Travel Guide: Santa Maria

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^^ How do you go visit your high school and not jump for joy??? Class of 2000!

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^^ No judgement fellow Righetti alum! My grandma graduated from my rival high school so it felt appropriate to snap a photo in her memory.

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I am so excited to share this travel guide with all of you!  Many of you know about my close connection to my “hometown” of Lake Arrowhead but I don’t share a lot about the town I lived in for 5 years as a teenager, Santa Maria.  Santa Maria is located between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo off the 101 and is home to dozens of wineries, rolling hills, coastal breezes, and it’s infamous Santa Maria Style Tri-tip…more to come on that!  Never heard of Santa Maria? You are not alone!  Although it’s a quick weekend trip from LA and San Francisco many people I meet have never heard of my small town!  The town’s most recent claim to fame comes in the form of local (and fellow Righetti alum) Pryor Baird and his final four spot on The Voice.  Though I have not spent much time in the area since I went away to college I was super excited to spend a weekend revisiting old favorites and exploring more of the wine culture I was too young to enjoy when I lived there.  If you find yourself heading to California’s Central Coast don’t overlook this gem of a town and it’s rich agricultural history!

Where to Stay:

I have always wanted to stay at The Historic Santa Maria Inn and took this trip as an excuse to finally book a room.  The Inn was originally built in 1917 and was a favorite of Hollywood stars like Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Marlene Deitrich…so cool!  In the mid 1980s the hotel’s Tower was added to the original building adding 86 new rooms and suites.  We booked one of the original inn rooms but were upgraded to a beautiful suite on the 6th floor of the tower complete with jetted tub, fireplace, and a full kitchen (not that we used it).  The hotel is located in the heart of Santa Maria and offers guests a pool, hot tub, fitness center, and a variety of food & beverage options.

The last time I was in Santa Maria I stayed at the newly built Fairfield Inn on the North end of Broadway (the main drive in town).  The suites are spacious and perfect if traveling with kids plus the hotel is part of Marriott Rewards which means members can earn and redeem points for stays!

The Airport Radisson is another full service hotel option complete with restaurant, pool, and fitness center located on the South end of Santa Maria.  If you plan to enjoy the wineries this may be a great option for you as it is a stop on the Wine Trolley!

What to Eat:

The answer to this question is simple.  Tri-Tip!  Santa Maria is famous for it’s Santa Maria Style BBQ and with good reason.  There is no place else you can get the unique combination of fresh salsa, local pinquinto beans, grilled & buttery garlic bread, and smoky cuts of tri-tip.  The local secrets abound but the basics include salt, pepper, garlic, red oak (which is indigenous to the area), and cooked low and slow over a hand crank grill…this one is a do not miss!

Shaw’s Steakhouse is located across from the Santa Maria Inn and serves up generous 12oz portions of well seasoned tri-tip, lingucia sausage, beans, and the ubiquitous relish trays in a classic steakhouse setting.  They also pour a favorite cab of mine (Rancho Sisquoc Cab) for $10 a glass!

Far Western Tavern is a local institution originally opening it’s doors back in the 1950s in the neighborhood of Guadalupe.  While the location has changed (the restaurant relocated to nearby Old Town Orcutt) the original tri-tip sandwich from 1958 is still on the menu and for good reason!  The buttery garlic bread and flavorful tri-tip are the perfect complement to one another.  They also offer a fantastic brunch with dishes like tri-tip and eggs, buttermilk polenta pancakes, and mountain oysters.

Take a short drive to the area known as Casmalia (about 15 minutes out of Santa Maria) for a step back into time at the original Hitching Post location that is well over 100 years old.  Many people may know the Hitching Post’s location in Buellton from the movie Sideways but this is the location to visit for the authentic experience.  Owned by the same family since 1952 the menu features tri-tip (sensing a theme?), quail, pork ribs, and lobster tail…all cooked over the indoor grill.  SO GOOD!

A few other spots to experience authentic Santa Maria style BBQ include The Swiss, Jockos, and The Garden Room at The Santa Maria Inn.  If you happen to find yourself in town on a weekend a quick drive up and down Broadway may be all you need to find a local fundraiser selling tri-tip sandwiches, trust me…so good!

Okay, so if you have had your fill of tri-tip and are looking for another option there are still so many great local spots!  There are literally DOZENS of local taco stands or taquerias in and around Santa Maria.  The carnitas and carne asada are always a great option and if you are feeling adventurous order the Lengua (tongue).  El Pelenque and Taqueria Salsa Brava are two of my faves.

Charlie’s in Old Orcutt was a regular spot for me in high school for the burgers and fries and Klondike Pizza is a must (especially on Tuesday for all you can eat night) for the BEST PIZZA EVER!

For those seeking a healthier option check out Moxie Cafe.  Their healthy fare ranges from wraps to healthy street tacos and even fresh seafood.

When the craving for a sweet treat sets in Doc Bernstein’s Ice Cream Lab is exactly where you’ll want to head.  Doc serves up unique creations like s’mores, unicorn swirl, and monarch chip (orange ice cream with chocolate chips)!

Where to Drink:

In my opinion where to drink is equally as important as where to eat.  Thanks to the down home vibe of Santa Maria and the abundance of wineries in the area there are plenty of places to sit back and unwind.

If a classic dive bar vibe is what you are craving then The Swiss and Shaw’s both turn from steakhouse into bar after 9pm.  Louie B’s on Main Street, The Old English Tap Room at The Santa Maria Inn, Elmer’s in Old Orcutt, and Rooney Irish Pub all welcome customers with strong drinks, great beers, and nightly entertainment ranging from karaoke to DJs.

