5 Weekend Escapes: Santa Barbara County
Several stress levels away from (and an hour northwest of) the frenzy of Los Angeles sits coastal Santa Barbara County, which includes the eponymous city. The landscape—green hills with prestigious horse ranches fenced in by enormous mountains—is dotted with wineries that are well worth the trip. Visitors can even camp out in elegant safari tents in a nature preserve a short walk from the ocean.
Where to Stay
The Alisal Guest Ranch
Quarter horses, cattle and cowboys roam the grassy hills surrounding this working ranch. There's tennis and golf; the charming guest cottages have vaulted beamed ceilings, fireplaces and porches overlooking the wooded gardens, but no phones or TVs (doubles from $425; 1054 Alisal Rd., Solvang; 800-4-ALISAL or alisal.com).
San Ysidro Ranch
Jackie and John F. Kennedy honeymooned at this ranch outside the city of Santa Barbara. In addition to the main guesthouse, the property has cottages, most with decks and hot tubs. At the Stonehouse Restaurant, new chef John Trotta serves refined dishes like mascarpone and scallion risotto (doubles from $300; 900 San Ysidro Ln., Montecito; 800-368-6788 or sanysidroranch.com).
Santa Ynez Inn
This 2 1/2-year-old Victorian-style hotel is within walking distance of everything in Santa Ynez, in the heart of wine country. The breakfast room serves excellent French toast, as well as late-evening desserts, such as triple-decker chocolate cake (doubles from $265; 3627 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez; 800-643-5774 or santaynezinn.com).
El Capitan Canyon
About 20 minutes outside the city of Santa Barbara, this elegant camping spot is set in a 2,500-acre nature preserve. The cedar cabins have private bathrooms and kitchenettes, while the safari tents share common facilities. In-room massage, surfing lessons and free bikes are available (doubles from $115; 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara; 866-352-2729 or elcapitancanyon.com).
What to Do
On weekends at a little 76 gas station on Highway 246, manager Rick Quinney fires up a barbecue smoker in the parking lot to make delicious dry-rubbed tri-tip roasts, whole or sliced for sandwiches (3545 E. Hwy. 246, Santa Ynez; 805-688-4223).
The 42-year-old winery, one of the area's first, makes excellent Pinot Noir and even better Syrah (6855 Santa Rosa Rd., Buellton; 877-708-9463 or lafondwinery.com).
Luscious, well-balanced Pinot Noirs are made in an adobe building on a picturesque knoll. Tastings take place in an old dairy barn, and goats trim the grass around the picnic tables (7250 Santa Rosa Rd., Buellton; 800-426-9463 or sanfordwinery.com).
Zaca Mesa Winery
Some of the best estate-bottled Syrahs in the region are found here. Stop for a game of chess played with two-foot-tall pieces at the winery's oversize board in the courtyard (6905 Foxen Canyon Rd., Los Olivos; 800-350-7972 or zacamesa.com).
Where to Eat
Brothers Restaurant at Mattei's Tavern
Jeff and Matt Nichols opened Mattei's Tavern two years ago, and it's still the hottest restaurant in the valley. At the wisteria-covered former stagecoach stop, the two brothers offer their take on American chophouse food: house-cured salmon, great steaks and enormous venison chops. Local winemakers often stash their favorite bottles in the restaurant's wine cellar and then serve themselves (2350 Railway Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-4820).
The Hitching Post II
Truckers, cowboys and Los Angeles socialites converge at this unpretentious roadside steak house. Santa Maria-style barbecue (assorted cuts of beef, like tenderloin, that are cooked over local red oak) and big steaks are served with chef-and-owner Frank Ostini's own Pinot Noir, one of the best in the valley (406 E. Hwy. 246, Buellton; 805-688-0676).
This excellent Italian trattoria, sandwiched between a popular greasy spoon and a notorious country-and-western bar, has a wood-burning oven that turns out incredible thin-crust pizzas and sausages roasted with white beans and sage (3687 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez; 805-688-6899).