Dreamy Escape to Los Alamos and Ballard
By Rebecca Horrigan
One of the many perks of living in Santa Barbara is that a world of blissful vineyards is at your fingertips. It may seem pretty simple just to hop in the car and head towards those wide open spaces, but within those spaces, namely the Santa Ynez Valley, there are over 120 wineries. To help you narrow down your choices, I’ve crafted two ideal itineraries for a weekend in Wine Country, one nearer to Santa Barbara, and the other, slightly more of a trek.
Let’s start with the trek. While Solvang and San Luis Obispo are famous for their vibrant food and wine culture, lesser-known Los Alamos offers a charming experience unlike any other. Tucked into the heart of Santa Barbara Wine Country in the Northern part of Santa Ynez, lies this small but mighty town. It has such an authentic, non-touristy vibe, I almost hesitate to type this in the hopes of preserving its peaceful environment. However, my experience was too delightful to keep close to my chest.
Founded in 1876, Los Alamos’s Old West style feels at once grounded in the past yet expansive in its culinary scene and funky aesthetic. Only seven blocks long, the main drag Bell Street boasts delectable gourmand havens, antique shops, and top-notch tasting rooms. Nick-named “Little LA” for its frequent visitors from the city, Los Alamos’s size is perfect for a stress-free weekend getaway. Its compact nature, freeing. Without being bombarded by a plethora of places to imbibe and dine, visitors can truly relax, unwind, and be present. Isn’t that what we all want from a vacation anyway?
The Skyview Motel in Los Alamos (Courtesy of Skyview Los Alamos)
Let’s start with lodging. Even if you never leave the premises, the Skyview Motel would be reason enough to visit Los Alamos. Perched atop a hill, the Skyview lives up to its name with excellent views of green rolling hills and vineyard vines below. With cozy indoor fireplaces, outdoor firepits, luxurious beds and a sunny pool deck with an incredible bar featuring wine made in their own vineyard, the Skyview reaches toward the heavens with every amenity.
The original motel was built in 1959 and reopened its 33 ultra-hip rooms in 2018, maintaining the classic mid-century building but amping up the designer Western aesthetic. With its hilltop location, The Skyview also makes playful nods to Hitchcock’s film Psycho and The Bates Motel. Their 1960’s style New American restaurant is even named Norman. Yet, there’s nothing spooky about their comforting menu full of local ingredients and delectable dishes like the citrus and walnut salad.
Start your day sipping a complimentary Nespresso and enjoying a croissant sandwich or brioche french toast bake from Norman, then mosey on down the hill into town or better yet, cruise in on one of their free-to-use Linus Bikes.
Full of Life Flatbread (Photo: Rebecca Horrigan)
With a solid base, it’s time to pop the cork. Casa Dumetz is the ideal sunny spot to kick off a day of wine tasting with a lovely flight served by owner and winemaker Sonja Magdevski. Sample Rhone varietals, rich pinot noirs, or a perky Grenache Rose. I was blown away by the inventive picpoul cider and of course her Feministy Party GSM blend, which Magdevski created to honor the people who helped her make it in this field. Bodega Los Alamos, complete with bocce courts, firepits, and lounge chairs, feels like you’re relaxing in your best friend’s backyard – if your best friend had incredible taste in natural wine.
For dinner, we walked into Full of Life Flatbread knowing we would have delicious flatbread made in their own woodfired oven, but were surprised by the number of intricate side dishes that left our heads spinning and taste buds singing. The special of the day, a meticulously-prepared crudo dish with buttery scallops from local Stephanie Sea Fish, avocado, and fresh tuna from, delicately dressed in a light citrus sauce with limes from owner Clark Staub’s own yard set us off on our dreamy food journey. Their refreshing “Appetizer Spritz” paired perfectly.
