Among the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, I strolled along a wooded path, my husband Peter trailing behind. We were exploring the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, where new growth sprouted among trees charred by a 2009 fire. The juxtaposition of nature’s extremes was startling yet reassuring.
As we rounded the trail, a rock jutted from the twisted roots of an ancient tree. Inscribed on a small plaque affixed to the rock was a quote that summed up my feelings about California and, for that matter, life in general: “There for the seeing is all loveliness.” The words seemed somewhat ironic since a voracious fire had ravaged the garden the year before. Yet the lessons inherent in nature’s resilience were clearly evident and seemed to offer insight into life’s other transitions as well.
Waxing poetic came naturally to me during my visit to Santa Barbara last summer. Perhaps the stunning landscape prompted me to think deep thoughts. Then again maybe the region’s sublime food and wine contributed to my euphoria, which in turn made me ponder the meaning of life. Vacations are good for the soul, I’ve always believed, because they give you pause, time to reflect and consider where you are in life and where you’re going.
When Peter and I journeyed to Southern California last August to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we took our time, slowing down to smell the lavender and taste the shiraz. Instead of busy L.A., we chose to explore Santa Barbara, known as the American Riviera, about 100 up the coast. We balanced our visit between oceanfront Santa Barbara proper, where trendy sophisticates mingle with beach-loving bohemians, and Santa Barbara County beyond the Santa Ynez Mountains to the north, where some of California’s best wine growers are found along with excellent opportunities for camping, hiking, and horseback riding.
Movie stars gravitate to the area, an easy escape from L.A.’s insanity, and while real estate is indeed on the pricey side, you don’t have to be rich to enjoy a relaxing vacation in Santa Barbara. Take heed, however: once you arrive, the loveliness you see around you will stir your soul, making it hard to say goodbye.
Our hotel in Santa Barbara, the Franciscan Inn, was just a few blocks from the ocean and close to State Street, Santa Barbara’s main thoroughfare, making it a perfect home base. After checking in, we took a quick beach walk and then wandered over to State Street, where a variety of restaurants, shops, and galleries welcome visitors and residents alike.
Aldo’s Italian Restaurant, a fixture on State Street since 1986, proved to be a popular dining spot with its old-world ambiance, and Peter and I relished a sumptuous feast there our first evening: caprése salad with imported mozzarella, blackened sea bass, and veal saltimbocca topped with prosciutto and gorgonzola. Our wine, a Daniel Gehrs merlot, revealed hints of violet and blueberry and paired perfectly with our hearty entrees. Spumoni, a mixture of pistachio, chocolate, and vanilla ice cream with bits of chocolate and maraschino cherries, capped off our wonderful meal.
The next morning after our lovely stroll through the botanical garden, we stopped by the Santa Barbara Mission, built in 1786, one of 21 California missions founded by Spanish Franciscans and still home to a community of friars. You can take a guided tour or wander around the grounds, admiring the historic architecture and enchanting gardens.
Back on State Street, we lunched at Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro, where sidewalk tables offered the perfect setting to enjoy the gorgeous weather while dining on gourmet cuisine. For starters we sampled hummus with grilled garlic flatbread accompanied by a delightfully zesty pickled carrot salad. Next we ordered a luscious roasted beet salad—tiny flavorful bits of beets molded into a circle and served on a bed of arugula topped with goat cheese—and a grilled artichoke stuffed with roasted garlic mushroom duxelle, a flavor explosion. For our main course we shared a Kobe burger accented with balsamic marinated onions and garlic aioli, cooked to a perfect medium rare. Peter chose a Lafond shiraz to accompany his lunch while I opted for a Santa Barbara cab.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the great food and people watching on State Street, but someone had recommended we visit the nearby Santa Barbara Courthouse, a stunning mission-style building that has served as the seat of local government since 1926 and is now a national historic landmark. We joined a tour led by docent Jim Wright, whose enthusiasm for the courthouse was contagious. He pointed out Gothic elements—a dramatic rose window—alongside Moorish features—tiles from Tunesia—and led us through a mural room depicting Californian history, where artists perched on scaffolding toiled away at restoring the faded paint. Sunken gardens outside offer excellent photo opps, Jim said, and noted that the courthouse is a popular spot for weddings.
From there Peter and I headed to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum by the harbor, where fishing boats bobbed beside multi-million dollar yachts and sailboats. Greg Gorga, the museum’s executive director, told us the museum was originally a WPA project and now features 7000-square feet of display space. Exhibits included Survival at Sea, boat models, commercial fishing and diving, shipwrecks, surfing, and a riveting exhibit about the 1923 Honda Point disaster, one of the U.S. Navy’s most costly peacetime accidents, in which seven Navy destroyers ran aground north of the Santa Barbara Channel.
All this history was making me thirsty, the perfect reason to check out the Urban Wine Trail, 11 downtown tasting rooms showcasing Santa Barbara’s best wines. The two we visited were Kunin, where we met a chatty young couple from Florida, and Kalyra, an Australian-themed venue owned by—who else—an Australian named Mike who was drawn to Santa Barbara by the surf and the vibrant winemaking culture. We loved Kalyra’s mellow Sangiovese and flavorful old-vine zinfandel, both of which would pair well with steaks on the barbie!
