Santa Maria is a Central California-coastal city, boasting of vineyards, breathtaking coastal views, Hollywood history, agriculture and it’s famous Santa Maria-style barbecue. Situated along the historic El Camino Real, between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, this hidden gem offers loads of family-friendly activities and local eateries that make it the perfect destination for your next SoCal road trip. Read on for our picks, to make your central coast family trip a breeze!
Dig deep into the native Chumash past and Learn about the local National Natural landmark-The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, filled with Hollywood history, at the Dunes Center, in historic Guadalupe. The Center offers animal specimens, interactive educational activities and short films about the local area. Enjoy researching and comparing sand samples from all over the world at the Great Sand Challenge wall, where you’ll learn how to tell sands age and what region it’s from based on color.
Add to the collection by taking an information card, collecting a sand sample from your next travels and delivering it to the Center. Get up close to the fascinating, unearthed artifacts from the “Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille”, who built the largest set in movie history in the nearby dunes, for the 1923 silent epic, The Ten Commandments. Every hollywood buffs dream! Check out all the films that have been shot in the area and find out why its referred to as Hollywood’s second home. Open Wednesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., other days by appointment. $7/adults, $6/seniors, kids 12 and under are free.
Get a closer look at the dunes by driving all the way down West Main Street to the entrance of the 592-acre Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve. The miles of photo-worthy sand dunes and views of the shore are truly spectacular and familiar from films like The Ten Commandments (1923), G.I Jane, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. The park has beach access, although swimming here is highly discouraged due to strong rip currents. There are restrooms, hiking and picnic areas and plenty of free parking. Tip: be sure to bring a sweater as it gets pretty windy at times. Keep an eye out for a friendly ranger, ready to answer all of your questions and share the efforts taken to conserve the snowy plover and California least tern nesting grounds, the preserves diverse ecosystem and fauna and flora that thrive in this habitat. Hours: 7 a.m.–sunset. No dogs allowed at any time.
photo: University of the Fraser Valley via flickr
Take the fun indoors and let your mini mad-scientists run loose at the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum. This hands-on, science-based, education space is the hub for all things creative exploration and play. The interactive exhibits, daily educational programs and Discovery Makerspace will keep everyone occupied for hours. The Makerspace, where you can enjoy stations like robotics, woodwork and circuitry is included with museum admission.
Your little music lovers will love The Walking Piano where they can learn to read simple sheet music and play familiar tunes in no time. The Vandenberg Launch Experience will give the whole family an opportunity to experience a space launch using actual United Launch Alliance Control Center computer consoles and all will have a blast with pretend play at the various real-life replica exhibits.
If all that discovering makes you tired, head down to Cottonwood Canyon Vineyard & Winery for a relaxing, countryside setting and an assortment of handcrafted wines. The kiddos can play games like cornhole, giant Jenga, Apples to Apples and chess, while you sit back, take in the peaceful surroundings and enjoy a glass of their smooth dessert Syrah. Take a stroll through their beautiful 78-acre, family-friendly estate and explore the wine caves—the first built in Santa Barbara County. Tasting is $15 for six pours with last pour at 4:45 p.m. and cave tours are $40 per person, include a small food pairing, tasting, guided tour and barrel tasting. Take in the peaceful surroundings and let the knowledgeable staff fill you in on the vineyards history and their “distinctively different age-worthy wines.”
Moxie Cafe is a local favorite serving wholesome, health-conscious foods, that range from pastas to sandwiches. The staff is welcoming and the aviation decor, honoring the cities WWII aviation contribution, is inviting. There’s a variety of yummy breakfast to dinner choices for the 12-and-under crowd, several paired with locally-sourced, Santa Maria strawberries, some of the sweetest you’ll ever taste. Try the popular Chicken Milano pasta, in house-made Milano sauce, with all-natural chicken and warm, fresh ciabatta on the side.
There’s plenty of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options as well as an extensive beer and wine list. Complete your meal with their crowd pleasing Snowball Brownie—your choice of favorite gelato on top of a freshly baked, warm chocolate brownie. You may want to get your own. Dine Thursday–Saturday and enjoy family-friendly, live music.
For wood fired pizzas and fresh ingredients you can taste, visit Pizzeria Bello Forno, in Old Town Orcutt. With creation’s like Stephanie’s Carne Asada and Tart Cherries and Sausage, it’s easy to see why they were voted best pizza in Northern Santa Barbara County. Their hearty house-made angus beef meatballs and flavorful roasted pepper-tomato cream soup were a hit with adult and kiddos alike. The friendly staff and charming location make this a foodie must.
Enjoy Santa Maria-style barbecue and history at the Far Western Tavern. Established in 1958 by the Minetti family, this landmark restaurant is established in native ingredients and methods made known by the local 19th century rancheros. Using Santa Maria Valley local ingredients and traditional family recipes, the cuts are juicy, uniquely seasoned and served with the classic pinquito beans, bread, salsa, choice of green salad or farmers market soup and more.
Your little vaqueros won’t be left behind with choices including beef sliders and steak skewers. The western decor will take you back to the towns Swiss-Italian ranching roots and top-notch service will make you feel like family. If you still have room for desert, do your wild bunch a favor and savor the Crème Brûlée Trio in vanilla bean & lavender shortbread, orange blossom and walnut tuile and seasonal berry & orange biscotti flavors.
Satisfy your sweet tooth at Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab—a Central Coast go to, serving hand-crafted, premium ice cream in unique monthly featured flavors and original, traditional classics such as Merlot Raspberry Truffle and Elvis Special. The Orcutt Crunch-marshmallow ice cream, caramel, pecans, chocolate chips and toffee, is this location’s featured flavor and Motor Oil—dark chocolate, Kahlua ice cream and fudge swirls—are both worth the stop. The fun interactive parlor design, including an ice cream lab and giant checker board, will keep the whole family entertained while enjoying your treats.
The newly remodeled Fairfield Inn and Suites Santa Maria is centrally located to main points of interest and right off Highway 101, making it the perfect destination for your stay. Amenities include, fitness center, indoor pool, business center open to all guests, ample free guest parking and convenient in-room refrigerators. The assortment of items offered at the complimentary hot breakfast buffet will surely please even the pickiest of eaters and get you going on your adventures. Your little travelers will enjoy the do-it-yourself waffle maker and you the complimentary 24/7 coffee bar in the lobby. The courteous staff will help you with your needs and make you feel right at home.
If you’re in the Santa Maria Valley in the spring, be sure to check out the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum’s Free Family Kite Festival. Attracting over 2,000 kite enthusiasts from all over the central coast, the festival is quite a sight to see. It also hosts several children’s educational activity booths with games for the kids, community resources and local vendors including your usual fare of churros, snow cones, kettle corn and more.
Held annually at Rotary Centennial Park, in the beautiful South College Drive neighborhood, the park has two playgrounds, basketball courts, large grassy open space, several picnic tables, restrooms on site, free parking lot as well as plenty of free street parking. Pack a picnic and lawn chairs, wear plenty of sunblock, enjoy the view and live entertainment and don’t forget your kites!
—story and photos by Nella DuBon-Koch unless otherwise noted
Editor’s note: This trip was paid for by Santa Maria Valley but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.