Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley — Photo courtesy of Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce

When it comes to top-notch California wine, Napa and Sonoma have earned widespread acclaim for their world-class wineries and restaurants, but they’re far from the only Golden State valleys worth visiting for gastronomes.

In the western reaches of Santa Barbara County, Santa Maria Valley stands as one of Central California’s most underrated food and wine destinations, equipped with a wealth of charming open-air dining venues and sun-baked vineyards to enjoy — and as an added bonus, this sprawling region is no stranger to gorgeous landscapes.

While it hasn’t yet reached the heights of nearby Napa and Sonoma, Santa Maria Valley is well on its way to becoming one of the Central Coast’s top destinations for a relaxing getaway. From flavorful local cuisine to ultra-idyllic vineyards, the region is a treasure trove. Here’s how to experience the very best of the valley.

Trek the sand dunes and go birdwatching at Oso Flaco Lake

Coastal sand dunes at Oso Flaco LakeCoastal sand dunes at Oso Flaco Lake — Photo courtesy of Jared Ranahan

Is Santa Maria near the beach? In less than 30 minutes, you have your pick of several beaches and even fresh water at Oso Flaco Lake, one of the region’s crown jewels of natural beauty. Perched a bit east of the California shoreline and measuring in at more than 70 acres, this tranquil lake has been a popular bird-watching destination for decades on end, with ruddy ducks, Buffleheads, Northern Shovelers, and a wealth of other waterfowl mingling with waders and passerines alike.

After trekking along the elevated boardwalk, visitors will be treated to spectacular views of Santa Barbara County’s legendary natural sand dunes, with the added opportunity to spot both the California Least Tern and the Western Snowy Plover — two native Golden State species that are protected by the federal government.

Sip and savor along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail

A selection of wines from Cottonwood CanyonA selection of wines from Cottonwood Canyon — Photo courtesy of Jared Ranahan

After a lengthy morning spent trekking along the region’s scenic dunes, there’s no better reward than a glass of wine, and Santa Maria Valley is perfectly equipped to deliver. Recognized as one of California’s first AVA wine regions in 1981, the balmy Mediterranean climate has given rise to a particularly robust Pinot Noir and Chardonnay scene. To gain ample insight into these two varietals, the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail is the perfect destination. Located east of Orcutt, this route spans 30 miles, with wineries ranging from the charming Tres Hermanas Vineyard & Winery to Zaca Mesa, a family-owned operation that’s been specializing in flavorful Rhône-style wines for half a century.

For fans of rich Pinot Noir, Costa De Oro offers top-quality wine from the comfort of their polished tasting room, while Cottonwood Canyon Winery is renowned for its strong Chardonnay showing and gorgeous estate. And of course, there’s no shortage of other wineries to explore across the area, with Presqu’ile Winery serving as a particularly impressive destination thanks to its scenic rolling hills and horseback riding tours taking place across the 400-acre estate.

Take a ride on the Santa Maria wine trolley

The Santa Maria Valley Wine TrolleyThe Santa Maria Valley Wine Trolley — Photo courtesy of Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce

If you’re planning to hop from winery to winery and want to leave your car behind, Santa Maria Valley has concocted an innovative solution in the form of the Wine Trolley, a shuttle service that operates from May to November on Saturdays and Sundays. In addition to multiple stops across downtown Orcutt, the vehicle provides customers with an opportunity to visit two acclaimed wineries across the region.

Try Santa Maria-style barbecue at Hitching Post

Calamari from Pizzeria Bello FornoCalamari from Pizzeria Bello Forno — Photo courtesy of Jared Ranahan

In addition to top-notch whites, reds and rosés, the valley is also renowned for one culinary tradition in particular: Santa Maria-style barbecue. This regional cuisine utilizes an ultra-savory blend of spices and slow roasting to make some truly succulent beef.

For a deep dive into its rich flavors, it’s tough to find a better restaurant than Hitching Post. A local favorite since 1952 (and prominently featured in the famous 2004 film, “Sideways”), this unassuming dining venue is best known for its world-class ribeye. But that’s far from the only menu item worth sampling, as this restaurant savory shrimp skewers, grilled artichokes, and quail all rounding out the menu.

Not much of a barbecue fan? No worries—Santa Barbara County is home to a particularly diverse food scene, and Santa Maria Valley is no exception. In 2017, Orcutt welcomed Cubanissimo to the neighborhood, ushering in hearty Caribbean dishes including cubanos, medianoches and yuca frita, served alongside piping-hot Cuban coffee. For a more Mediterranean dining experience, downtown Orcutt is home to Pizzeria Bello Forno, a cozy diner that specializes in perfectly cooked pies and savory selections, like garlic-brandied prawns and homemade meatballs.

Where to stay in Santa Maria

A room at the Wine Stone InnA room at the Wine Stone Inn — Photo courtesy of Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce

With San Francisco and Los Angeles both just a few hours away, the Santa Maria Valley is a particularly idyllic day trip destination, but for those who prefer to extend their time in the region, there’s no shortage of cozy hotels to use as a base.

To stick close to the action, Wine Stone Inn offers gorgeous accommodations right in the heart of Orcutt, decked out with 12 cozy rooms, an outdoor fire pit and quick access to neighboring Naughty Oak Brewing Company, a lively venue with a diverse array of beers spanning from crisp Mexican lager to Double IPAs.

For a more sizable option, the Santa Maria Inn combines old-school California charm with modern amenities, equipped with an outdoor pool and manicured gardens a few steps away from the charming 1910s-era inn.

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