Most people living in Los Angeles have visited Santa Barbara at least once. Either they went as a child for a weekend of family fun on the beach, as a college student to partake in the party scene in Isla Vista (where the University of California at Santa Barbara is located), as adults for a romantic getaway, or just because it’s a close and fun little jaunt. In my case, as a native Los Angeleno, I’ve done all four.
Santa Barbara is located 90 miles north of Los Angeles, 25 minutes north of Ventura, and 40 miles south of Solvang, at the unofficial border between Northern and Southern California. Throughout the city Spanish Colonial architecture is fused with modern details, giving it a casual elegance lacking in many other California beach towns. The throngs of famous residents, including Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe, parallel the boatloads of college students who populate State Street by night.
From the Missions to Hollywood
The city has a storied history from its missionary days, when in 1786 The Santa Barbara Mission became the tenth of the 21 California missions founded by the Spanish Franciscans, and a romantic history as well. Hollywood icons like Sir Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, Rock Hudson, and more recently, Gwyneth Paltrow, choose the upscale beach town as the locale for their nuptials. Their familiarity with it is no surprise – it was home to California’s first major movie studios and film’s early pioneers. In fact, legendary director Cecil B. DeMille once shot its beaches for the sandscape scenes in The Ten Commandments.
In years past, the city has seen everyone from Albert Einstein and author T.C. Boyle and was host to one of the nation’s first Earth Day celebrations in 1970. Today, some music fans recognize it as being the birthplace of pop star Katy Perry. Such visitors, natives, and interests make Santa Barbara somewhat of a mecca for the talented, intellectual, environmentally-minded and creative types. The city has also earned a reputation for being the American Riviera with its natural beauty, pristine beaches, and local-inspired gourmet cuisine, combined with great shopping and activities. It is sophisticated and simple, refined yet relaxed.
A New Brand of Hyatt Boutique Hotels
My last trip to Santa Barbara in September was prompted by an invite from the Hyatt Santa Barbara to join them in the celebration of their newly-renovated property. Built in 1931, and opened as the Mar Monte, the hotel is conveniently located along the waterfront, less than two miles from the pier and State Street. It recently completed the first phase of a top-to-bottom remodel of the public spaces and meeting areas, as well as the pool and fitness center. Although the property features 171 well-appointed rooms and a full service restaurant and bar, Bistro Eleven Eleven, this is one of the first in a new brand of Hyatt boutique hotels that cater to those looking for a more individualized experience. The contemporary design of the hotel space incorporates the Spanish tradition present throughout Santa Barbara.
Whetting the Appetite
The menu in Bistro 1111, created by new Execute Chef Martin Alcala, puts a jazzy spin on contemporary California cuisine and American standards.
For an appetizer, try the Jumbo Lime Shrimp, grilled to order, and served with roasted corn guacamole, fresh cilantro, and warm tortilla chips ($13), and the Organic Prosciutto Wrapped Scallops, which feature local scallops topped with an aged balsamic reduction and basil oil, and served on a bed of micro greens and warm ciabatta.
For dinner, you won’t go wrong with the Merlot Braised Short Ribs, served with Santa Maria Cipolin a Jus, Parmesan Yukon Mashed Potatoes, Baby Carrots, and a delightful Parmesan Crisp ($25), or the Santa Barbara Surf & Turf, a grilled Filet Mignon drizzled with a port demi-glaze, and a meaty lump crab cake served with chipotle mayo and avocado relish. The dish is complemented with chanterelle mushroom risotto ($34).
While desserts in the restaurant are delicious (if Chef Martin is serving the chocolate terrine that night, get it!), you can bring out your inner child as I did by having Peaches ‘n Cream delivered to your room as a late night treat. The cream has a perfect hint of sweet cinnamon and vanilla that tops the dark cinnamon graham crackers and delicately spiced peaches.
Take a ride on the Zoo Train
You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy The Santa Barbara Zoo. As an animal-lover I prefer to see them in their natural habitats rather than confined but the Santa Barbara Zoo has a more natural setting that doesn’t seem quite so “zoo-like.” It also has an impressive conservation program that has helped native endangered species like the California Condor to thrive. In the 1970’s the species was down to 22 birds. Today there are over 400.
The property itself has views of the surrounding mountains and ocean from its 30 acres, and has approximately 500 animals in their care. While there, don’t miss a ride on the Zoo Train, one of two C.P Huntington trains that circle the Zoo’s perimeter.
For an insider’s tour of the zoo, consider the VIP Experience Backstage Pass, in which you work alongside an experienced zookeeper, enjoying interactive encounters with your favorite animals, such as feeding giraffes and elephants.
The day I visited, staff was guarding flamingos with a water hose and several smaller animals were put away due to a resident Bald Eagle who had perched itself next to none other than, the California Condors’ nests for the two weeks prior, stalking easy prey at the zoo. It is currently Condor breeding season. (To get a bird’s eye view, the zoo set up a live web cam of the breeding enclosure, which is off-limits to the public.) In 2013, the Zoo will celebrate its 50th Anniversary of being a staple in the Santa Barbara community.