The Travis’ Gaviota Vermilion Rock Cod Bacalao and Peppers, served atop charred levain bread topped with Olea Farms Olive Oil and onion salt blew my mind, and the Central Coast Sausage flatbread with mushrooms and sundried tomatoes is always a hit. Learning from Staub about his inspirations behind each dish and love for his community was one of the most delightful parts. Stories like the one about a Chumash elder who blessed the restaurant’s oven, deepened my understanding of the thoughtfulness involved in every detail of this beloved spot.
Folded Hills Winery (Photo: Rebecca Horrigan)
If Los Alamos feels too far, make Solvang your homebase. Driving up the coast past Refugio Beach, an ocean breeze in your hair, worries seem to blow right out the window. Before you even reach Buellton, Gaviota is the perfect place to stop and ensure that the stress-free mindset carries you all the way into wine country. Just off the 101, Folded Hills Winery has the ideal family feel to welcome you and get your trip started on the right note. The Busch family founded the Folded Hills estate in 2014, boasting a delectable menu of mainly Rhone varietals. Start your tasting with the beautifully crisp Lilly Rosé, which is named for founder Andrew Busch’s great-grandmother. You can choose from a variety of tasting experiences, such as pairing your wine with a selection of gourmet cheeses while learning from one of their knowledgeable and friendly wine educators all about their stunning 600-acre family-owned sustainable farm and working ranch.
After your tasting, make your way off the beaten tourist-filled path of downtown Solvang and nestle into the stunning Hotel Ynez. Tucked away on two private acres, the boutique hotels features an outdoor pavilion with bonfire pits for late night smores and star-gazing, gardens, a pool, and a sweet bodega with a fabulous selection of local wines and snacks. The former roadside motel was originally built in 1952 and after a meticulous renovation, re-opened in 2021. The pricing is reasonable for the luxurious experience, and their friendly staff make you feel like family. Nap in their hammocks, turn on your indoor fireplace after a relaxing shower, and linger in their cloudlike beds to truly soak up the peaceful and cozy experience.
Keep the tranquil vibes going through dinner with a quick drive to the Ballard Inn Restaurant. Dining on their quaint and beautiful front porch while being taken care of by their warm and knowledgeable servers evokes an easy and gracious Southern hospitality. Their menu, created by the humble and talented Chef Brendan Collins, continues the Southern charm with specials like summer corn succotash with homemade ricotta or cola brined fried chicken with yam jam and hot honey. Make sure to start with their honey buns and don’t hold back on slathering them in beurre de baratte (fancy butter). Their smoked bluefin crudo provides the perfect light and bright appetizer counterpart. Their wine selection is full of stunners including Solminer’s zippy Gruner Veltliner. As the sun begins to set, linger over one of their creative desserts like the peaches and cream with grilled peach, sweet cream, and pecans.
Ballard Inn Restaurant (Photo: Rebecca Horrigan)
The Hotely Ynez provides a lovely little continental breakfast and brings in fresh pastries from Solvang’s famous Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery straight, so you don’t have to wait in line for one of their delectable cheese danishes. Although you may think you’ve had your pastry fix, no stop to wine country is complete without a visit to the well-loved, Bob’s Well Bread in Ballard (don’t worry, there’s also one in Los Alamos as well). Bob Oswaks, an executive-turned-baker, was looking for balance in life and found his niche in making breads by hand in small batches in a custom-built stone-deck oven. He opened Bob’s eight years ago in Los Alamos and now has a second location in Ballard. With one bite of their ethereal glazed morning bun or Egg in a Frame #1 (local farm egg, over easy, in a grilled slice of pain au levain with herb-roasted tomatoes and dry aged goat cheese), it’s clear why they were named as one of Travel & Leisure’s “Top 15 Amazing Small Town Bakeries” in the U.S.
Bob's Well Bread (Photo: Rebecca Horrigan)
As you can see, this is only a small pour of what’s available to enjoy in wine country, and I’ve already written too much. Take these tips, mix and match, or choose your own adventure. You can’t really go wrong when there’s so much to savor.