Before dinner we rented bikes from Wheel Fun Rentals across from Stearns Wharf and took a refreshing ride along the beachfront, where miles of paved trails promise serious and casual cyclists a picturesque outing. Then we headed to dinner at one of Santa Barbara’s hottest restaurants, Olio e Limone. The place was packed, but our server—Benjamin from Chile—was solicitous and charming. Delicately flavored asparagus soup started us on a culinary journey that included marinated grilled quail served on fresh greens and topped with goat cheese; tasty sea bass, the fresh fish of the day; and sliced beef tenderloin mounded on a thin potato tart and topped with arugula, shaved parmesan, and truffle oil. Are you hungry yet? No wonder Zagat rated Olio e Limone a 10!
The next morning we skipped breakfast, said goodbye to the beach, and headed up into the hills. The Santa Ynez Mountains actually reach a height of 4700 feet, and as Peter and I learned, it’s possible to get up above the clouds. We decided to explore a bit and followed a winding road that went up and up and up until we were literally looking down at a fluffy white pillow that stretched to the horizon—the blanket of fog that hugs the coastline on summer mornings, cloaking Santa Barbara in a gray cocoon. Up in the mountains, however, the sun shone intensely, and the view undulated for miles. We spent some time marveling at nature’s loveliness before continuing on to Santa Ynez Valley, where we’d scheduled a trail ride at Rancho-Oso Guest Ranch and Stables.
Santa Ynez Valley, which parallels the mountain range, features varying micro-climates, a result of the mountains’ unique east-west pattern, ensuring that you can always find weather you like: you just have to look for it. Ranch-Oso Guest Ranch spreads out across 300 acres of arid, rugged landscape dotted with oaks and evergreens. You can rent campers, cabins, and covered wagons or bring your own equipment and enjoy amenities such as children’s activities, swimming, tennis, and campfire fun. Horse owners can brings their mounts to Rancho Oso and enjoy miles of trails, or you can go on a trail ride as Peter and I did, meandering through woods and across meadows, communing with nature.
Afterwards we checked into the Santa Ynez Inn, which offers lovely accommodations in an elegant Victorian-themed property in the peaceful town of Santa Ynez. Spacious rooms featuring stylish decor and large bathrooms ensure the comfort of guests, who also enjoy made-to-order gourmet breakfasts and wine tastings in the afternoon. Next door to the Santa Ynez Inn, the Vineyard House welcomes visitors with an outdoor patio, an extensive menu, and jazz “on the deck” on Wednesday evenings.
That afternoon we explored Solvang, a miniature Denmark not far from Santa Ynez. Its unique architecture and charming European vibe attract busloads of tourists, but the town felt a little too Disney-esque to Peter and me, so we found our way to nearby Nojoqui Falls, where a short, sweet hike leads you past lush ferns to a peaceful waterfall. Close to Nojoqui Falls, Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort offers luxury accommodations, golf, and 10,000 acres to explore on horseback.
Not long ago I’d connected with a former boyfriend on Facebook whom I hadn’t seen in decades. Mark lives in nearby Los Olivos with his wife, Rebecca, so Peter and I joined them for an enjoyable evening of pizza, pinot, and reminiscing. We talked about the paths we’d followed in life and how where you are is never as important as who you are.
The next day we took Mark’s advice and headed to Demetria Estate, an out-of the-way winery well worth the scenic drive. After following winding private roads and entering codes in automatic gates, we found ourselves in a stunning setting that looked like Greece. An inviting patio next to a Mediterranean-inspired tasting room overlooked lush hillsides studded with verdant vines, each bearing clumps of grapes. As the sun washed over us, the inspiring blue sky prompted reflective moments enhanced by sips of Demetria’s stellar wines. My favorite was Cuvee Constantine, a ruby red that burst with berry flavors.
Wineries abound in Santa Barbara County, and you could spend days scudding like clouds from one winery to the next. Peter and I didn’t have days, however, just an afternoon, so we left Demetria reluctantly and drove to Clairmont Lavender Farm, where the proprietor’s son, Sean, gave us a lesson in how to distill essential oils. I bought some lovely lavender oil to bring home as a souvenir. Next we visited Global Gardens in Los Olivos for a tasting and enjoyed local products, like olive oil and salsa. Peter and I also checked out Jedlicka’s Saddlery, where cowboy hats and boots help you get in touch with your inner cowgirl.
For dinner that evening we delighted in the creations of Chef Bud Kazali, who reigns over the kitchen at The Ballard Inn and Restaurant in the small town of Ballard. The cozy venue offers dining on the veranda as well as inside in the tastefully decorated dining room. Chef Bud’s globally inspired cuisine has garnered numerous awards for his restaurants, and after our meal Peter and I could easily see why. From Kurobota pork belly (Vitamin P, our server said) and Hamachi sashimi to rack of lamb and pan-seared duck breast, our meal at the Ballard was over the top.
As we toasted to the final evening of our vacation, Peter and I could only concur that…There for the seeing all of Santa Barbara is indeed loveliness.
For more information, visit www.santabarbaraca.com.