We’ve gotten to take several trips to California this year and we’re back again! We’ve partnered up with Santa Maria Valley, San Luis Obispo and Cambria to explore the coast, its farm country, and its unique experiences. As we go, we’ll keep updating our journal so you can see a snapshot of the cool things we’re doing!
Flying to/from California
We flew to LAX from SEA on a Saturday morning instead of either Friday night or on a Sunday, as both are very busy travel days. We saved more than $500 for four round trip tickets by choosing this off-peak travel time. We used miles to book a hotel room since we arrived a day earlier than planned and were able to score a visit with friends too! Bonuses all around!
Tip: some airline mileage programs are really difficult to use for actual plane tickets, such as United MileagePlus. We have used our United mileage for a DSLR camera, hotel rooms, gift cards and more.
Disneyland with the kids
Yes, we were just in Disneyland with the kids back in June for the Cars 3 Premiere, but if you have the chance to go for a day and SURPRISE them, why wouldn’t you? Well, we did just that… and it didn’t go well. Yes, Elliott (our youngest) was to the moon and had a blast, but this surprise turned out to be too much for Oliver (the oldest) to handle. He maybe did two rides… but he had multiple epic break downs due to not handling surprises well and already being tired. Oh well, lesson learned.
We still had fun though (even Oliver).
Visiting Mission Santa Barbara for the first time
Mission Santa Barbara has long been on our list of historic California sights to see. Since we were driving from Los Angeles to Santa Maria today, we added this simple stop to our itinerary. Only a mile or so off Highway 101, Mission Santa Barbara is easily accessible and worth at least an hour of your time. If you’re pressed, you can visit in less than an hour, but why? The gardens both within and across from the Mission are beautiful. The cemetery and museum within the Mission are fascinating. The chapel is amazing.
What we loved about Mission Santa Barbara: not raising kids in the church, an active historic mission like this offers the opportunity to explain different aspects of history and religion that we might not normally integrate into our daily conversations. Also, the Mission is extremely photogenic.
Note: another Southern California mission we really enjoyed was Mission San Juan Capistrano. Check it out too!
Santa Maria Valley
We have a few days in the Santa Maria Valley. This area includes the towns of Santa Maria, Nipomo, Orcutt, and a few other small communities. It’s totally different from any other part of Southern California we’ve visited. With a strong Mexican/Mexican-American population, this slice of California feels like another world in comparison to the Los Angeles area we just came from. It’s awesome! There’s more to it though, with wineries, farms, mountains and even dunes. Loving it already!
You know when you’re traveling with kids and you know there’s one thing that will ALWAYS work to keep them happy? For us that’s Mexican food. We found Tacos 805 on Yelp! and gave it a whirl. It was perfect with authentic Mexican food, speedy service and no frills. Oh, and the best salsa ever that we couldn’t stop eating even though it was ten levels spicier than what we’re used to.
Recommendation: get the Torta. Tortas are one of our favorite Mexican foods and this incredible sandwich didn’t disappoint.
Santa Maria Discovery Museum
We visit a lot of children’s museums and each has similarities and differences. Enter Santa Maria Discovery Museum: the kids hadn’t seen ANY of the exhibits and activities before. It was totally awesome for them and we were there until they locked us out. We left peacefully, but we did really watch them lock the gate. The Santa Maria Discovery Museum kept learning local with exhibits directly relating to the nearby ocean, farming, family nutrition and simple machines. There was more, but we should leave some things for others to discover.
Vintage California dining at Shaw’s Steakhouse
Before we got to Santa Maria, we’d seen “Santa Maria style BBQ” show up randomly in reviews and articles online. I get it. This is what it means: it’s farm-fresh produce and local meat straight from the woodfire grill. And it’s all about bounty and being sure you’ve got everything you could possibly need.
Shaw’s Steakhouse was totally out-of-character for us since we rarely eat beef (rarely… rare… get it?). It’s in downtown Santa Maria and has been around for a long time. When we were in Wisconsin this summer we kept hearing about “supper clubs” as they’re a big thing in the Midwest, and Shaw’s is definitely the California version. Steaks cooked to order on an open grill, the never-ending relish tray (veggie snacks), tasty craft-cocktails and… bread pudding. OMG. And the kid-plates were ridiculous portions, which meant that we got to enjoy shrimp with our steaks too. So good. So California.
