Dollar-Friendly Destinations 2008
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The place: Santa Ynez Valley, California
It's a poor man's: Napa
The financial analysis: When pricey properties like the Auberge du Soleil become the standard for hotels in the Napa Valley, and the French Laundry (home of the $240 tasting menu) is the yardstick by which wine-country restaurants are measured, you know that a substantial price creep has taken effect. If you're looking for great food and scenery that rival Napa's, without the gold-plated pricing, the Santa Ynez Valley, around 150 miles north of Los Angeles, is a good bet.
Price of a beer: This is wine country, as Sideways made clear. A superb bottle of local pinot noir starts around $26 at a local vineyard. Tastings, however, are mostly free.
What to do: It's a little dorky because they did it in the movie, but a vineyard picnic is the best way to spend an afternoon. Pick up cheese, bread, and salads at Los Olivos Grocery, make your way to the Melville Vineyards and Winery, buy a bottle of wine, and find a comfortable spot outside for an afternoon among the vines. Be merry.
Hotel: The calendar is on your side. The Ballard Inn & Restaurant is one of the nicest inns in the region and cuts its rates substantially in the winter (ask for the Winter Package special, where you'll snag a double room from $165). Even during high season, when a room can run up to $225, this place is far less expensive than similar properties in Napa or Sonoma.
Cheap eats: A wine region isn't a wine region without a Tuscan-style restaurant. In Santa Ynez, it's the Trattoria Grappolo, with frescoed walls, salty and delicious antipasti, an impressive wine list, and a happy, don't-you-just-love-California ambience. An entrée such as calamari stuffed with smoked mozzarella is $18.
How to get there: Fly JetBlue to Long Beach, Southwest to LAX, or one of the majors to Santa Barbara.
Los Olivos Grocery
Tel: 805 688 5115
Melville Vineyards and Winery
Tel: 805 735 7030
Ballard Inn & Restaurant
Tel: 805 688 7770
Tel: 805 688 6899