By Richard Carroll
Central California's Santa Barbara County — bordered by the mighty Pacific Ocean and anchored by fashionable Santa Barbara — has a network of attractive roadways winding through an expansive inland valley. Lompoc, which lies 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, tops the must-visit list.
The affable city, a dazzling destination with a significant collection of attractions in the heart of wine country, awaits travelers with open arms. Lompochians claim the city is often bypassed by tourists despite its location just off the famed Pacific Coast Highway (state Route 1), noted among the world's top scenic roadways.
A cherished wine/farming city with the attractive warmth of a smaller town, it has an astounding array of 49 colorful downtown wall murals and 20 works of art in Art Alley across from the 1892 Chamber of Congress Building. Around the corner yet more designs adorn Pocket Park.
Scattered throughout town and the nearby Santa Rita Hills is an impressive collection of 40 family-owned wineries, tasting rooms and production facilities producing some of California's finest wines. Supported by a cooling east-west maritime climate and carefully scrutinized plantings, Lompoc's award-winning vineyards are noted for chardonnay, syrah, the thin-skinned pinot noir and a host of other varieties.
With classic irony, Lompoc was founded as a temperance colony in 1874, even though the spectacular La Purisima Mission, 1787-1835, was already producing tasty wines. While swallows swarm the skies from spring through August, the 2,000-acre La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, California's 11th and most fully restored mission, hosts live re-creations of life during the 1820s that demonstrate the arts of weaving, candle-making, pottery and leatherwork.
Highlights of the expansive visitors center include museum-style exhibits detailing the life of the Chumash people and an original 1818 mission bell from Lima, Peru. Twenty-five miles of hiking trails surround the park and connect with a small patch of the historic unpaved Camino Real that once wound its way through California.
Golf aficionados can test their skills at the 18-hole La Purisima Golf Course, noted as "The Finest Public Golf Course in California." For the more adventurous, exhilaration can be found at Lompoc Airport, where some 300,000 thrill-seekers have accepted Skydive Santa Barbara's challenge to experience standard 8,000-to-13,000-foot jumps with bird's-eye views of Point Conception, Pismo Beach and Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Back on the ground, the serene Ocean Beach Park and Estuary, on immense undeveloped Vandenberg Air Force Base land, provides bird-watchers and nature-loving photographers a picturesque view of the Santa Ynez River where it meets the chilly Pacific Ocean, accompanied by the constant reverberation of wind-capped waves crashing on the nearby beach. The estuary is a short drive from downtown via state Route 246 to the coast and Ocean Park Road. The beach is closed March 1 to Sept. 30 to protect the Western Snowy Plover, which nests nest in the coastal sands.
Return to Freedom is another Lompoc feel-good destination. Fifteen minutes south of town on 300 acres of gorgeous terrain in the Jalama Valley, the sanctuary is home to 166 wild horses and 27 burros. An incredible total of 500 wild horses and 42 burros live at the organization's other locations. Drop-ins are not accepted, but tours can be booked at [email protected]
Lompoc's dramatically improving dining scene can begin at the 156-room Hilton Garden Inn's restaurant, where featured chef, Conrad Gonzalez, creates a diverse California cuisine sourced from local farmers. Gonzalez's friend, Augusto Caudillo, chef/owner of Scratch Kitchen, appropriately creates a version of modern American cuisine from scratch and serves it with his own wine label.
More labels are found at the affectionately monikered Wine Ghetto. Once an industrial area, it was converted to a collection of 23 wine-tasting rooms and wineries, some tagged with unforgettable names. Kathy Joseph, owner/winemaker of the often-honored Fiddlehead Cellars, produces 5,000 cases of mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir wine annually at the Wine Ghetto.
"I'm thinking of texture and flavor and great balance, thanks to a magnificent climate," said Joseph, a pioneer female winemaker celebrating her 30th vintage in 2018.
In 2005, neighboring Flying Goat Cellars, with owner/winemaker Kate Griffin at the helm, was the first in the county to launch a line of classic sparkling wines.
The Pali Wine Co. near the Ghetto produces high-quality varietals with tasting rooms throughout the county and is expanding by the minute. Historic Sanford Winery, 15 miles east of town in the Santa Rita Hills, looks like a classic Spanish hacienda and has the oldest active Pinot Noir vines in the county, dating to 1971. For those who prefer beer, the SBC Hoptions Taproom & Eatery features the Solvang Brewing Co.'s 16 different recipes of fresh-brewed craft beer and a tasty menu.
Enshrined at the top of the list of Lompoc winemakers list is personable Rick Longoria, tagged "the Godfather of the Ghetto" because he established the first winery in Lompoc, currently located on Chestnut Street.
"We're small with 4,000 cases a year and 14 different varietals but selling well," he said. "For a while it seemed as if Lompoc was the stepchild of the county, but times have changed. The town is enthusiastic and people have to come and discover our potential."
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.explorelompoc.com
Richard Carroll is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The Pali Winery in Lompoc, California, is one of 40 family-owned wineries in the area. Photo courtesy of Halina Kubalski.