Four different ecosystems at Oso Flaco State Park
If you didn’t know, we’ve started homeschooling our oldest, Oliver, which means that we’re always finding new ways to teach him (and Elliott) about the world. Today we visited Oso Flaco State Park in Nipomo, California. Today’s lesson plan was provided by nature. After driving through endless fields of vegetable farms we made it to the trail head. The 1.5 mile trail started in a coastal willow forest before moving across Oso Flaco Lake where we saw hundreds of LARGE fish freaking out and splashing and swirling all around.
From the boardwalk we moved onto the dunes, formed over hundreds of years or sand being transported by the wind and ocean. And then down the dunes we made it to the beach! Since the area all around the Oso Flaco trail is protected, it’s pristine with lizards, birds, rodents and beautiful, vibrant plants and flowers. Today’s hike was just what the travel doctor ordered!
Localest of local food from Willow in Nipomo
Localest? Maybe it’s “most local” but whatevs. Lunch at Willow was delicious, as to be expected when you’re smack between wine country and farm land, but with house cured meats and Chris’s favorite ever, prime rib french dip, it was perfectly local. The kitchen was flexible in accommodating Elliott’s food allergies (thank you!) and the mac ‘n cheese was crazy cheesy (local cheese, of course).
After lunch we browsed the wine selection in the market area of Willow and found a great local bottle of Syrah. Our server saw what we picked, told us a bit about it and then even shared where else we could get it locally. Really, an all around wonderful dining experience.
Cooling off with delicious ice cream
If you ever travel with kids you know that you need to keep a few aces up your sleeve, like things to use as rewards or to, dare I say it, tempt kids into cooperating. For us that was ice cream from Doc Burnstein’s in Orcutt. One of the towns we’re exploring in the Santa Maria Valley, Orcutt’s downtown is like a revamped old west town. Pretty cool. And Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab matches it. Vintage but modern with on-trend flavors.
Note: we love when we actually get to take the kids to ice cream because it’s rare. While talking with the owner of Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab he shared that after seeing how many kids would come in and be restricted in their ice cream selection due to allergies, he changed things up to offer more allergen-free options. And he took it a step further with clearly listing allergens in the open. This man get’s it.
Family friendly wine tasting at Ca’ del Grevino
Love finding family friendly wine tasting! Ca’ del Grevino in downtown Orcutt, California is just that. We had a tasting appointment but were late, as many traveling families are, but they let us come in and try everything we could. With lots of comfy chairs and table space, there was plenty of room to enjoy wine tasting with the kids nearby. They brought us out an antipasti tray too, keeping the kids even more occupied while the dads tasted.
The wine winners of the night:
Chris preferred the Ca’ del Grevino Pinot Noir – very fruity but also subtle and not overtly sweet. I (Rob) fell for the Grenache. I love any wine that smells like cherries, and when the body, the flavors AND the aroma are all just right, it’s a winner.
Tip: if you’re up in Washington’s Columbia River Gorge, be sure to check out AniChe Cellars in Underwood. It’s also a very family friendly winery set in a beautiful spot.
Even more California cuisine at the Farwestern Tavern
I never like the word “tavern” because it makes me think of salty, swarthy, rather unsavory characters in book. Hands down: nicest tavern I’ve ever seen or been to was the Farwestern Tavern in Orcutt, California. Like with Shaw’s Steakhouse in Santa Maria, Farwestern Tavern focuses on a meat-centric but diverse menu. On the recommendation of the tasting room lady, April, at Ca’ del Grevino I ordered the filet mignon with a pinot sauce. It was like butter. And pinot.
Favorite aspect: we see a lot of children’s menus and they’re usually ridiculous with few to no options for kids beyond grilled cheese. We were able to get the kids an angus slider and sirloin skewer. It was just what they needed. And their kids menu prices were jaw-droppingly low.
We can honestly say that the Santa Maria Valley, its towns and its coast are a great, rather unknown side of California. We would happily return, particularly beause there’s still more for us to do and see here. Next time…
Still to come on our California Central Coast journey…
Nature trails, beaches and dunes
wine tasting and local food culture
historic sites (more missions!)
Pinnacles National Park