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Weekend Escape: Lompoc

Full Plower Power : An inexpensive--and tourist-free--spot to commune with nature

May 26, 1996|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER; La Ganga writes for The Times' Metro section

LOMPOC — There is no bad time of year to head north on U.S. 101, a route far more quickly and beautifully not Los Angeles than any other highway leaving the city. On this early spring day our destination is Lompoc--with its famous Club Fed prison, a site more people think of escaping from than escaping to. We are on our way to prove that wisdom wrong.

About 160 miles northwest of Los Angeles, an hour or so beyond Santa Barbara, Lompoc was briefly a temperance colony whose bylaws were explicit: "No vinous, malt, spiritous or other intoxicating liquors shall be manufactured or sold. . . ." Today it boasts its very own winery and is an easy jump to more than 30 others dotting the rolling hills of the California Central Coast.

Wine is not the only reason to come here. The Valley of the Flowers, so dubbed because it once was the chief provider of flower seeds worldwide, is edged by a rugged, pristine coastline. (This year's Lompoc Valley Flower Festival is June 26 to 30.) It has the most completely reconstructed mission in the state and offers a colorful mural walk through a struggling downtown.

But to enjoy Lompoc to its fullest, you have to remember the real reason you're here: It's not just lovely, it's cheap. It's tourist-free. And it's cheap. It's friendly. And it's cheap. While the night life is spare and you have to look kind of hard for diversions, they're here, and they're, well, inexpensive.

We arrived on Friday night and checked into the Embassy Suites Hotel. (Cocktails--free. Breakfast--free.) Saturday morning we had toyed with the idea of visiting Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is working hard to turn itself into a commercial spaceport since the Challenger disaster 10 years ago pared back the shuttle program nationwide and canceled Vandenberg's future as the Western shuttle launch site.

For $20 a person--$18 for seniors, $12 for children--you can descend deep into a Titan missile silo to see a launch site from the inside out. If you're lucky. The silo is undergoing maintenance; this tour highlight is currently off limits.

Perhaps our problem was a touch of spring fever. The sun was shining, the air was cool and crisp, and we couldn't imagine a mobile military lecture. So we decided to explore Vandenberg a different way--by strolling some of its 38 miles of coastline, perhaps the loveliest, emptiest beach we've wandered in all of California.

To get there, you bicycle or drive 10 miles of straight Highway 246 (also known as Ocean Avenue) due west through verdant fields of flowers, lettuce, asparagus and cauliflower. The rolling hills that make up the Lompoc Valley are brilliant green from the spring rains, studded with scrub oak and wildflowers. "They look like they're covered in emeralds," says one old-timer.

There's a small sign on the right that whispers "Ocean Beach Park." Hang a right and drive slowly; the road is rutted and crossed by railroad tracks. A flight of gulls ascends into the pearly morning sky. At sunset deer graze. When you reach the parking lot there are 10 cars and space for about 100 more. A single surfer wipes sandy feet. Two elderly men stroll back to their car, puffing a little: "Quite a jaunt we had there."

The undertow rules out wading for the smallest of beach-goers, but the walking is fine. Snowy egrets stretch sinuous necks, a dog romps with its master. According to the warning signs, snowy plover--an endangered shore bird since 1993--are crouching in the sand, nesting in the dunes. We walk for miles, passing an occasional fisherman. So what if you can see missile launching pads in the misty distance and the beach is patrolled by gun-toting federal agents on all-terrain vehicles instead of lifeguards. They wave, they're friendly. We're practically alone.

It amazes us that a region so blessed with

natural beauty isn't lousy with bed and breakfast inns and bristling with tourists. All of California could be like this, we figure, if it weren't for a vigorous tourism industry, the kind of effort that Lompoc would like but hasn't quite mastered.

Now we're hungry. If this were any other day of the week, we'd probably eat terrific chili verde burritos, $2.94 at Taco Loco on Ocean Avenue. But it's Saturday in Lompoc, and that means only one thing: barbecue.

When the weather allows, which is most of the time, Saturday mornings find H Street transformed into Barbecue Alley. Clouds of smoke billow out over weekend shoppers, as Scout troops, churches and Lions Club chapters feed cured oak logs into aging mobile barbecues, bed-size and layered in grease.

The menu is usually the same, and the Central Coast is famous for it: grilled tri-tip or half a grilled chicken, sprinkled with so-called Santa Maria spices. Ranch beans. Grilled French bread dipped in melted butter. Salad (the formal name for iceberg lettuce doused liberally with vinaigrette). Five bucks.

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