Alejandro Regalato Lopez prunes grapevines at the Fess Parker vineyard at Los Olivos. Photograph by Catherine Karnow
Alejandro Regalato Lopez prunes grapevines at the Fess Parker vineyard at Los Olivos.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow
On the Road: In Search of the Authentic
By Andrew Nelson

The Old Mission Trail

The local visitors bureau refers to Santa Barbara and its environs along the south-central California coast as the "American Riviera." To see what they mean, drive down State Street—a Scott-and-Zelda Fitzgerald dance-in-the-fountain kind of place—all whitewash and wrought iron, elegant buildings and tiled galleries, arcade windows glittering with luxury goods. Yet there's more to this stretch of coast than high credit lines and conspicuous consumption, as I discovered in a meandering road trip through Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Three centuries ago these hills and valleys echoed with the prayers of padres bent on winning souls for God and land for Spain. Some of their 21 missions became towns, and the road that connected them—the King's Highway, or El Camino Real—became Highway 101. The route is still beautiful but now often a big, fast freeway.

I set out to explore this old land of missions in a gentler manner, via country lanes leading to ranches, small towns, and vineyards. Like me, those willing to explore can still find a place where footsteps echo on a nave floor, sprinkler water splashes on vineyard grapes, and bells toll in the towers of the old Mission Santa Barbara—where Mike Acosta likes to come and pass the time. I meet the 83-year-old local perched on a low retaining wall just outside the mission's heavy doors. It's a fine vantage point, with a view of the modern city of Santa Barbara below and the shimmering Pacific beyond. Acosta comes here to talk to the tourists and to savor the view.

We fall into easy conversation, and as we chat I notice hummingbirds sipping nectar from the purple and white Mexican sage beneath the statue of Father Junípero Serra, who founded many of the missions. Acosta unrolls a tattered photograph of a vaquero, or cowboy. The picture is of his uncle, taken in the 1870s in the Santa Ynez Valley, just behind the coastal ranges.

"The best wine in the world is there," he says. "Yes, I used to drink my share."

He tells me I should try some, and to tell him about it when I do. "When you come back," Acosta promises, "I'll give you my recipe for enchiladas."

Soon after, I find myself driving State 154, which cuts through the coastal ranges to the Santa Ynez Valley, where I stop in Los Olivos. The village is lined with tasting rooms of varying degrees of quaintness. I choose an airy, open café and walk inside. Wine merchant John Moisan sets five local bottles before me and offers a taste from each. Central California is dotted with vineyards, he explains. Its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other varietals now rival Napa's. Tasting the wine, he says, is literally tasting the region itself.

Moisan splashes some Ber-nat '00 Chardonnay into a long-stemmed glass. "This is the Santa Ynez." I take a sip. "Can you taste the lemon and honeydew?" I can. And something else. "White fig," he says. Okay. Sampling the next pouring, I discover that San Luis Obispo tastes like butterscotch and baked pear. Then I savor the hills of Santa Rita—strawberry and cherry.

That the land can be treasured for the flavors it produces—and not just as acres to be subdivided, scraped, and developed—is a romantic view of real estate, I know, but it suits these hills.

I hear whispers of the past as I return to Santa Barbara from San Luis Obispo via Route 246. Near the town of Lompoc, I find La Purisima Mission. Surrounded by fields and woods, the long, one-story buildings were reconstructed to look as they did in the 1820s. So I'm not surprised when I see small market stands selling baskets, chickens, and red peppers. Men and women in sombreros and serapes admire a stallion being led by a man in period dress. But wait. This is too perfect. Then, I grin. A camera sits on a dolly. The movies!

While searching for the real, I've stumbled into the make-believe—a scene from Universal's Seabiscuit. "The mission is so authentic, it makes a good film set," a park ranger says.

I watch for just a moment. Star Jeff Bridges is nowhere to be seen, probably kicking back in an air-conditioned trailer. No matter. I walk down the colonnaded corridor into old rooms, refreshingly cool compared to the dry heat outside. I see the faded vestments the padres wore and the implements with which they worked the land.

I realize that the real California lies not in its shops but in the taste of its wines, in the simple rooms of La Purisima, and with locals like Acosta.

"Oh yes. The [south coast] is good, isn't it?" he says. "My ancestors came here in 1782. They weren't dumb. They picked the right place."

Andrew Nelson's Roadside Attractions

My new favorite restaurant is San Luis Obispo's Big Sky Cafe (1121 Broad St.; +1 805 545 5401; $20 U.S.). Try the Greek fava bean dip, and the white bean and tuna salad. Big Sky is unpretentious, happy to be a local joint with stellar food. Another good choice is Arigato (1225 State St., Santa Barbara; +1 805 965 6074; $40 U.S.), where both the sushi and the staff are fresh, offbeat, and charming. Try the "Yuppie Roll" made with lobster and caviar. The Wine Cask (813 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara; 800 436 9463 [U.S. and Canada]; $65 U.S.) pours at least one tasty Pinot Noir—Au Bon Climat—a local favorite. Seated at the bar, I enjoyed the food (a cheese plate with lavosh bread) and the conversation (Santa Barbarans love to talk about real estate).

The breakfast burrito is perfect road food. Wrap it up, hop in the car, and eat on the run. The tastiest I've found (loaded with fresh avocado and salsa) is at the Metro Café (892 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo; +1 805 783 2022; $8 U.S.), tucked into a courtyard across from the Starbucks (and with coffee just as good).

I never gave monarch butterflies a second thought until I saw thousands massed in a fragrant eucalyptus grove at Pismo State Beach (Highway One; +1 805 489 2684). The insects migrate here to winter, numbering as many as 60,000 between November and February. As the morning sun warms them, they take flight en masse, like a blizzard of autumn leaves—falling up.

The wine of the central coast is celebrated and rightly so. Dozens of wine-tasting rooms are scattered about the region, but Los Olivos Café (2879 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; +1 805 688 7265; $7-9 U.S. tasting fee) is my favorite for its fine selection and patient, knowledgeable staff. The free tour (by appointment) at the winery of actor Fess Parker (TV's Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, remember?) is a good introduction to the art of winemaking (6200 Foxen Canyon Rd., Los Olivos; +1 805 688 1545; $3 U.S. tasting fee).

A choice accommodation within walking distance of State Street's upmarket shopping arcades is the Inn of the Spanish Garden (915 Garden St., Santa Barbara; 866 564 4700 [U.S. and Canada];; $252-510 U.S.). The boutique hotel has an elegant, cloistered charm. On State Street itself is the affordable Hotel Santa Barbara (533 State St.; 800 549 9869 [U.S. and Canada]; $139-229 U.S.), whose lobby exudes an old-Hollywood air from the era when stars played here. For something completely different, rent a comfortable Mongolian yurt at the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area (Santa Barbara County; +1 805 686 5050; $45-55 U.S.). The tentlike yurts overlook a reservoir.

Road Kit

Order travel guides to the two counties from their visitors bureaus at (+1 800 549 5133 [U.S. and Canada]) and (1 +800 634 1414 [U.S. and Canada]).



Click here to go to National Geographic Traveler Online Click here to subscribe to National Geographic Traveler