Although it’s never ideal to travel during a pandemic, the summer of COVID-19 has left us with cabin fever, desperate to get away from home. But where to go and how to get there safely? The key to successful travel has always come down to planning, double-checking, and remaining calm and adaptable when something goes awry. Never has this been truer then now.
Travel internationally continues to be next to impossible with borders closed or 14-day quarantines imposed for tourists arriving from the U.S. The mere thought of a crowded airport and flying shoulder to shoulder with strangers would send me searching for hazmat gear. Train travel shares the same concerns. Cruises no longer hold the same allure, either. Even when traveling within our own country, states less affected by the coronavirus are requiring visitors to quarantine for 14 days on arrival.
Taking to the road to visit the great outdoors carries with it fewer health concerns and is credited for the marked uptick in sales and rentals of RVs, busy campgrounds and a flourishing vacation rental market. Even when avoiding public transportation, precautions need to be taken at pit stops along the way and on arrival. Those who own a second home “on wheels” need to assess the safety of an RV park’s common spaces and the ability to distance from other campers. When renting that rolling house, thoroughly air it out first and then wipe down frequently touched surfaces. If traveling by car, the same safety measures apply to pit stops, but now the emphasis shifts to the hotel or rental host’s sanitation and safety practices and whether the room or house has been given time to “breathe” between guests. Don’t forget to check the safety protocols at the attractions and sites that you might visit as well.
Whatever you do, don’t let the precautions deter you! Travel is still vitally important. Certainly it bolsters the economy, but, more importantly, it recharges your soul and brightens your overall outlook. Fortunately, California has a profusion of destinations within a few hours drive. Most of those destinations are now closely adhering to safety measures, thereby minimizing the health risk to visitors.
We chose the Santa Maria Valley in northern Santa Barbara County for our first road trip. Why? Representatives from the area’s Visitors Bureau and marketing firm reached out with the purpose of broadening their “draw” to visitors from the Central Valley. The promise of cooler weather, the area’s laid-back atmosphere, an abundance of excellent wineries, and the opportunity to hike coastal dunes and wetlands sounded appealing. But the knowledge that health precautions were strictly being followed (with an infection level significantly lower than here) sealed the deal.
In Tulare County, agricultural fields are an everyday sight. But nothing prepared us for the sheer volume and lushness of those in the Santa Maria Valley. The varied hues of countless rows of crops were like rich carpets of color and extended as far as the eye could see … or would have had there not been randomly placed white rectangles that, from afar, looked like large white quilted comforters. Closer inspection revealed them to be interconnected “tubes” of cloth-covered greenhouses. Blessed with its trifecta of climate, soil and water, this valley is a cornucopia of cool-season vegetables and one of the nation’s top salad bowl suppliers. Those conditions have attracted vintners as well. Now a recognized American Viticultural Area, this designated region is home to 34 wineries. The cool coastal air and vast aquifer (constantly recharged by the Santa Maria River) create a perfect environment for the pinot noir, chardonnay and Syrah for which this area is renowned.
TWO STANDOUT WINERIES
Cottonwood Canyon: Named after the property’s many trees, this small boutique winery, launched in 1988 by the Norman Beko family, built the first wine caves in Santa Barbara County. Water, space and energy-efficient, these tunnels allow wine to mature naturally at a constant year-round 62 degrees, eliminating the need for frequent tastings to determine fermentation status. We were fortunate enough to have the owner visit with us during our tasting and later lead us into the caverns (entered through redwood doors he built). Once the caves were completed, the acoustics were found to be perfect for musical presentations. Upon hearing that, our traveling companion was inspired to sing a hymn in memory of her mother. The subdued lighting made that moment feel so intimate, yet the walls amplified her lone voice to sound as rich and full as a choir in a cathedral. A moving experience for us all, Norman invited her back to sing whenever she wanted.
Presqu’ile: A beautifully landscaped estate, Presqu’ile specializes in pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc (the latter given to sample as you enter). Its strikingly modern architecture sits high atop a hill, with vast panes of glass and terraces that allow even large groups to look outward and feel as if the view is theirs alone. The garden on the property was grown from seed by Chef Julie and is the source for the farm-to-table mezze picnic paired with our wine tasting.
NOT TO BE MISSED
Oso Flaco Lake State Park, Nipomo: As part of the Oceano Dunes complex, this area has a lot more to offer than dunes. This easy 1.5-mile trail starts at the parking lot’s white gate and leads visitors through a biodiverse corridor. Walking first through a canopied forest of trees, anyone familiar with Savannah, Ga., would be shocked to see similar Spanish moss hanging from the branches (a mere mile from the ocean!). Within 10 minutes, the dirt path abruptly becomes a boardwalk crossing above a serene lake and wetland area filled with birds (and mask-donned birdwatchers peering through binoculars). Then that boardwalk’s water quickly becomes sand, then foredunes and finally the ocean. The area is complete with informative displays about the wildlife and land features. The fenced and protected breeding grounds for snowy plovers had additional signs drawn by local children urging visitors to aid in this endangered species’ survival.
The Luffa Farm, Nipomo: Don’t let the rather kitschy art at the entry deter you; this place is an amazing experience. I had assumed that luffas were the rock-hard sponges I always felt were more suited to refinishing furniture than cleansing skin. This small farm, which has grown these quirky gourds for more than 30 years, produces 10,000-12,000 luffas annually. These are soft, washable, non-abrasive sponges that resemble large zucchinis when growing on trellised vines and giant shredded wheat when ready for sale. I left with a bag full of luffas (which I now love).
Santa Maria Valley’s weather is tailor-made for outdoor dining. We had excellent wood-fired pizzas at Pizzeria Bello Forno in Orcutt and a spectacular craft beer tasting, dinner and hot pretzel (better than those from oft-proclaimed pretzel “capitals” of New York and Philadelphia) at Blast Brewery just a block away.
Despite our best efforts, we were unable to sample authentic Santa Maria-style BBQ at the historic Ostini family’s Hitching Post Restaurant in Casmalia. Serving up the best example of that signature dish, the restaurant closed hours before our arrival after a staff member tested positive for coronavirus. Now that it has reopened, that’s even more reason to return in late fall to see the monarch butterflies wintering in Nipomo and walk more freely to the dunes after snowy plover nesting season.
When planning your own road trip, pack a bag of supplies to include hand sanitizer with moisturizer, cleansing wipes (add a spray bottle filled with 60%-70% alcohol if your wipes don’t disinfect), paper towels, acrylic wine glasses, wine and bottle opener, disposable cutlery, and a travel paring knife. Bring a cooler with food and drinks to allow for scenic picnic lunches, wine and cheese at sunset, and snacks along the way. Finally, to aid in choosing your destination, search for routinely updated city and county coronavirus statistics.
And finally, GET OUT THERE. California is calling!