If something a bit more upscale is what you are craving try The Cellar Bar located below the lobby of The Santa Maria Inn.  I sipped on Rancho Sisquoc Cabernet while Chris enjoyed an Old Fashioned in a dark, cave like setting.

The Bar at The Far Western Tavern is an ideal spot to relax, unwind, catch a game on TV and sip on classic cocktails and local wines.

Beer lovers should check out the Santa Maria Brewing Co. for everything from lagers to IPAs and even a Mexican inspired lager called the Cali-Veza.  The brewery is in Santa Maria and there is also a tasting room coming soon!  Naughty Oak is another local brewery with an amazing tap-room in Old Orcutt that serves up beers like the Chela (Mexican Lager) and the Staycation (a mango blonde).

Wine Tasting:

With 6 unique AVAs (American Viticulture Area) in the Santa Maria Valley wine is not only abundant, it’s a way of life!  The Santa Maria Valley is known for it’s Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Blanc thanks to the low Coastal fog and cool growing conditions.  If you are planning to visit the local wineries be sure to keep reading for a few locals tips….

  • As you make your way towards the wineries there are no restaurants or markets so be sure to eat before you head out our bring a picnic along.
  • There are also no gas/service stations near the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail so be sure you are prepared.  The wineries in the area are pretty spread out and you will be doing more driving than you realize.
  • Uber/Lyft will drop you off  on the wine trail but there is little to no cell reception and getting a ride back is nearly impossible.  Plan ahead and be sure to have a designated driver.
  • Santa Maria does offer a Wine Trolley that runs on an hour loop from the Radisson and Old Orcutt to the wineries closer to town.  The Trolley runs Saturdays and Sundays thru early October.  Tickets are $10 per person in advance and $18 per person day of.

Now, onto some favorite wineries to check out…

Cottonwood Canyon was a new discovery for us on this trip.  It is a drop off/pick up location for the Wine Trolley making it convenient if you aren’t up for driving.  The setting was gorgeous with rolling hills and a beautiful covered patio to enjoy a bottle.  I am not a big white wine drinker but they poured a beautiful Chardonnay with a clean, crisp finish.  I also really enjoyed their rose and grabbed a bottle to take home.

Foxen has long been a favorite Pinot Noir of mine and I was so excited to finally visit the tasting room.  Chris and I shared the mixed flight and the pinot only flight to get an opportunity to experience everything.  I was honestly not excited about the whites (sensing a theme?) until a 2013 Chenin Blanc was poured.  It was the most complex and interesting white wines I have ever tasted!  We both loved it so much we bought a bottle to share with friends.  No surprise but the 7 Pinots I sipped were all UH-MAZING!  My personal favorite was the 2014 Block 8 Pinot.  Foxen also has a second, smaller location called “The Shack” that pours more Bordeaux and Italian style wines.

A few months ago I grabbed a random bottle of wine at Trader Joe’s because it was from the Santa Maria Valley and I am always excited to try hometown wine.  The label was Rancho Sisquoc and it was SO GOOD I knew I had to make a point of stopping by the winery while we were in town.  It is located off Foxen Canyon, past the San Ramon Chapel (the first county landmark of Santa Barbara County) down a long farm road.  The setting alone is worth the drive out!  It’s an ideal spot for a picnic on the large lawn or under the shaded trellis with a bottle of wine.  We were greeted by Tucker and Pete, the two dogs who “work” at the winery Monday – Friday and then made our way inside to taste.  I knew I like the River Red, a blend of Cab, Pinot, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc, Sangiovese, and Petite Verdot, but was excited to try their other reds.  The 2015 Cab is a new favorite of mine (and with good reason, it won Gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition) and I loved the 2014 Cellar Meritage (Cab, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot).  Yes, another bottle of wine came home from this label!

Presqu’ile is a family operated winery with a focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.  It is another stop on the Wine Trolley and super close to Cottonwood Canyon (for those hoping to winery hop) with a beautiful tasting room and a Summer outdoor Concert Series on Fridays and Saturdays.  Rumor has it their Sauv Blanc is unreal!

Other favorites include Fess Parker, Tres Hermanas, and Koehler Winery.

What to Do:

The perfect coastal climate of Santa Maria makes it an ideal location for year round outdoor activities.  Point Sal is a beautiful, rugged beach perfect for a hike, fishing, or relaxing on the sand.  As you head north on Highway 1 into Guadalupe the rugged cliffs make way to the  sprawling Guadalupe – Nipomo sand dunes great for bird watching, nature walks, and photography.  Fun fact: Cecil B. DeMille filmed the original Ten Commandments here back in 1923.  If an easy hike is more your idea of fun check out Orcutt Hill or the Orcutt Trails.

The Santa Maria Raceway is a fun way to spend a Summer Saturday with races beginning at 4pm each week.  Kids will love the cool cars and loud sounds and those under 5 are free!  G is really into cars lately and I feel like we need to take him next time we are in town.

One of my favorite things to do growing up was head to the drive in theater to see a double feature.  Santa Maria is home to Hi-Way Drive In, one of the few still operating drive in theaters on the Central Coast.  Grab some pillows and blankets and don’t forget to stop by the snack bar for candy and popcorn to enjoy the show with!

I could honestly go on and on with all the amazing things to do and see in Santa Maria!  If you are planning a trip and want more recommendations, have any questions, or just want to learn more you can always shoot me an email!  thedarlingnikiblog@gmail.com

For those of you heading the area don’t forget to tag your photos with #SantaMariaStyle Be sure to check out my video diary from the weekend!

XO, Niki

PS – thank you to Foxen Wine, Rancho Sisquoc Winery, Far Western Tavern, and Santa Maria Valley Tourism for sponsoring portions of our trip.  All opinions expressed in this post are my own.

 

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