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Discover California's Santa Ynez Valley

Travel Feature

Written by Julie Arnan

Photos by Visit the Santa Ynez Valley

A short 30-minute drive from the airport and beaches of Santa Barbara, the six towns of the Santa Ynez Valley—Ballard, Buellton, Los Alamos, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez and Solvang—harbor vineyards, fantastic dining, rustic adventures and restful accommodations. Named for the transverse mountain range that gives the region its name, the Santa Ynez Valley is perhaps most famous as the setting of the film Sideways (2004), where main character Miles (Paul Giamatti) waxes poetic about Pinot Noir, a varietal that thrives in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA thanks to the cooling effect of ocean breezes drawn inland by the east–west mountain range. But, in fact, there are a number of microclimates throughout the valley where seven distinct AVAs grow everything from Sauvignon Blanc to Syrah. Obviously, wine tasting is a major draw to the area that is also home to horse ranches, hiking trails and even a little gaming at the Chumash Casino Resort.

Where to Stay

Each of the six communities has its own personality. The windmills and old-world Danish architecture give Solvang an extra burst of Scandinavian charm. Founded in 1911 by Danish American immigrants, the town is a favorite for photos and bakery treats. Tasting rooms are as plentiful as the pastries in Solvang where flat streets are filled with shops, restaurants, and even a brewery or two. Newly renovated, the Landsby is an excellent choice for lodging. Light-filled rooms are furnished with Scandinavian-influenced furnishings, wood-plank flooring, reading nooks and cozy details like knitted throw blankets and a whimsical bent-wire “goodnight” over the headboard. The rooms are arranged around an open courtyard adorned with lounge chairs, umbrellas and fire pits perfect for the cool evenings. Happy hour at the Mad & Vin bar downstairs is popular with tourists and locals alike.

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Further north, the quaint downtown of Los Olivos looks like Mayberry meets wine country. Victorian homes and shops spread out around a central flagpole at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Alamo Pintado. For luxury accommodations, look no further than the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa. Known for his roles as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in the mid-1950s, Fess Parker purchased hundreds of acres in the Santa Ynez Valley in the 20th century planting wine grapes with his son Eli in 1989. The Inn and onsite restaurant, The Bear and Star, pay homage to Parker’s Texan roots as well as his California home. Just up the street behind the Epiphany tasting room, two wine country cabins provide a more personalized stay: “World Headquarters” has two king bedrooms and a full kitchen for up to four guests; “Chateau Relaxeau” is a cabin made for two with one king bedroom.

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Where to Eat

It’s not hard to get a good meal in this part of the country with plentiful seafood, locally raised meats and sun-kissed produce. The S.Y. Kitchen in the town of Santa Ynez serves modern Italian dishes in a casual California farmhouse setting. Brothers and chefs Luca and Francesco Crestanelli create colorful, flavorful and perfectly seasoned dishes featuring wild foraged mushrooms, fresh-caught seafood, handmade pasta and grilled entrees. It’s obviously a favorite haunt for visitors from L.A., as evidenced by the dining room full of beautiful people.

Other great dining options include Pico at the Los Alamos General Store, Industrial Eats and, if tracing the steps of Sideways, the Hitching Post II in Buellton. Try the fantastic brunch at the Bear and Star in Los Olivos where even the carrots become a work of art, arranged as an orange skyline. The brisket is heavenly, the chicken liver mousse creamy and rich—perfect with a glass of sparkling Fesstivity Brut Rosé.

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While in Solvang, make a point to stop at one of the many bakeries (Solvang Bakery and Mortensen’s Danish Bakery were personal favorites) for a cheese Danish, cinnamon crisp, almond butter ring, or kringle. Of course, the Solvang pastry “rite of passage” is the æbleskiver at Solvang Restaurant—a trio of fried pancake balls slathered in raspberry jam sauce that will have you returning to your cushy bed for a nap in no time.

Perhaps my favorite discovery while visiting the Santa Ynez Valley was the tri-tip sandwich—the “Philly cheesesteak” or “Mission burrito” of Santa Barbara County. Everyone has an opinion on where to find the original or best version, but most people agree that a stop at the Cold Spring Tavern off Highway 154 (San Marcos Pass) is worth the effort. An Old West watering hole open since 1886, Cold Spring Tavern will probably be full of tourists, especially bikers, but the perfectly seasoned meat roasting over open flames makes it all good. Pay for a sandwich ticket at the bar and present it to the guys around back doing the grilling. They will slice off several juicy strips of beef into a French roll, leaving the salsa or barbecue sauce toppings up to individual preference.

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Where to Sip

You can’t pick up an æbleskiver and throw it without hitting a tasting room (more than 30 in Los Olivos alone) or vineyard in these parts. Download the Santa Ynez Valley tasting room map from to plot your course. One of the region’s oldest remaining vineyards, the Brander Vineyard produces several versions of its signature varietal, Sauvignon Blanc. Other vineyards line Alamo Pintado Road including Blackjack Ranch (featured in Sideways) and Buttonwood Farm where guests can sit out on the back patio, gaze into the peach orchards and hear the goats bleating in the background. Another vineyard hot spot clusters around Foxen Canyon Road in the north with outlier Presqu’ile Winery a must-visit destination for cool-climate Pinot and Chardonnay.

Take a break from wine sipping with an olive oil tasting at Global Gardens just outside Los Olivos. Proprietor Theo Stephan left the graphic design industry rat race in the late 1990s to pursue a more idyllic life planting and tending olive trees, pressing their fruit into liquid green-gold. A full tasting includes nearly a dozen oils from single varietals to citrus-infused plus an array of vinegars, brined olives and seasoned nuts.

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Where to Play

Ride through the golden hills atop a valiant steed when staying at the Alisal Guest Ranch or saddle up for a vineyard tour at Estelle Vineyards with Vino Vaqueros. Other wildlife adventures could include a visit to OstrichLand USA just outside of Solvang where the big event is feeding time.

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Several companies offer yoga or painting experiences in a vineyard, but for a high-quality yoga class, try heated yoga at the Juicy Life yoga studio in the town of Santa Ynez. Pick up a fresh-pressed organic juice on the way out the door to replenish your system.

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For a historical perspective, stop in at the Old Mission Santa Inés founded in 1804 where paintings and artifacts are on display in several small galleries and weekday self-guided tours through the sanctuary, gardens and cemetery are available for a $5 donation.

Denmark’s most famous writer, Hans Christian Andersen, and his fairy tales are memorialized at the eponymous museum in Solvang above the Book Loft.

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