After two days in the searing heat of Paso Robles, our journey of the absurd took us approximately two hours south via US 101 into Santa Barbara; a trip that offers numerous ocean and mountain vistas. Santa Barbara is a coastal town right on the ocean. Unlike the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific tends to cool things down with prevailing onshore breezes.
Santa Barbara has a few options, but opting for a “taste of what you can’t get back home (always a preferred option when on the road)” I opted for the pricey yet scenic Sandpiper Golf Club, located just north of Santa Barbara (approximately 15-20 minutes north of downtown via car). Check-in was fairly perfunctory, but unlike most tracks, there’s no slip or bakery ticket to hand to the starter…the young man in the pro shop sent me on my way to an equally young starter who appeared to be young enough to be my offspring (if such a thing had happened). Range balls are included with your green fee (honestly when you’re paying $100 plus this should be automatic), and to their credit, the range was actual green grass, and not mats. So after a dozen or so swings to get the body warmed up (on a morning where the famous marine layer was in full effect), it was off to the first tee.
The course isn’t cheap, so saying Sandpiper is a value proposition would be a bit foolish, but much like in real estate, it’s all about location. An opening straight-forward par 5 offers a straight hitter a chance at a birdie; holes 2 and 3 are relatively benign. It’s not until 5 and 6 (4 and 5) that you start to sense where you’re at, when the Pacific Ocean vistas you’re paying for come into play.
You’re started with an uphill par 5 that ends at the very edge of a cliff, followed by a short par 3 that punishes any leftward shots with a trip to a watery grave. Can’t imagine anyone who’d be dumb enough to hit a big ole hook into the Pacific Ocean. Surely you’d want to miss short or right…
The back nine goes right into visual golf porn mode; the tenth is one of those holes where pulling out the camera is completely within reason; the ocean framing the short dogleg par 4.
dogleg par 4 while 11 offers a downhill par 3 to a green that fronts the ocean.
On a clear day (the day I played the marine layer was in full effect) you can see forever. A few more holes lead you to the finisher; a par 3 that requires a full carry over a lake.
There are other options; you could drive approximately 30-40 minutes up to Solvang/Buellton/Lompoc and play courses up there. While these tracks are lighter on your wallet, you won’t get the dramatic vistas on offer at Sandpiper. All in all I enjoyed my round (it definitely had a Torrey Pines feel to it in terms of design, layout, and the native flora) but would I put in on a must play list? Not so sure about that one. The clubhouse and pro shop aren’t exactly opulent, and other than the holes that front the ocean, there’s a lot of fairly boring holes of similar yardages. Did I have fun? Yes, but when I return to the area I’ll probably look for something in the Santa Ynez valley area just for a change of pace.
One minor quibble…they were punching greens the day I played. Their website had no notice of this. I am now convinced that there is a wild pack of crazy green-punchers who show up and punch greens at random courses. These people must be stopped.
Since SWIRIC enjoys the occasional tipple, the après golf activity of choice was wine tasting. If you like Pinot Noir, you’re in what is arguably the Pinot Noir capital of the US (people in the Williamette Valley part of Oregon might justifiably want a say on this but both regions are doing the good work). Options number in the hundreds. My list is by no means comprehensive nor definitive, but we hit Foxen (two different tasting rooms) and were met with incredibly fun and knowledgeable folks. After Foxen we hit Babcock, Melville, and Sanford. My wine palette pales in comparison to SWIRIC, but if you go, Sanford would be at the top of the list if you’re into Pinot Noir. If you’re really into the film ‘Sideways’ you can find an app that has all of the places in the area that they filmed at/were at (if you really want to nerd out Sanford was one of the locations).
One other pro tip- in Lompoc there’s a Wine Ghetto that’s only open on Sundays. We missed out, and while I made a stream of jokes about doing tastings of Mad Dog 20/20 and Thunderbird (why yes, the 2014 Thunderbird has delightful notes of high fructose corn syrup, urine, flop sweat, and just a hint of stale beer farts), it’s a real thing, and well worth your time.
While no trip to Buellton would be complete with a trip to the Hitching Post II (the steaks are really good and the 2011 Highliner was a great wine once it opened up), there are other and less expensive options in Solvang (warning- the entire Solvang/Buellton area isn’t known for late nights so plan on making it an early night). The Solvang Brewing Company has good pub fare (and a selection of fine beers).
However, the real honest-to-god-if-you-ruin-this-place-I’ll-beat-you-with-a-bag-of-hammers culinary find was Los Agaves in Santa Barbara. Honestly I don’t know where to start. It’s casual. It’s packed. Parking can be a nightmare. You wait in line and order at a counter and grab a seat and they bring you your food. They have bottled beers if that’s your thing…plus fountain sodas. First, some tortilla chips, so go ahead and get a few samples of their many salsas (seriously they have about 8); SWIRIC was ready to steal whatever Salsa Aguacate (an avocado-based salsa) they had left, and that was before her shrimp and halibut enchiladas in chipotle cream pepper sauce (sounds funky but it’s oh-so-good). The shrimp tacos I had were easily the best tacos I’ve ever had (and let’s just say I’ve had a few). Topped with a mango salsa and cabbage slaw that normally I wouldn’t like…but this…oh, me likey. This place will never be on a concierge’s list of recommended hot spots, and the area isn’t exactly upscale. Their beer selection is the usual- Corona, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Tecate, etc. It’s just damn good Mexican food, done right. The crowd was about 98% locals, which is all you need to know. I may or may not have frightened the manager when I begged him to open an East Coast outpost.
All in all, Santa Barbara/Buellton/Solvang is a great place to visit if you like golf and wine. Just go easy on the tasting (one trick we found that worked was sharing a single tasting- we got to taste everything and no sobriety issues).