Having driven several thousand road trip miles during the pandemic with Rerun the Retriever and written about in this column, it can be stated with canine certainty that Rerun knows a thing or two about travel. And if tail wagging sufficient to generate electricity for an Emirati-sized skyscraper is any indication, Rerun is in love with the pet-friendly Santa Ynez Valley. Her human concurs.
Four hours south of San Francisco, Santa Ynez Valley — called “the valley” by locals — is composed of six separate pet-friendly towns and all within a few miles of each other: Santa Ynez, Solvang, Los Alamos, Los Olivos, Ballard and Buellton. Plenty of hiking and parks, dozens of wineries with outdoor tasting areas, and innovative farm-to-table alfresco dining are all placed in a unique marriage of old, new, retro, western and Danish. visitsyv.com
Set on two acres and opened in March, the newest pet-friendly property in the area is the 22-room Hotel Ynez. Originally built in the 1950s as a roadside motel, it has been completely reimagined, removing the traditional “park-in-front-of-your door” concept and replacing it with an invitingly delightful courtyard containing gardens, fire pits, comfortable seating and bocce ball.
Spacious, deluxe rooms are beautifully decorated with all comforts, including high-count Matouk bedding, an electric fireplace, 65-inch flat screen televisions, seating area and desk. Redesigned bathrooms have vintage vanities, individually packaged face and eye masks and all natural, small batch California Fable Soap Company products. A separate small wet bar area boasts a cherry red Magic Chef retro refrigerator in keeping with the area’s historic roots. For the caffeine addicts among us, a Nespresso machine makes mornings possible.
Hotel Ynez has spiffy complimentary Linus bikes for guests and just across the road, a four-mile roundtrip bike/jogging path leads to downtown Solvang. We jogged the path early mornings and as bushy-tailed bunnies scampered past, Rerun convulsed with delusional glee of a potentially appetizing Leporid lunch.
A small swimming pool with enveloping loungers added to Hotel Ynez’s euphoric calm. Each room has a stone surround patio and most importantly, large hammocks overlooking the graceful gardens. The result is an enchanting, step-back-to-a-calmer-era environment. Boxed continental breakfast is included. hotelynez.com
In a quiet spot off downtown Solvang’s Mission Drive, world-traveler chef Michael Chernay and his wife Sarah opened Peasant’s FEAST just as COVID hit. Trained under Michelin star collector Joel Robuchon, and with organic farm living experience, chef Chernay connected sustainability with his love for cooking. The valley knew a good thing when it tasted it and rallied together keeping FEAST busy with takeout orders until restrictions lifted. On the pleasant outdoor patio Rerun chewed a bone with reckless abandon while I devoured Chernay’s creamy cauliflower soup and mouth-watering, slow cooked, piquant pork shoulder carnitas with warm, fresh tortillas. peasantsfeast.com
With a near-cult local following his original Los Alamos location, former entertainment industry executive turned Boulanger Bob Oswaks opened a second Bob’s Well Bread Bakery eatery in the tiny — population under 500 — town of Ballard. Rerun inhaled Bob’s chicken liver treats on the patio as I gorged on seasonal mixed mushroom “toast.” The crème fraîche concoction with bacon lardon and shallots sat atop a peppery artisan biscuit. Simultaneously creamy, chewy and crunchy, it disappeared, Houdini-like. Walking by fresh loaves of aromatic olive oil bread, homemade cookies and pain au chocolat made departing with my dignity intact a challenge. bobswellbread.com
My visit to the region happily coincided with one of the winemaker series events (monthly through September) at Pico Restaurant at the Los Alamos General Store. Legendary Lane Tanner of Lumen wines – who rumor has it was single-handedly responsible for the tie-dye fashion resurgence making wine stains de rigueur – regaled stories of the region’s early wine days and paired wines, while chef John Wayne Formica, no relation to Duke, though he is sometimes called that, orchestrated a culinarily symphonic three-course meal.
In the lovely garden dining area Rerun alternated between serious snoring and server slobbering. If a beet and wildflower amuse bouche could taste like a late spring day, this was it. Pressed taro encased the Maple Leaf Farm tender confit duck. Light plum sauce, tangy orange zest and fresh scallions created taste bud bursting bliss. The final aria was the perfectly cooked Grass Run Farm’s Korean Tri-tip with kalbi barbecue rendering my knife underemployed.
Eating at Pico should be required before leaving the valley. Though Hollywood’s John Wayne certainly made iconic Westerns over several decades, chef John Wayne’s creative, delicious food is soul sustaining, altering and redefining the region’s culinary path. losalamosgeneralstore.com
Surrounded by the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountains, Lake Cachuma has four hiking trails within the recreation area, and the eight-mile Tequepis Trail just outside it. Arriving mid-morning when temperatures were in the high-70s but felt like 90s, we embarked on the five-mile Sweetwater Trail from Vista Point to the Bradbury Dam Overlook.
With the expansive bass and trout-filled reservoir as backdrop, hawks were overhead and lichen-draped trees appeared to be unplanned ornithological real estate developments. Rerun was joyfully driven nearly insane as only a Labrador can be with birds overhead and water nearby. countyofsb.org/parks/cachuma.sbc
After one morning run, it was time for Rerun to be chauffeured in style in a zero emission, all-electric Moke vehicle rentable by the hour in downtown Solvang. It’s a pleasant way to see the sites including the Old Mission Santa Inés with its pastoral views, the five Danish windmills around town and of course sample the numerous bakeries. mokexp.com
Though Rerun enjoyed lapping up the wind in the Moke, she was far more interested in Solvang’s Hans Christian Andersen Park where just past the tennis and paddle courts is a creek bed trail. En route to Ballard the Sunny Fields Park is a great picnic spot with an excellent children’s playground.
No trip to the region would be complete without dedicated wine tasting. Fortunately, many have alluring gardens where Rerun could doze contentedly at my feet. At Los Olivos’ Four Brothers Wine Co., palms and flowers complemented their refreshing 2019 Grenache Blanc. fourbrotherswine.com
Santa Ynez’s organic Sunstone Vineyards & Winery has expansive picnic grounds and their 2018 Merlot Reserve with hints of figs, plum and chocolate had me thinking of another wine refrigerator. sunstonewinery.com
The lesson learned
Rerun has very strong opinions on travel generally and road tripping specifically. Like her human, she continuously marvels at the beauty of California’s many splendors, especially the ones that welcome her with open paws. Santa Ynez Valley is no exception. Woof.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com. Some vendors hosted the writer however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the writer’s opinion.