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Beautiful murals, a Spanish mission like no other, fine wine and food, excellent birding — and aerospace. The hamlet of Lompoc, a two-hour drive north in the Santa Barbara wine country, is a vacation waiting to happen.
Once famous for flower seeds — it’s the place where you’d ooh and aah over the floral fields as you drove through on the way to somewhere else — has blossomed into a charming destination of its own, as I discovered one recent weekend.
A curvy highway through the hills of the Long Valley, 30 minutes north of Santa Barbara, provides a scenic entry into Lompoc. Set in a green valley, the town is a friendly mix of old and new architecture, agriculture fields, and vineyards everywhere!
Lompoc offers a fresh base from which to explore the Santa Barbara wine region. The new Hilton Garden Inn Lompoc, completed just 10 months ago, where I stayed, is wine-country chic, with a sleek, contemporary style and one of the area’s best farm-to-table restaurants, Valle Eatery + Bar, helmed by local celebrity chef Conrad Gonzales. The Scratch Kitchen is another Lompoc standout. Chef-owner Augusto Caudillo packs the restaurant with his everything-made-from-scratch rustic interpretation of modern American cuisine.
“Lompoc is the beginning of the Santa Rita Hills and the award-winning Sta. Rita Hills AVA,” Aaron Walker, head winemaker for the Pali Wine Co., told me, as I sipped amid the barrels at Pali’s Lompoc tasting room, the first stop on my tasting schedule. “The AVA is known for pinot noir and chardonnay.” I can attest that Pali produces a vibrant interpretation of both. Next, I took a short drive into the Sta. Rita Hills AVA to the Sanford Winery & Vineyards. Sanford boasts Santa Barbara County’s oldest pinot noir vines — at 40 years — resulting in vintages as delicious as the vineyard is beautiful. No surprise that a scene from the 2004 California wine flick Sideways was filmed here.
Lastly, I hit the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, a clutch of some 20 artisanal wine facilities and tasting rooms housed in former warehouses. Flying Goat Cellars’ cute label caught my eye first. Good thing, because its pinot noir, pinot gris, and Goat Bubbles sparkling wine, made in the traditional methode champenoise, were excellent.
Outdoor murals are the eye catchers in Old Town Lompoc. They’re not just any wall paintings. These are gigantic works of art, with beautifully detailed scenes, that reflect Lompoc’s history, lore, and simply fun subjects. More than 36 decorate prominent buildings, alleyways, street corners, and even the crosswalks. Guided tours can be arranged through the Lompoc Mural Society, and self-guided maps are available at the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center.
I paired the murals with the downtown boutiques. At A Little Something Special and More, I fell in love with the beautiful gourd art by local artist Thea DiNuzzo, who hand-paints gourds into whimsical creatures from penguins to Day of the Dead skulls.
A few minutes outside of town, time seemed to stand still at the La Purisima Mission — the 11th of the California missions founded in 1787. Unlike most of the missions, La Purisima retains in its 18th century setting surrounded by hills and open fields. It’s one of the few places where you can stand on the original El Camino Real road, a simple dirt path paralleling the mission’s front buildings.
“We’re literally stepping back in time,” Parker Grand, my 19-year-old mission guide, explained as we walked across 18th century floor tiles. Turns out, we also were following in the footsteps of Parker’s great, great, great, great grandfather, who was a Spaniard and designed and oversaw the construction of the original mission. Parker’s passion for his ancestor’s work made the edifice come to life as he led me through the furnished rooms and vaulted chapel, which look as they did in 1820, even though the mission was extensively restored in the 1930s. Sheep shearing, hide and tallow making, steer roping, and other living history activities added to the interest. Guided and self-guided tours are offered daily.
Natural attractions are also abundant. As a birding enthusiast, I drove to Lompoc’s Ocean Beach Park & Estuary, where the Santa Ynez River meets the Pacific Ocean. These sprawling wetlands are one of California’s largest coastal estuaries. Willow flycatchers, the California Least Turn, and in the summer, golden eagles, are among the hundreds of species to be seen.
Which brings me to flying objects of a different kind. Vandenberg Air Force Base is adjacent to Lompoc. So if you come up for an air show or lift-off, stay for the fun in Lompoc.
For more, visit www.explorelompoc.com.