Lompoc: The Cinderella City on California's Central Coast

Lompoc is an out-of-the-way destination on California's coast, known more for its penitentiary than its tourism. However, the city's got a charm all its own, punctuated by a collection of historic murals.

Lompoc (pronounced Lompoak, an old Chumash Indian name) lies about 150 miles above Los Angeles and almost 300 miles south of San Francisco. It’s a modest little place and some world travelers might say it has a lot to be modest about. Might say if all they remembered was that Lompoc had the Federal Correctional Complex whose medium-security US penitentiary was ridiculed as the “Country Club” where dwelt both H.R. Haldeman, (President Nixon’s Chief of Staff convicted in 1975 for obstructing justice) and later Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street speculator who pleaded guilty in 1987 to the insider trading that made him $80 million. More recent alumni include NFL players, American rap artists, and Turkish espionage activists. A Texas drug trafficker who exported guns that killed a Homeland Security Agent in Mexico currently serves time there.

The prison is no longer a Country Club that concerns itself with events of the past! Six miles northwest lies a place along 42 miles of coastline, a place whose activities look more to the future, Vandenberg Air Force Base. The hotel we check into seems large for a town with less than 50,000 population but it was built in 1986 in the expansion boom that believed the Space Shuttle program was going to be centered on the Central Coast and this thought lost impetus when Challenger exploded the same year. Our hotel is another Embassy Suites, not as perfect as one with beach-access as in Oxnard but well out-fitted and well run.

As a Hilton property our hotel offers the usual Embassy Suites’ charm of a complimentary business center, free parking, free WiFi, complimentary cooked breakfast and evening reception with wine and alcohol, a coin laundry, and a pool that kids love on a California evening. It’s a much better value than the Fess Parker Santa Barbara Resort, also a Hilton-run property an hour to the south—and moreover the Lompoc Embassy Suites staff is much nicer.

Lompoc has a lot going for it, even though, off Highway 101, it isn’t on the main drag up the coastal highway. What it particularly has going for it is one of the most marvelous collections of murals that we’ve seen and written about this side of Anacortes, Washington or Harlingen, Texas.

Just how many murals are out there depends on whom you question. The Los Angeles Times claimed in November 2003 that “about 100 works are splashed across alleyways” but the Chamber of Commerce flyer lists only 35 major murals. If you feel you can contribute a mural to Lompoc’s beauty, the Mural Society is offering $5,000 for an 8-foot-by-20-foot mural once it has seen and accepted your concept sketch. The first mural, The Flower Industry, was painted in 1989 by Art Mortimer, a Santa Monica artist, The murals idea started when newcomer Gene Stevens (later a 4-time mayor of the town) and his wife, Judy, visited Chemainus ,a seaside east shore mill town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and noticed it had become economically depressed as had all small towns in North America—but unlike many it had done something about it: it had begun an art program to put its history on its walls and the visitors (of this new clean economy called tourism) had come in droves. The town even opened 104 new retail stores as a result. The 2 Stevens got busy when they came back to Lompoc and the town developed its new identity with a new tourist attraction.

Some of the murals went up in a single day. The first (top) was painted in 1992 as a tribute to the Chumash Indians by Idaho master artist Robert Thomas. (Middle image) Lompoc Pioneers: the history of Moore’s Department Store was developed in 2010 by Indiana master artist David Blodget. (Bottom image) Blodget painted his tribute to Medicine in the Lompoc Valley in 2005. It stands outside the community hospital at 1515 East Ocean Avenue and, floodlit, can be seen by anyone in an ambulance swinging round for the Emergency Room.

Grace Temple Missionary Baptist Church stands on South H Street and opposite is the painting of the mansion of Lompoc’s first mayor Harvey Rudolph that was demolished in 1955 to allow for a parking lot and a grocery store. (Bottom image). The Great Floral Flag depicts the giant American flag planted in flowers by Bodger Seeds in 1942 to salute the men and women fighting in WWII, a painting in 1999 by Santa Monica master artist Art Mortimer—and other participants. (Insert) We liked the Mexican Mariachi Musician but couldn’t find a reference to him.

Some murals stand out (top) as a reference to Lompoc’s early days as a temperance colony in 1874. Chemainus, BC artist Dan Sawatsky got the ball rolling in 1992 when he portrayed “a fierce Lompoc housewife, Mrs. J.B. Pierce” encouraging a band of ladies to fight the evils of alcohol. In 1883 they had formed a vigilante group that pulled a bar off its foundation and dragged it down the block. The bottom image shows an era when Lompoc was “the flower capital” of the world for decades.

Chef Vanan Springer. Five Springer family members work in the restaurant. That’s a lot of Springers—and they had 4 Springer Spaniels as well.

It must be very satisfying to run a successful business in a small town because when we asked locals, as we always do, “Where do the locals eat? Not the tourist places—the local places?” we got the same 2 restaurant names every time: “Sissy’s or D’Vine’s.” They are close: you could probably throw a stone from one and hit the other. This really is Small Town America! Sissy’s started when a dentist Dave Springer and his office manager wife, Dorothy, and family members ran 3 successful Togo’s restaurant franchises then decided to open a restaurant in the old post office building. Anyone seeing the eye-popping deserts served up by a dentist must wonder at any possible conflict of interest! Locals, however, say, Sissy’s serves the best steaks they’ve had in 20 years.

D’Vine Wine Bar & Bistro is proud of its 10-year history and its wine cellar too. A year ago 8 locals developed it into an “upscale night spot.” Web developer Ed Braden and Julie Menicucci, who owns the spa at the Santa Barbara Fess Parker, are the active partners. Asked if he had any experience in running a restaurant, Braden replies cheerfully, “None, that’s why we added others so locals would have a stake. And one of the partners has a mother who married in 1937 and is now aged 95. She walks around town in tennis shoes, knows everyone and constantly verifies that all the moving parts here are kept track of!”

Middle image: Ed Braden

The D’Vine Wine Bar & Bistro has become a spot like Boston’s TV pub, Cheers, “where everyone knows your name.” Certainly we seemed to be the only persons dining who don’t know everyone at the next tables.

And here we find volunteers who have things to tell us about Lompoc. “We are a land island.” Says one. “Twenty miles from anywhere and unknown. People don’t even know how to pronounce our name. We are California’s Cinderella!”

Says another, “Yes but we have the most affordable housing in Santa Barbara County and we are putting $8 million into a new Aquatic Center—and Wine Spectator recently declared our 2012 Estate Pinot Noir the 8th best wine in the world.”

Wine is indeed big in Lompoc. It has the strangely named Wine Ghetto in an industrial park that boasts a “non-traditional setting” that seemingly seeks to remove any snobbery from wine tasting.

The geography of the land here is unique. It’s the only area on the western coast of North America that has mountain ranges running transversely from west to east so ocean fog often penetrates to the eastern end of the appellation, apparently a huge bonus for pinot noir. We head for the Palmina tasting room because it has a story. The winery was started in 1995 by Steve Clifton who had an elderly Italian friend like a grandmother to him. She taught him to love cooking and wine and when she died of breast cancer he discovered her given name was Palmina so he gave that name to his winery.

The Wine Ghetto has 19 tasting rooms. Jenny Torres, at Palmina pours a series of wines for her guests including a 2008 Nebbiolo SBC and says: “This is a diva wine. Pinot is a walk in the park compared to this one.” Indeed the prospectus describes it as “fussy in the vineyard, finicky in the cellar and needing time and patience from the grower.”

This would not be good wine for travel writers who are not oenophiles to tackle.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.