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Road trips are a blast, especially when we discover a new favorite spot. A recent road trip with the kids took us to California’s Central Coast where we stopped and visited the beautiful Santa Maria Valley. We’re sharing all of our stops, but you’ll see that we just scratched the surface of this beautiful spot and we can’t wait to go back.
It took us about four hours to get to our hotel from Orange County. It was an easy drive up the 405 and 101, and as we drove north through Santa Barbara, we looked around and saw so many green pastures that it was easy to see that we had clearly left Los Angeles. If you’re looking for a short cut, you can fly into the Santa Maria Public Airport (SMX) then head into the valley from there.
Where to stay
We traveled to Santa Maria Valley with kids and so we opted to stay at the Holiday Inn & Suites. It was right off the 101 and also a great place to stay if you’re traveling with pets. They have much-needed amenities, including a swimming pool that is open late, a kids-eat-free breakfast, and a location central to some great spots that you’ll want to visit while you’re in town! They also offer free parking and free WiFi. Other hotels nearby include Fairfield Inn and Candlewood Suites. Both of these hotels are also off the 101 near the Holiday Inn & Suites.
Where to eat
Santa Maria Valley is well known for Santa Maria-style barbecue. Head to Far Western Tavern, where you’ll find great barbecue along with other dishes like lobster and pastas. Their dishes are hearty, and if you’re traveling with younger ones, they can share the oak-grilled surf and turf. I suggest starting off with the mac ‘n’ cheese relleno and the artichoke dip. If you’re into cocktails, the Tavern Mule was perfect and served in a traditional copper mug.
You’ll also find a ton of authentic Mexican restaurants. We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Maya Mexican Restaurant and a big bonus was the mariachi playing in the background. Here’s a tip: The restaurant itself does not have a lot of seating indoors so you may find yourself waiting a bit for a table if you go on a busy weekend night. We recommend getting the guacamole to start your meal. It’s made table-side so you can also customize it to make it more/less spicy. Ask for an agua fresca, like jamaica or horchata, and skip the regular soft drinks.
If you like themed restaurants, check out Moxie Cafe. This eatery focuses on locally sourced foods making it a great place to stop and pick up lunch. Just a heads up, though: They don’t offer typical soda fountain options. It’s also a great spot for vegetarians who want to order off the menu without having to customize a dish. Choose a seat near the fireplace for a cozy lunch. If you like live music, visit after 5:30pm on Thursdays, Fridays, or Saturdays.
Family favorites like white pizza can be found at Bravo Pizza and it can be served with specialty dough like cauliflower or gluten-free. Their everyday special of buy-one-get-one half off also helps to feed the whole family on a budget.
Kid-friendly things to do
There is so much to do in Santa Maria Valley with kids. One of our favorite spots includes Oso Flaco Lake. We went on a day when there was light rain in the forecast, which didn’t make it ideal to go down onto the beach itself. However, we did take a nice little hike out to the viewpoints and passed the bridge that takes you out into the lake.
Follow the path as it takes you through a tree-lined trail filled with flowers and into a dirt path before getting to a boardwalk that will end at a viewpoint. The viewpoint itself is a great place to get a picture, and signs posted there will tell you what you’re looking at as you admire the scenery. Restrooms and free parking are available. If the parking lot is full, park alongside the road that leads to the entrance.
If you would like to explore the history of the area, stop by the Dunes Center located inside a house that has been retrofitted to become a museum. It’s small but filled with animal specimen exhibits, artifacts from the Lost City of Demille, interactive activities for kids of all ages, and a collection of short films about the area. Plan for at least one hour and seek out a volunteer to walk you through all the exhibits and answer all your questions. Guests also have the option of becoming a part of the museum by bringing in sand. They have a growing collection of sand from all over the world and they would appreciate your contribution.
Finally, this might seem kind of offbeat to list as a kid-friendly thing to do… but Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery is actually pretty family friendly! On my visit I managed to do a wine tasting (that came with a tasting platter) and discover some new favorites, including a delicious chardonnay that I ended up bringing home. I chose a seat outside so the chiclets could play one of the winery’s board games while I sampled the pinot noir and looked out at the countryside.
A special treat for all of us was the trip down to the wine cave. Our host shared with us its history (it’s a man-made cave built in the mid 1990s) and how it was the first winery in Santa Barbara County to build wine caves! The chiclets thought it was pretty cool to walk into it and they learned about the wine process even though they’re too young to drink it. It was educational, fun and kid-friendly.
We spent about a day and a half discovering Santa Maria Valley and it just wasn’t enough time. We can’t wait to drive back up and visit the super-cute town of Guadalupe a bit more, try more eateries, go down to the dunes, and stay a little longer at Pismo Beach. There’s so much to see and do along this Central Coast road-trip stop.
Pattie Cordova is a frequent roadtripper. Read more of her adventures at LivingMiVidaLoca.com.
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