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One-Tank Trips: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara County

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car going fastThink you can’t take a driving trip this holiday weekend? Think again. One benefit of rising fuel prices is that it’s encouraging travelers to uncover those hidden gems closer to home.

Writer and culinary maven Lauren Van Mullem hopped into her car and headed from Los Angeles to Buellton, Los Olivos and Ballard in San Barbara County to sample the quirky spots, wine tasting rooms and culinary delights that she found along the way.

The entire drive was about 139 miles, taking just about 2.5 hours and half of a 10-gallon tank each way. Even with gas at $5.00 per gallon, that’s just $25, not bad for a mini-vacation.

LEAVING L.A TO BUELLTON

The first detour was Santa Rosa Road off of Highway 101, a scenic drive through lavender fields, horse farms and vineyards, including tasting rooms at Mosby, Alma Rosa (formerly Sanford), and Lafond. Watch out for quail and deer as you wind around the Santa Rita Hills to Lompoc, the “city of arts and flowers,” before looping back along highway 246.

For some kid-friendly history, check out La Purisma Mission, founded in 1787, where they offer free guided tours daily. Further along Highway 246 are the Babcock and Melville tasting rooms, and though you might miss this unassuming tasting room on the side of the road in Buellton, Casa Cassara is a destination in and of itself for its unique wines.

Pea Soup AndersensEven though you’ve seen the signs for Pea Soup Andersens dotting the highway, pass it up to save room for dinner later (unless you really like pea soup). Andersen’s isn’t the only quirky tourist stop in Buellton: There’s Ostrich Land too. If you want low-fat grass-fed meat or free-range eggs, ostrich is the fowl for you! 805-686-9696

Pick up a winery tasting room map from the Solvang Visitor’s Center and a freshly made kringle at Olsen’s Bakery as you drive towards Santa Ynez. Turn left on Alamo Pintado Road for apple farms, more tasting rooms, and the miniature horses at Quicksilver Horse Ranch. So many people have stopped to marvel at the minis that the ranch owners decided to invite the public in from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. While mini-horses are shorter than 34 inches, they can pull 10 times their own weight, and with the price of gas, maybe miniature-horse drawn carts are the future of “green” transportation. 805-686-4002, www.qsminis.com

LOS OLIVOS

los olivos cafeContinue on Alamo Pintado Road to Los Olivos, a small town packed with tasting rooms, art galleries, pricey boutiques and epicurean restaurants. The Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café is one of the few places selling the elusive Sea Smoke Pinot Noirs, locally grown “cult wines,” whose demand so far exceeds supply that they have no tasting room, and can only be purchased in limited quantities. 805-688-7265, www.losolivoscafe.com

Brave the lunch lines at Paninos for their delicious and inexpensive sandwiches that keep locals coming back (like Noah Wyle). Mattei’s Tavern on the edge of town has been serving customers since it was built as a stage coach stop in 1886. There are many tall tales surrounding the tavern, but the authentic “hanging tree” in front stands testament to the area’s rugged history.

Further along highway 154 is Los Olivos Grocery store, a foodie favorite for hard to find cheeses, local organic produce, gelato, and a vast selection of herbs, exotic spices, oils and wines. 805-688-5115, www.losolivosgrocery.com

Turn right at Roblar Winery on Alamo Pintado Road to gather some gifts for oenophile friends, like colorful Italian-inspired table linens, cookbooks and wine accessories. Their decadent Sunday brunch with live music costs $45 per person, or if you prefer a more hands-on experience, come on a Saturday night for cooking classes taught by local chefs, all paired with generously poured Roblar wines for $125 per person. 805-686-2603, www.roblarwinery.com

ONWARD TO BALLARD

little red school houseContinue on Alamo Pintado Road to Ballard, founded in 1880 at another Wells Fargo stage line station, and take a stroll by the Little Red School House built in 1882.

By this time it should be evening, and dinner at the Ballard Inn and Restaurant is a must. Owned by Budi and Chris Kazali, who bought the inn in 2004, the 15-room inn was voted one of the Top Ten Most Romantic Inns by the American Historic Inns— and for good reason; it’s the culinary star of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Executive Chef Budi Kazali’s artistic background is evident in the elegantly plated food that combines Eastern and Western flavors. “All my restaurants have been French and Asian, so by combining those traditions here, I have the freedom to go wherever I want to go,” said Chef Kazali, an Indonesian-born graduate of the California Culinary Academy.

The menu changes with the season, and the constant flow of fresh ingredients prompts a spirit of innovation in the other chefs on staff as well.

“We’re always bouncing ideas off of each other in the kitchen,” added Chef Jason Nuss. “What produce is in season, what did Budi pick up at the local farmer’s market that day, and how can we put it together to create a new dish for that night?”

Chef Kazali encourages his chefs to “think about food all the time” and to “find inspiration in what’s fresh around us.” Besides finding produce at the farmer’s market, he also consults with a local fisherman for the freshest local catches and picks up the fish himself.

You’ll also find food from around the world, like Japanese hamachi and Australian barrumundi, or French sardines: “If you rely completely on local sources, you’ll have a very lean menu some weeks.”

But, Chef Kazali’s primary philosophy is, “When you have it local, you’ve got to go for it.”

805-688-7770, www.ballardinn.com

By Lauren Van Mullem for PeterGreenberg.com.

Don’t miss more ideas for cool drives in Southern California with America the Beautiful: Nine Stops, Nine Miles.

Previously by Lauren Van Mullem:

Dude, Where’s My Horse? Dude Ranch Vacations