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Staycations for Military Families: Central California Coast

Central California Coast is best portrayed in the movie Sideways.  Its a blend of Tuscany and Coastline.  I’m always amazed at the lush agriculture this region produces, many of it wines, and it’s a second “Napa” for those who don’t want the pretentiousness of that region.  Its laid back like California should be, not pretentious like other regions have grown to be.

This is the region my husband lives in, so visiting him is not only a treat in the sense I get to hold him tight, but also it is really a vacation.

If you are stationed or visiting friends in California, head up (or down) the 101 towards Santa Barbara, and you will find some beautiful countryside, straight out of Italian cookbooks.




Vandenberg AFB has some lodging facilities on base.  Since my husband is right there, I haven’t had a chance to stay, but like any Air Force Inns, they are convenient and affordable.  In addition, the base also features a FAMCamp – perfect for parking your RV ($22-26/night) or even dry camping with a tent (for $10/night) – can’t beat that affordability!.  Both options feature WiFi so you can still stay connected, or hook up your iPad and watch Netflix marathons, but why would you with the beach in your backyard?


Whether you are travelling with a circus (read:  kids in tow), or are just two lovebirds on the open road, the Central Coast is a great place for everyone!

The Beaches:

Vandenberg AFB has their own private beach (Wall Beach) which is great for getting away from the crowds.






The only problem?  During the summer months, you may find it is closed to all visitors while an endangered species is mating (typically June – October).  That can certainly put a damper on a summer vacation, but there are plenty of other options near by!

Pismo Beach – We love Pismo Beach (about 40 minutes from Vandenberg).  It is a perfect beach town, with a boardwalk, laden with souvenir and surf shops.  You can walk out to the pier with your family, boogie board or swim in the ocean.  Even during the winter months, it is a busy location for tourists.  Parking can get a bit pricy in the lot, so plan accordingly.


Avila Beach – A few more miles up the coast from Pismo is Avila, tucked away off the highway.  Thanks to a jetty, the winds are bit calmer at this seaside town, so its considered the most kid-friendly beach in the County.  Add on a pirate-themed park nearby, and Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab at a local shop off the pier, and this is the go-to spot for families.




The Wineries:

Leave this kids at home, and tour the next “Napa Valley.”  This region of California is known for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, thanks to the mild weather and the fog that rolls off the ocean in the morning.  Instead of spending the entire day in the car driving from vineyard to vineyard, stop in these local spots and taste some of the best grapes in the world.

Lompoc Wine Ghetto – this industrial park, turned wine lovers’ heaven wrangles over 25 local vintners into one space (ok, several warehouse spaces, but you get the gist).  Find lots of wine options, and then taste your way through the region.  What I love is that you are often speaking directly with the vintners themselves (not some sales person), and they are passionate about their wines.  Tip:  Food is not served in most of the places, but many will let you pack a picnic, so come prepared if you plan to stay through a few tastings.




Solvang – My coworker is from this region and told me about this German town a little bit inland (40 minutes from Vandenberg to the east).  Think picturesque German town with cottages, windmills and bakeries galore.  Add in wineries, shopping and excellent restaurants and you have a great day-trip.  Many wineries have shops in this town, so not only can you run through tasting menus, but you can take a break with shopping and eating in between.  Tip:  due to the popularity of this town, the weekends get very busy and traffic can be difficult.  Try going on a Thursday or Friday instead.


There are plenty of other things to “do” in the Central Coast, but of course you can shop anywhere, and you can see movies, and go driving.  But these are the two things that truly stick out as memory makers for me.



So many great chefs are opening up fresh restaurants, but you don’t have to break the bank to eat well.  Here is a list of my “must eats” when I visit:

Florianos Mexican Restaurant (Lompoc) – this butcher turned mexican restaurant just expanded to a larger location.  My favorites are the carne asada fries and the tacos with fresh salsa.

Industrial Eats (Buellton) – The menu changes weekly (maybe daily even), at this pizza oven spot. Be adventurous and order something you normally wouldn’t – you won’t be disappointed.  Ask about dessert!  They make their own ice creams in house, but they are for the adults of the group – most made with various cordials and a very nice way to end a meal.

Succulent Cafe (Solvang) – I have gone to the spot several times now, and always end up happy.  The incredible sandwiches are a perfect mid-day snack while wine tasting.  If you find yourself hungry after a long day of shopping, indulge on a glass of the region’s finest over a charcuterie plate.

Splash Cafe (Pismo Beach) – Are you looking for the best clam chowder in the region?  This is it!  I admit, its not the best clam chowder I’ve ever had, but it will sure satisfy you after a long day at the beach. Be prepared to stand in a line that could last up to an hour or more at peak times, but if you go during off peak, you may be able to wait just a couple of minutes.  Tip:  for a family of 4, order a quart of chowder and a loaf of garlic bread (cost of $14.50 total) – that’s a great deal to feed all of you.


The Central California Coast should no longer be just a quick drive-thru on your way up or down the coast.  Whether you are coming from San Diego, Los Angeles or San Francisco, its only a few hours away and feels like a whole world away.  Let this region transport you to Tuscany while still maintaining the relaxed California attitude.

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  • That soup looks amazing!

    We’re on the East Coast but I’ll be sharing the tips for food and the wineries with friends who are taking a driving tour of California for their honeymoon.

    • I highly encourage anyone who is visiting California to think about this region. It is a LOT more affordable than some other parts (especially Napa), and yet, has the same character and charm. I’m kind of a fan, can you tell?

  • Looks like fun! That bread bowl though… <3 <3

    • I have been eating clam chowda since I can remember – it is such a comfort food to me, so I had to catch that photo of the perfect bread bowl. I said “wait, wait! Don’t eat it, yet!” Poor Avery had to wait two extra minutes to devour it!

  • Valorey

    I can’t wait to visit the west coast beaches. I live on the Gulf Coast and while it is beautiful here, I’ve always wanted to go to California less the pretentiousness. Great blog! Thanks for sharing!

    • I agree! The Gulf Coast is a lot different (we used to live in Texas so were used to the rock-ier beaches and cooler waters). This part of California is certainly more low-key – much like Texas and Louisiana. I certainly love visiting it as much as I can!