Take the Scenic Route: A Weekend in Hidden, Artsy Lompoc
Ventura has its agriculture, Santa Barbara has its shopping, and San Luis Obispo has its vineyards. But hidden among the chain of Central Coast hotspots lies a secret enclave with fewer crowds, small-town charm, and big-time creative culture: Lompoc, California.
You find Lompoc by getting off the 101 at one of several random turnoffs that will have the drivers behind you craning their necks to see if you’re lost or out of gas. Let ’em think it—it’s better that this place stays a secret. Once you leave the freeway and head west for CA 1, you’ll drive through rolling chaparral and sylvan forests and past the herds of free-ranging cattle and horses. If you get lost, most everyone around here is pretty friendly, just make sure to pronounce the city lahm-poke. It makes the locals happy.
Lompoc has been dubbed “The City of Arts and Flowers,” which might come as a surprise to the folks who didn’t know it was a city at all. And yet, on every street corner, the hum of flower picking and mural painting is growing to a steady roar of agriculture corridors and art districts. Garage doors, alleyways, building façades, and entire city blocks are painted with vibrant, emotive, culturally relevant murals. Stop by the Chamber of Commerce for a map of 35 works endorsed by the Mural Society.
Starting with the aptly named “Wine Ghetto,” a testament to the genius of fusing industrial city planning with fine wine, visitors can amble from each of the 19 tasting rooms to the next. There’s a little something for every palate. Share a cheese plate and an inspiring conversation with owner Kimberly Smith at La Montagne Winery. Cuddle up with the resident Labrador at Flying Goat Cellars and learn about the geology of viticulture from Norm and Kate. Or, relax in a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired refurbished home with Rick and his namesake Longoria Wines. Looking for something even more personal? With a little planning, you can arrange for a private sit-down tasting at the Clos Pepe Estate—in the winemaker’s own living room.
Where the wine community goes, the food community will follow. Such is true of Lompoc, where the restaurant culture is just breaching into popularity. At La Botte, you’re one of the family. “Momma,” as the entire community lovingly calls her, makes the rounds to ensure everyone’s eating and to play one of the tambourines she stashes around the dining room. Watch out, or she’ll refill your plate with her famous chicken picatta, spaghetti al pesto, or fettuccine alfredo when you’re not looking. While you’re perusing the murals of downtown, stop by Sissy’s Uptown Cafe for a fast and fresh lunch or grab a specialty picnic to go from Central Coast Specialty Foods. A fine night out calls for a reservation at Sage Restaurant, under the creative and daring palate of chef Christopher Jones. Whatever the special is that night—order it. This is the kind of cooking that demands you trust the chef and his artistry with food.
And finally, my two favorite attractions, the two reasons I will choose Lompoc above the rest for weekend getaways: the Return to Freedom Wild Horse Sanctuary and La Purisima Mission. The horse sanctuary is proof of many things: that there are truly selfless people in the world (case in point, sanctuary owner Neda DeMayo), that small donations can go a long way, and that America’s dwindling prairies need to be protected. By sponsoring a horse (or even part of a horse!) you’ll be invited to ranch tours where you can check in on your horse and its herd. As for the mission, which I had visited as a kid for the infamous fourth grade California Mission Project, it’s even better than I remember. Check the website when planning your trip to catch one of their reenactment days (complete with sheep shearing, music, cooking, craft demonstrations … and did I mention sheep shearing?). Said one of the docents dressed in period-specific costume as I left, “You’re always welcome here!”