The Quintessential Beach City
Santa Barbara has long been known as the American Riviera, and for good reason. In our eyes, no other U.S. city delivers such a dramatic seaside setting reminiscent of the European Riviera, and especially Spain's Mediterranean coast. The spectacular mountain and ocean landscapes are awe-inspiring, and the ever-present Spanish influences provide visitors a setting unparalleled in this country. This is one of the rare cities where all who live there are ecstatic to call it home, and all of us who visit wish we could move there. We like to call it city envy. So, what exactly is it about Santa Barbara that has turned us and other vacationers into lifelong devotees?
by DON AND ANN JACKSON
What to do
Any city with such a bustling harbor, pristine beaches, and extraordinary seashore lends itself to all the water sports and activities you might expect. Sailing, kayaking, surfing, ocean swims, deep-sea fishing, and any type of boating await, with rentals available for any equipment you head into town lacking. The Discovery Channel proclaimed that the Santa Barbara channel is some of the best year-round whale watching on the planet, and on our recent trip we saw plenty of grey whales swimming on their way north (www.condorcruises.com). Beach walks and biking, or strolls along picturesque Cabrillo Boulevard’s pathways are always pleasant. Hiking trails in the nearby mountains can be physically exhilarating and provide unparalleled views of the city, coastline, and offshore islands. Wine lovers should head for the “urban wine trail,” where a number of local wineries have tasting rooms downtown within a few blocks of each other and near the beachfront. Our personal favorite, Santa Barbara Winery, is the oldest in the county and known for its award-winning Chardonnays (www.sbwinery.com).
What to see
One of the first places visitors should go is the county courthouse’s tower for wonderful vistas of the city. There isn’t a courthouse anywhere in California that compares to this imposing Spanish-Moorish architectural gem. Be sure to take a complimentary, guided tour of the building itself, which is unexpectedly enlightening, and then drive by during evening hours to view the building in all its night-lit splendor. Must-visit spots include: Mission Santa Barbara with its distinctive twin bell towers —the widely proclaimed Queen of California’s missions has been beautifully maintained (www.santabarbaramission.org); the Santa Barbara Zoo—large enough to display some truly impressive animal enclosures, but small enough to explore in a day or less especially with young children (www.santabarbarazoo.org); and the Botanic Garden—65 acres of native California fauna that invites exploration (www.sbbg.org). Other recommended options, depending on interest, include the highly regarded Museum of Art in downtown Santa Barbara (www.sbmuseart.org); the Maritime Museum at the harbor (www.sbmm.org); enticing yesteryear tours of Casa del Herrero and Lotusland, two notable estates and gardens in the upscale Montecito residential enclave (this area is also noted for many celebrity estates); and the family-friendly Ty Warner Sea Center on Stearns Wharf (www.sbnature.org/seacenter).
Where to stay
The Eagle Inn, within a block of the beach, is a hidden jewel. This small, tastefully decorated boutique property, with thirty-one rooms, exudes a sense of welcome and joie de vivre. Accommodations are superb, especially the newer rooms located to the rear of the property (www.theeagleinn.com). If you prefer a Bed and Breakfast, look no further than the Cheshire Cat. The rooms are cozy and comfortable, and Alice in Wonderland aficionados will enjoy tasteful literary references like rooms named Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum, and Mad Hatter (www.cheshirecat.com).
For those who want to stay at one of the finest resorts on the West Coast for a special occasion getaway, the Four Seasons Biltmore is a perfect choice. This grand dame has recently undergone a multi-million dollar renovation thanks to new owner Ty Warner, of Beanie Baby fame. Always a favorite of the premier resorts, it’s hard to believe it could improve, but it has. If your pocketbook can handle the pricey rates, it’s more than worth a stay here (www.fourseasons.com/santabarbara). For those on a tight budget, we’d recommend the Cabrillo Inn on East Beach, offering the lowest local rates we could find. Although the rooms are modest, the complimentary breakfasts are unbelievably first-rate, with options like quiche, ham-filled croissants, and banana-nut breads, and the inn boasts beautiful ocean views (www.cabrillo-inn.com).
Where to dine
The culinary scene in Santa Barbara has choices to satisfy anyone’s price range or ethnic preferences. Here are a few to whet your appetite. Any meal at the Biltmore or the famous celebrity club across the road, the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club, should be on your list. Bouchon, an intimate cafe serving wine country cuisine, is one of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in town and certainly worth a reservation (www.bouchonsantabarbara.com). Downey’s, another critics’ favorite, has been providing memorable dinners and impeccable service for over twenty years, with a focus on organic and local selections. Recent dinners at both Bouchon and Downey’s were flat-out exceptional (www.downeyssb.com). For breakfast, don’t miss the original Sambo’s, a waterfront landmark for over fifty years, and still serving tasty pancakes and complimentary chocolate chip and blueberry muffins (www.sambosrestaurant.com). We also enjoyed dinners at Blue Agave, a locals favorite for nightlife and global fusion cuisine, and the Endless Summer Bar-Cafe, a funky surfers hangout at the harbor. Other foodie faves deserving readers’ consideration: Pierre Lafond Bistro/Wine Bar; Café Buenos Aires; Louie’s California Bistro; Andersen’s Bakery; and Pascucci Restaurant.
Where to shop
Santa Barbara doesn’t house a singular upscale street like Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, where only high priced stores flaunt their wares. Instead, plenty of fine stores are tucked in neatly along Santa Barbara’s main thoroughfare, State Street, mixed in with quirky boutiques and shops (www.santabarbaradowntown.com), and the most upscale of shopping is located sporadically along Coast Village Road in Montecito. Paseo Nuevo, in the heart of the vibrant downtown, is a beautiful Spanish ambience shopping center with over fifty of the more well-known shopping destinations, the likes of the Gap, Victoria’s Secret, and L’Occitane, anchored by Nordstrom
Santa Barbara’s sheer beauty, abundant history, and myriad of activities and attractions should enhance every moment of your stay. Above all, when all the excitement and diversions are said and done, Santa Barbara is always a dream destination for relaxation, more than anything else.
For more information on everything Santa Barbara: Visit the Conference and Visitors Bureau’s easy-to-navigate web site at www.santabarbaraca.com.