Day two of our West Coast road trip dawned and my initial enthusiasm for escaping Los Angeles was slowly beaten down by mile upon mile of crawling traffic. It seemed to take hours to break through the confines of the city as we headed for the famed Highway 1 and the great open road.
But that great open road was literally nowhere to be seen. Unbeknownst to us, the clash of searing heat from the South Californian deserts and icy chill from the Pacific Ocean was producing a billowing, impenetrable fog, rendering the whole South Californian coast invisible as far as the eye can see. It is apparently known as the May Grey or June Gloom, presumably because no one could think of anything to rhyme with July and August, when it most certainly continues to drown all views of what I’m told is an amazing bit of coastline.
Sunny Santa Barbara
Bitterly disappointed, we powered on to Santa Barbara, a former Spanish settlement about 150 km northwest of LA. As it turned out, this cruisy little town basking in the sun was exactly what we needed.
Jutting out from Santa Barbara Harbour, Stearns Wharf historic pier may be littered with seafood restaurants and lined by imaginative panhandlers, both trying to appeal to the tourist crowds. But refreshingly, no one was in a hurry, least of all the brown pelicans that sat posing for pictures in the hazy sunshine.
Walking into town on the south side of State Street, we stopped at the Union Ale Brewing Co. The paseos make Santa Barbara a beautiful place to just be, let alone shop. Upmarket clothing boutiques, local coffee roasters and national chain stores all looked to have fallen straight out of a historical Moorish high street. Even the street entertainment was classy – it’s not everyday you see an oboeist busking.
Sideways to Buellton
But time was not on our side and we had a dinner date with one of my favourite movie locations of all time – the Hitching Post, a grill restaurant featured in the 2004 film Sideways, which tells the story of two old friends who embark on a road trip through California wine country.[If you haven’t seen Sideways, I urge you to do so. It’s original, funny and touching – but make sure you’re armed with enough wine to see you through 126 minutes of unabashed pinot tasting, quaffing and guzzling.]
The Hitching Post lies in Buellton, a small town in the Santa Ynez Valley, about 70 km northeast of Santa Barbara. The tiny town of Solvang is only five minutes away and also featured in the film, so ahead of dinner, we took a small detour to drive through this former Danish settlement.
Surrounded by brushy fields, ostrich farms and endless vineyards, Solvang (pop. 5,245) goes all out to remind you of its Danish heritage. Scandinavian-style windmills and quaint artificial timbered houses abound. There are even Danish pastries being served from European cottages with faked thatched roofs. Worth a quick visit just to witness the weirdness.
Pinot and noir
In comparison, Buellton (pop. 4,828) seemed little more than a small collection of nondescript restaurants and houses dotted around the highway. But my cherished visit to the Hitching Post did not disappoint.
A glass or three of Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, gushing with cherry spices, and my first taste of swordfish grilled over an oak fire, mouthwatering and meaty, made this a truly memorable evening. The service was excellent, the line up for a table was long and our reservations proved essential. Needless to say, I made off with a few more bottles of pinot for the road.
Outside, dusk was drawing in and we still had 100 km to drive if we were to make it to San Luis Obispo that night. The setting sun tinged the valley gold but field after field of vines, beehives and flowers were soon lost to the darkness – and so were we.
Two hours later, after a hair-raising drive in the pitch black on deserted backroads, we finally pulled into San Luis Obispo and settled into sharing one box room between five people. The drivers took the beds. I took the floor. It would be a long, sleepless night in Hostel Obispo.