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Southern California Close-Up: Santa Barbara County wine country

The grapes aren't the only ones soaking up this atmosphere. Oak-dotted hills. Rugged coastline. A kitschy Danish town going chichi. A raucous stagecoach stop.

October 07, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
  • Alisal Ranch, outside Solvang, has 50 miles of riding trails, two 18-hole golf courses, seven tennis courts, pool, spa and fitness center.
Alisal Ranch, outside Solvang, has 50 miles of riding trails, two 18-hole… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

About 20 miles beyond the red-tile roofs of downtown Santa Barbara, it begins: the rolling blond hills that go indecently green in spring, the massive estates and miniature horses, the sprawling vineyards and "Sideways" scenery, the dude ranch with 10,000 acres, the old stagecoach stop with boar on the menu and bikers in the parking lot ....

Santa Barbara County's wine country has a lot to offer. The nine micro-itineraries that follow are a quick introduction for newcomers, part of our ongoing series of Southern California Close-Ups.

1. To camp or 'glamp'?

El Capitan Canyon ( Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

About 13 miles before the northbound 101 Freeway bends inland at Gaviota Pass, El Capitan State Beach and its neighbors offer places to splash in the Pacific and sit around a campfire before the wine country begins in earnest. The state beach is a rugged stretch of sand-and-rock coastline, and it includes a campground (which, in September, was afflicted by a behind-schedule construction project). Nearby, just inland from the 101, is El Capitan Canyon (11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara), a comfy, woodsy collection of cabins, fancy tents on wooden decks, "adventure yurts" and prices that are typically north of $150 a night. It's "glamping," some would say. There's also Ocean Mesa at El Capitan (100 El Capitan Terrace Lane, Santa Barbara), a more conventional campground (20 tent sites, 80 RV sites) that's also outfitted with a heated swimming pool and laundry room. At $40-$50 a night for a tent-camping spot, that's value.

2. Beer, boar and bikers

Cold Spring Tavern ( Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Cold Spring Tavern (5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara) may be the greatest throwback in Santa Barbara County — a 19th century stagecoach stop built from logs, where you can huddle by one of the stone fireplaces or dine on boar chops and rabbit medallions. If you take Highway 154, it's on the way from Santa Barbara to Solvang, and it's open for lunch and dinner daily. But the place truly comes alive on weekends. Breakfast is served, live music plays from afternoon into the evening, an armada of Santa Barbara bikers arrives, and lots of beer gets sold. Just a few miles north of the tavern, at the foot of the mountains, is Lake Cachuma, with fishing, boating and camping.

3. Clogs, Chumash and Solvang

Succulent Cafe located along Mission Drive ( Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Don't pretend you're above Solvang. The city, founded in 1911 by Danish educators as a little slice of Denmark in the California outback, might be the global capital of windmill kitsch. Stroll down Copenhagen Drive, pause at the big red wooden clogs outside the Solvang Shoe Store (1663 Copenhaven Drive, Solvang), then nose around the Viking-themed restaurants and Nordic knife merchants, which are joined by neighbors such as the Thomas Kinkade Gallery and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

Some people find Solvang irredeemably cheesy, but not you. You understand that this is a rare and endangered habitat. Others want to fancy up Solvang so that it fits better with the wine country and the horse properties. Meanwhile, the Chumash are buying real estate. Besides the wealth-generating Chumash Casino Resort (3400 E. Highway 246, Santa Ynez; hotel rooms closed for remodeling), the Chumash own the 122-room Hotel Corque (400 Alisal Road, Solvang) and the 71-room Hadsten House Inn (1450 Mission Drive, Solvang). So that windmill kitsch might not last. While sorting out your feelings about this, take advantage of the easy public parking and public restrooms. Get a snack at the Greenhouse Bistro (487 Atterdag Road, Solvang) or the Succulent Café (1555 Mission Drive, Solvang). Have a peek at Old Mission Santa Inés (1760 Mission Drive, Solvang) at the east end of town. Plan an upscale evening at the Mirabelle Inn (409 1st St., Solvang) or a cheekier, more affordable night amid the Danish Modern rooms of the Hamlet Inn (1532 Mission Drive, Solvang), where rates are often less than $100. If it's summer, check to see what's on at the Solvang Festival Theater (420 2nd St., Solvang), where PCPA Theaterfest typically stages several shows under the stars from June through September. (PCPA's home is in Santa Maria.)

4. Steak and pea soup

Pea Soup Andersen's Inn ( Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

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