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Thirty-five miles north of Santa Barbara lies the Santa Ynez Valley, a grapevine cluster of six distinct small towns: Solvang with its Danish heritage; Ballard and its Little Red Schoolhouse; Santa Ynez, loaded with John Wayne swagger; Buellton and its pea soup; Los Alamos, boasting seven blocks of vintage western flair; and Los Olivos, anchored by its iconic, sky-high flagpole and this writer’s favorite.
Don’t get me wrong now: I love them all, but when June starts bustin’ out all over, I can’t wait to hightail it to the lavender fields of Clairmont Farms, a family-owned, organic, five-acre farm on the outskirts of Los Olivos, and immerse myself in the balm and beauty of lavender, the Grosso variety known for its healing quality.
Linger awhile on the patio and in the quaint gift shop where you’ll find teas, honey and aromatherapy goodies. That always gets me in the mood for gardening, so the next stop has to be J. Woeste Home & Garden Treasures & Succulents. Good grief! I could spend an entire afternoon in this corner of whimsy.
A Chinese proverb, “If you want to be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.” I think the shop owners must have had this in mind. I don’t think they’re Chinese, although a couple of adorable pups, I think Chinese pugs, named Lady and Lucy, greet you at the front door. No green thumb? No problem. Plant ceramic flowers, always in bloom in this delightful spot.
The trajectory of Los Olivos can basically be summed up from stagecoach stop and fine art galleries to tasting rooms and high-end boutiques. All still thriving.
The 1886 stagecoach stop is now Mattei’s Tavern, a sprawling restaurant with different dining options, live music, outdoor seating and superb cuisine prepared by French trained chef Robbie Wilson. Sides Hardware and Shoes, where no hardware or shoes can be found, offers intriguing pork belly burgers and carrot curry soup. Reservations are a must here. Panino, a quick service spot, is vegetarian friendly and home to the best chicken pesto sandwich around. Petros in the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn serves California hellenic cuisine. Brothers Restaurant is family perfect and casual.
For the best beer brews in wine country, head to Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. And when the urge for coffee and ice cream strikes, go off main street to Corner House Coffee. Stop next door in the fanciful little 8-foot-by-8-foot Stafford’s Famous Chocolates shop for truffles, caramels, English toffees and delectable chocolates — go dark. Housed in an old water tower, this is a must experience.
Now for my favorite dining spot: Los Olivos Café & Wine Merchant. It’s romantic, it’s laid back, it’s a local favorite, it’s just plain scrumptious — short ribs, Nicoise salad, pizzas, homemade soups and save room for s’mores. Try the “Sideways” Dinner Menu, a bargain at $39 per person. This is a “go-back-again-and-again” kind of place.
Conveniently located right across the street from this superb dining is the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, so you can spend several nights enjoying all that this tiny town has to offer. It’s the best hotel in town. Of course, it’s the only hotel in town, but it would still be a five-star hotel if it had any competition in this diminutive metropolis. Elegance, romance and sophistication are the hallmark of each room and bathroom. Reservations include a daily full breakfast and wine tasting for two. Relax in the tranquil spa after enjoying a day of its exhilarating Wine Country Cycling Package.
Last, but by no means least, is the profusion of wine tasting rooms: Zinke Wines, a 100-year-old wine tasting room offering Rhone varietals in a most congenial setting; Los Olivos General Store, one of the first gas stations in California, now the smallest tasting room in town; Semler Wines, a sought-after wedding location; Alta Maria Vineyards, a small, artisan winery focusing on chardonnay and pinot noir; and the “little red cottage” awash in roses, which is Stolpman Vineyards & Winery, producers of Ballard Canyon wines and known for its Original Syrahs and reasonably priced La Cuardillas.
Those are five recommendations out of more than 40 tasting rooms, all within easy walking distance. You might as well try them all — another reason to check into the endearing Fess Parker Inn.
— Judy Crowell is a Noozhawk contributing writer, author, freelance travel writer and Santa Barbara resident. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are her own.