Living La Vida Lompoc

Lompoc has always been a mystery to me – a town I’ve heard of but never visited, a name on road signs along Highway 1, but never a destination. Well this all changed recently when I visited the town for couple nights and discovered a charming town, bubbling with a burgeoning wine industry, an eclectic art scene, gourmet restaurants, and a fascinating history.

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My first major find in Lompoc was Return to Freedom Horse Sanctuary (www.returntofreedom.org), where one can learn about the history and challenges facing wild horses in America. Guests can also take a tour of the ranch and get up close to some of the most unique and beautiful horses around.

At the sanctuary I met founder and president Neda DeMayo, who gave me a tour and a brief lesson of the plight of these magnificent animals. Return to Freedom is dedicated to “preserving the freedom, diversity, and habitat of America’s wild horses through sanctuary, education, and conservation, while enriching the human spirit through direct experience with the natural world.”

Located on 1,500 acres just off of California’s Central Coast, the ranch provides a safe haven to nearly 400 wild horses and 29 burros. The animals were rescued from government round-ups and potential slaughter.

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During my tour DeMayo introduced me to a herd of Choctaw horses, whose roots trace back to the days of Hernando DeSoto in the 1500s and later to the Choctaw Nation Native American tribe of the deep south and Mississippi area.

Other fascinating herds at the ranch include the Wilbur Cruce Spanish Colonial Mission Horses, which are direct descendants of Padre Kino’s original herd who arrived in America from Spain in the late 1600s. They are the only known rancher-strain of pure Spanish horses that persists in the southwest.

After the ranch, I headed back to the Holiday Inn Express, where I had a clean and comfortable suite, with a king bed, mini-fridge, microwave, large flat screen TV, an office area and free hi-speed Internet. Besides a perfect location for exploring Lompoc, the hotel also boasts a heated pool, business center, a fitness room and a tasty, complimentary hot buffet breakfast each morning.

My next stop was a visit to the “Wine Ghetto” – a collection 20 or so tasting rooms offering wines from the nearby Sta. Rita Hills region. For people in the know, the “Ghetto” has become a mecca for world-class, artisan wine production. Thanks to a rare east-west hill orientation and calcium-rich soil composition, Lompoc is a perfect place to produce wine and is in fact, currently making some of California’s best Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other cool climate wines.

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For dinner I headed across town to La Botte Italian Restaurant (www.labotteitalianrestaurant.com/) for some authentic and delicious Italian food. Opened in 1981 by Nick and Caterina Agate, the restaurant specializes in home-made pasta sauce and specialty dishes from Central and Southern Italy.

My family-styled meal featured local wine and tender Calamari Fritti with tomato sauce, and a plate of sautéed mushrooms. Next I tried the delectable Chicken Piccata, with chicken breast, sauteed in lemon white wine sauce and topped with capers, followed by a memorable dish of Chicken Marsala, with chicken breast sauteed in Marsala wine and mushrooms.

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In the morning I strolled through Old Town Lompoc to examine the city’s renown murals. Painted on nearly 40 structures across town, the Murals of Lompoc tell a story of Lompoc’s heritage, flower industry, historic sites, ethnic diversity, scenic beauty and more.

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One of the biggest and most interesting of the paintings is “Diatomaceous Mining,” located on the old Chamber of Commerce building. This giant abstract mural depicts the city’s rich history of mining the white powdery substance called diatomaceous earth, which is used for everything from filtration purposes to mild abrasives found in toothpastes and cat litter. Another cool mural is “The Boatmen,” painted by artist John Pugh. This colorful piece looks 3D, as it shows a WWII battleship with a Native American boat cutting through its hull. The latter work of art is painted on the wall of Sissy’s Uptown Cafe (www.sissysuptowncafe.com), where I enjoyed a memorable bowl of clam chowder, a roast beef sandwich and a slice of homemade coconut cream pie.

For more information on visiting Lompoc, visit: www.explorelompoc.com.

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