Travel

5 Reasons to Drive to The Santa Maria Valley, California

Head to California's Central Coast for wine tasting, hiking, iconic barbecue, and warm hospitality

Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley

Just a few hours north of Los Angeles at the tip of Santa Barbara County, the hidden gem of the Santa Maria Valley is nestled into California’s Central Coast. The area is best known for growing delicious strawberries and fresh produce, but this underrated region is a beautiful, bountiful place full of things to explore.

From the rolling sand dunes to the miles of hiking trails, beaches, lakes, and wildlife opportunities, there’s no shortage of outdoor adventure. Pair this with the incredible barbecue offerings, nearly three dozen local wine tasting rooms, craft breweries, a variety of cultural heritage sites, and a welcoming community-a drive up the 101 freeway to Santa Maria Valley makes a relaxed California wine country or beach-style vacation.

Santa Maria Valley
Santa Maria Valley
Santa Maria Valley

Adventure in the great outdoors

Santa Maria Valley has a wealth of places to get outside-there are more than a dozen beaches and 24 trails within a 30-mile radius. The region’s temperate climate means it rarely rains or gets too hot, which makes it a fantastic place to get fresh air year-round.

Visit Los Flores Ranch Park, which has 15 miles of hiking across multiple trails through the Solomon Hills. See the sweeping sights of the San Rafael mountains just across the valley, and traverse this park’s mixed terrain that was made for hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian activities.

Nearby, Oso Flaco Lake Trail is a great spot for a relaxing stroll along a serene 1.7-mile out-and-back trail in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. Oso Flaco is one of 13 freshwater lakes in the area, and this walk is accessible year-round. Visitors can saunter along the boardwalk trail, which crosses the water and leads to a catwalk that travels all the way to the sand. This park is a naturalist’s paradise, home to more than 200 species of birds and an abundance of wildflowers.

Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley

Enjoy some laid-back “Blue Jean” Wineries and Breweries

Santa Maria Valley’s “blue jean wine tasting” experience means sipping without the need to get dolled up and fancy. Flagship varietals of the area include cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, and Bordeaux-style wines from neighboring regions.

Explore the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, which runs from Santa Maria Valley to Los Olivos and boasts stunning views of rolling hills, including 14 tucked-away vineyards along a 30-mile stretch of road. Check out the women-led, women-operated, family-owned Cambria Winery, where the team makes use of fourteen different types of soil in their four distinct vineyards that sprawl across the property’s 1,600 acres. There’s also Cotton Canyon Vineyard and Winery, which specializes in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah and hosts outdoor concerts during warm weather and memorable cave tastings.

And for those who want a taste of multiple wineries without having to find a ride, the Santa Maria Wine Trolley runs in a loop, stopping at a collection of the area’s popular wineries each weekend from May through the fall.

Those who prefer beer need not fear-Old Town Orcutt’s dog-friendly Naughty Oak Brewing Co.’s motto is ‘Comradery Through Quality,’ meaning the team promises its visitors diverse, high-quality craft beer in a community-centric environment.

Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley

Check out under-the-radar restaurants

Santa Maria has its own style of barbecue, which is recognized as a historic California tradition in the region. The process begins with the cook rolling beef in a mixture of signature spices and stringing it on skewers before cooking it over a red-oak fire to give it a smoky, savory flavor.

Santa Maria barbecue is served with a side of salsa, French bread dipped in melted sweet butter, Pinquito beans, and a fresh salad. The 150-year-old culinary tradition is said to have originated back when the ranchers in this region during the 18th century wanted to create a community feast, and it remains the region’s favorite method of cooking meat for a crowd.

Stop by Casmalia’s location of The Hitching Post to get a taste of this tradition. The restaurant is an icon in the region and serves excellent Santa Maria Style Barbecue with generous portions. It has been owned by the same family for more than 60 years and is a staple in the community for those who love barbecue, and it’s become a sort of unofficial historic landmark of the area.

Those who prefer pizza should stop into downtown Orcutt’s Pizzeria Bello Forno, which has a cheerful atmosphere and serves tasty pizzas from a mobile 4,000-pound wood-fired oven alongside salads and hearty pasta dishes.

In Old Town Orcutt, Cups and Crumbs is a fantastically charming breakfast spot with an indoor seating area and a cute outdoor patio. Browse the full menu of coffee drinks, smoothies, and delectable crepes crafted in both sweet and savory varieties.

Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley

Enjoy the welcoming hospitality and community

Old Town Orcutt feels as quaint as a storybook town, with downtown architecture that looks plucked from an old-timey film. And though it is historic in its roots, this community has been growing for the past decade. There are several new restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, a craft brewery and multiple clothing boutiques for shopping, a breath of young life for these storied streets.

At the edge of Old town Orcutt, visitors will find the new 12-room boutique hotel, the Wine Stone Inn-a cozy, two-story building that feels like a romantic escape. There’s an on-site tasting room downstairs for local wine, and a breakfast spread in the morning. Even locals are known to spend time here, at events like the hotel’s weekly bingo night, and for their happy hour specials.

Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley
Courtesy of Santa Maria Valley

Learn about the diverse history and culture of the region

The valley is home to a five-acre Luffa Farm, one of few left in the United States, which you can tour Wednesday – Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm. From the moment you pull up the driveway in Nipomo, the space exudes a welcoming sense of whimsy, with quirky decorations along the driveway and plopped in the yard.

The guided tour takes about 20 minutes, and is led by a volunteer who cares deeply about the process of turning these cucumber-like plants into shower-ready sponges. Explore the temperature controlled greenhouse that allows the luffas to grow on vines year-round, and learn about the process of peeling off the skin and removing the seeds-all of which is painstakingly done by hand. After your tour, you can stop by the gift shop to take one of their local luffas home with you.

Visitors can also learn about the first inhabitants of the Santa Maria Valley, the Chumash people, who stand as some of the most advanced indigenous cultures on the continent and who still live in and around the valley today.

Check out La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, to respectfully explore the land that many Chumash people called their home. Here, learn more about the Central Chumash languages, the peoples’ trade networks, and how they used their knowledge to survive and thrive on the Central Coast for many years before modern settlers arrived.

The influence of the Chumash people can be felt across the region, as many cities throughout the area still use traditional Chumash names. Their presence is also seen in the artwork and paintings in the caves of the rolling hills along the coastline, and their influence will not be forgotten in the Santa Maria Valley.

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Molly O’Brien is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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