Santa Maria is one of those cities that I always drive past on my way up north. It doesn’t have the Danish kitsch and buttery-rich pastries of nearby Solvang or the summery vibe of Pismo Beach, just up the road. Its downtown corridor is fairly nondescript, and Broadway, its main drag, is full of bland-looking buildings. “Why exactly did we come here?” my husband asked as we drove into town. He ended up happily eating his words (hint: barbecue). We had a great time eating and drinking our way around the Santa Maria Valley.
The Radisson, on the quieter south side of the city, overlooks the small Santa Maria Airport. This is a full-service hotel for private aviators: You can climb out of your light plane and a bellhop will pick up your luggage and escort you to check-in. No pilot’s license? No problem, there’s plenty of free parking for cars. We had an airport-view room, and from our window, the planes looked like toys. History buffs might prefer the 1917 Santa Maria Inn and its English country décor.
How can something so simple taste so delicious? I asked myself as I happily chowed down on an awesome tri-tip sandwich at Shaw’s Steakhouse & Tavern. The answer is in the magic of the Santa Maria-style dry rub (salt, pepper and garlic salt); the meat is grilled over local red oak. There was more beef for dinner at Jocko’s Steak House in nearby Nipomo. Jocko’s is no secret: The plain-looking exterior hides a plain-looking interior that roars to life at night with festive crowds. My Spencer steak was as soft as buttah, and the dinner included a relish tray, rice or potato, beans, salad, coffee and dessert.
Between school and work, three days was all my family of four could put together for a vacation. We wanted relaxation, a sense of awe and good food so imagine our surprise at finding all that in Newport Beach just half an hour from our home.
Our first stop was the Newport Bay Conservancy's Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center for a lesson in how Upper Newport Bay became a critical wildlife habitat in the heart of an upscale city. Afterward, we hit the Upper Bay Trail (2.2 miles) and the Back Bay Drive (3 1/2 miles, popular with bird watchers).
We chose the Newport Beach Marriott Bayview, across the street from the hiking trails. Our suite had two double beds and a separate living room with a mini-fridge and sleeper-sofa -- plenty of space for a family with two daughters, 17 and 20, and all the stuff they can't leave home without.
Think you know Santa Barbara? Spanish-style buildings with red-tile rooftops, charming boutiques and restaurants on State Street, the wharf and wide, sandy beaches. Correct on all counts.
But dig beneath all that and you'll find there is more to be discovered in this favorite destination: The city is evolving in cool new ways; older properties in unexpected locations are being revitalized and repurposed. The tourist staples are still a treat, but do yourself a favor and get off the beaten track. On a recent quick trip, we found delightful gems in an up-and-coming industrial area.
We stayed at the Castillo Inn at the Beach, a small, classic motel half a block from the oceanfront and a short walk to Stearns Wharf and the foot of State Street. The rooms are well maintained and have nice touches: Italian granite and mosaic vanities, flat-screen TVs, free Wi-Fi and refrigerators. Parking is free, and a small continental breakfast offers strong coffee, juice and pastries to eat in your room.
All hands on deck! Liberty Station, a 1920s naval training facility in San Diego, has been repurposed as a mixed-use development. It’s still used for training, but now converted barracks host dance and art classes as well as galleries, shops and small museums. The Spanish Revival architecture, covered walkways and plazas are a delight to stroll through.
My husband and I popped into a watercolor exhibit, watched a flamenco dance class work on a difficult sequence and listened to a docent explain an elaborate textile piece. Best of all, the Navy commissary that served chipped beef on toast has been replaced by the Liberty Public Market, a food hall with multiple vendors.
The Courtyard San Diego Airport/Liberty Station, adjacent to a large park with waterfront views of downtown, is an easy walk to everything in Liberty Station and offers a free shuttle to the nearby airport. The rooms have enough style to overcome the feel of a standard business hotel; amenities include free Wi-Fi, mini-fridge, Keurig coffeemaker and a 40-inch flat-screen TV. Families might want to choose the Homewood Suites by Hilton next door, which offers daily complimentary breakfast and other extras.
Everything was set for my vacation when I realized my aging dog had too many medical issues to be boarded, sending me on a frantic search for a pet sitter.
My dog and home survived my eleventh-hour hire (my plants, not so much), but I still I wish I knew then what I know now.
“I’ve hired pet sitters, and I’ve hired a nanny. It’s the same process for me,” said Dr. Tim Hackett, an emergency and critical care vet and director of the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo. “Make sure they have good training, references and know what to do in a crisis.”
My dog, Piper, is a white fluffball, a 20-pound rescue pup who prances around like a pint-sized princess and greets me with a play bow and kisses when I come home.
Imagine my surprise when my fair-haired girl locked me out of the car in the middle of the desert one recent night. She had the cellphone, my purse and the car keys. I had a disbelieving look on my face.
We had gotten off Interstate 8 at a rest stop outside El Centro, near the Mexican border. I walked Piper, put her back in the car and was walking to my door when I heard the electronic locks snap. I grabbed the door handle and pulled, but it wouldn't budge.