maria Valley, but only the “historic” Santa Maria Inn brings history, luxury, food and fun together like this circa-1904 destination hotel.
From the outside, the now 164-room “inn” looks like a modern building–at least from the second floor up. Saddle up to the Santa Maria Inn’s charming porte cochère, complete with a vintage wood and copper revolving door and the past comes to life right in front of your eyes.
The vast lobby with its heavy wooden reception desk lives up to the spirit of this hotel’s tribute to the Central Coast as part of the Old West, a time when horse-drawn buggies and then Model Ts stopped on their way to San Francisco or Los Angeles. The inn’s décor also has a delightful injection of English country garden. This harkens back to the original founder, Frank J. McCoy, who fashioned his Santa Maria Inn in the tradition of a “fine hotel full of tradition and comfort” and placed almost unbelievable flower displays (from his own garden just a few blocks away) in every room.
In fact, countless 20s-40s-era Hollywood celebrities found shelter and great comfort during the Santa Maria Inn’s “golden days,” especially those road tripping to publishing magnate William Randolph Heart’s famous Hearst Castle.
Certainly, Santa Maria Inn’s rooms and suites live up to the hotel’s tradition of unexpected luxury in this down-to-earth village. We were delighted when our oversized room surprisingly came outfitted with two king beds and a sweeping view of the San Rafael Mountains, which we could view from our room’s large bay windows with large padded seat. These family-friendly double king rooms also feature a vanity/kitchen/closet area with sink as well as a full sink, toilet, shower and tub behind a lockable door.
We also thoroughly enjoyed relaxing in the Santa Maria Inn’s many public spaces including the shopping village, Zen-like pool area and the hotel’s delicious buffet breakfasts, dinners and wine tastings.
Don’t Miss Visiting Old Town Orcutt
We were surprised to discover the Santa Maria Valley’s tiny town of Orcutt (halfway between Lompoc and Santa Maria proper) is an up-and-coming foodie destination. Here’s why:
Kay’s Orcutt Country Kitchen has been this no-stop town’s meeting place as well as ground central for its foodie scene. Now owned by lifelong Orcutt resident and former waitress Kaylynn Tims, “Kay’s Café” is the central gathering place in Orcutt for family, friends, business meetings and the occasional tourist. Locals sit at Kay’s for the relaxing downhome vibe as well as the something-for-just-about-everyone menu for breakfast and lunch.
We were surprised to learn Santa Maria Valley’s famed Far Western Tavern has built a brand new restaurant from the ground up right in Orcutt. The “new” Far Western Tavern is absolutely gorgeous inside as a warmly-lit romantic space for what the family-run fine dining restaurant calls “contemporary California ranch cuisine.”
We were wowed by the thoughtful décor of Far Western Tavern’s interior as well as the delicious dishes such as a shrimp cocktail with Persian cucumber, a refreshing cabbage wedge salad, grilled Portobello mushroom, fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs and Santa Maria’s own signature oak-grilled tri tip with pinqinto beans, garlic-mashed potatoes and avocado verde sauce. Far Western Tavern also features some of Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County’s best Pinots and Chardonnays.
Want to take Santa Maria flavors home with you? Ask about Far Western Tavern owner Susan Righetti’s Susie Q’s brand of red oak chips, piquinto beans and classic Santa Maria seasoning (garlic, salt, pepper and parsley).
Ca De Grevino Winery’s tasting room in Orcutt is more than just a pleasant place to spend an afternoon or evening. While this spot along Orcutt’s main boulevard doesn’t look like much from the outside, the interior is a welcoming place. This tasting “room” not only includes a plush tasting room complete with sofa, backgammon tables and musical entertainment some nights, but also has a very satisfying food menu to go with its award-winning Rieslings, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Grenaches and Syrahs.
We happily swooshed and tilted back a five-wine flight while we noshed on marcona almonds, marinated olives, a salami-and-cheese board along with some of Ca De Grevino Tasting Room & Café’s famed flat bread pizzas such as the veggie and pesto, prosciutto and fig and tri-tip and bleu cheese. The kitchen also serves up daily tacos, soups, avocado “bombs,” tri-tip sliders, macaroni and cheese, burgers and steaks.
If you are heading north on your way to Highway 1 destinations such as Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, Cambria or San Simeon, consider stopping on the way at Willow Beer & Wine Bar. Nipomo is a tiny outpost in Santa Maria Valley, so it was again surprising to find yet another foodie destination in the middle of the country. Willow is actually a lot of things to Santa Maria Valley locals including an upscale grocery store, a restaurant, a to-go deli and a coffee, wine and craft beer bar. As well, Willow’s darling outdoor patio hosts musical entertainment on summer evenings.
Ready to head to the Santa Maria Valley for some food, wine and California Central Coast countrified relaxation? For more information on travel to the Santa Maria Valley visit, www.santamariavalley.com or become a fan of #SantaMariaValley tourism on Twitter @VisitSMV and on Instagram @santamariavalley
Want to learn more about Central Coast California travel destinations? Follow #MyGlobalLife’s summer of the Ultimate California series including Ultimate Central Coast California Getaway: Lompoc and The Ultimate California Getaway: Half Moon Bay.