From the farms to the tables
The Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market is considered “world famous” and while it is relatively similar to anything you might find in your local neighborhood (minus the mission figs, Meyer lemons, Walnut oils, and wild mushrooms), there are several
reasons to visit. Mingling with local artisans and farmers is the best way to get a real sense of the culture of a place, and in Santa Barbara, the support of and passion for local produce and farm-to-table cuisine is unique.
One such restaurant featuring local is the Wine Cask. Restauranteur Mitchell Sjerven took it over in 2009, and since then the hot spot has been recognized and in some cases, awarded, for everything from its food and wine to its support of the community. The wine list is impressive, featuring many wines from the surrounding regional vineyards, and servers are knowledgeable in pairing them with your entrée of choice.
The main dining room is a perfect setting for a romantic evening, as is the more casual outdoor patio with its gentle light strands that give an aura of being in a seaside town in Northern Italy.
I spent my evening there in the elegant private dining room with local business owners, active residents, and others who shared an interest in promoting all that Santa Barbara has to offer. This included the Hyatt’s sales manager Jim Rice, Hyatt’s general manager Barry Prescott, and local television host/producer of “Dinner Party Art,” Rebecca Brand. Collectively, they shared their love of the arts and the creative spirit invigorated by their sands and surf, and passionately agreed and disagreed on the best vineyards to visit in Santa Barbara Wine Country, but all worthy of a day trip.
To the vines
Santa Barbara and its 22,000 acres of vineyards was on the map for wine long before the 2004 film Sideways catapulted Pinot Noir to Hollywood stardom. With plenty of sun and an unusual east-west running mountain range, where cool ocean air and fog is funneled to the vines to moderate temperatures and extend the growing season. The results are balanced grapes, rich in flavor and ripeness, not to mention diverse – the microclimate allows for temperatures to increase by one degree per mile, allowing for a broad variety of grapes to thrive.
While many vineyards and tasting rooms are worthy of mention, one winery that stands out above most is Melville. Not only is the setting tranquil (enjoy a picnic overlooking the vines), it is one of the few remaining Estate wineries. For those who don’t know, Estate bottled wines must come strictly from grapes that are either owned by the winery or under its direct viticultural control through a long-term lease. The wine must be completely produced, aged, and bottled at the winery. Today only three percent in the country are truly “Estate” wineries.
During my visit, I was given a tour by tasting room manager and events coordinator, Elske Free Daigle, whose insight and outspokenness was equally stimulating and educational. In years of tasting, no one has ever so precisely explained to me why a certain wine may taste incredible to me and not to someone else, or vice versa. She spoke of how wine descriptions are created – by a group of tasters who gather, discuss, and collaborate on the most common scents or flavors that come out for them. She scientifically explained the difference between the number of taste buds men and women have (women have more), and how each individual experiences taste uniquely. It begged me to ask, “if that’s the case, and we all experience wine differently, then what difference do wine reviews make?” to which she answered with a smile, “exactly.”
Being a tourist
One of the best, most relaxing ways to see the sights and get a sense of the landscape is to take a Trolley tour. Two of my favorites along the way, besides of course the fabulous Santa Barbara Mission which is an absolute must-see, were the Chromatic Gate rainbow art statue on the East Beach Waterfront, and the largest fig tree in Santa Barbara, with a canopy the size of one-third an acre and 50 feet in diameter.
The sculpture is an ode to a Chumash Indian legend that said that there are rainbow bridges to heaven. If you fall off on your way, you become a dolphin. The sculpture’s famed creator, Herbert Bayer, was an industrial, environmental, and graphic designer who dabbled in architecture, painting, sculpting, and photography. He is best known as the last surviving master of Germany’s renowned Bauhaus school. There, Bayer studied under the likes of legendary artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy. The sculpture was erected in 1991 as a memorial to both Bayer and his wife, Joella, by Paul Mills, the longest-serving Art Director at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
How to get there
Santa Barbara is an easy 1.5-hour drive from Los Angeles taking the 101 Freeway North. If choosing to fly, United, American, US Airways, Frontier, and Alaska Airlines all offer direct flights to Santa Barbara from various cities including Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, and San Francisco.
View Larger Map
Watch a slideshow of Lindsay’s trip to Santa Barbara here:
For more information:
Hyatt Santa Barbara (www.santabarbara.hyatt.com)
1111 East Cabrillo Boulevard, 805-882-1234 Room rates start at $160 per night.
Santa Barbara Zoo (www.sbzoo.org)
500 Niños Drive, 805-962-5339, Open 10 to 5 PM every day except Christmas, and 10 to 3 PM on Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Entrance fees for adults 13-64: $12, Children 2-12/Seniors 65+: $10, Children under 2: Free; Zoo Train: SB Zoo Members, $2.75, Non-members $3.50. Children under 2: free. (VIP Backstage Pass: $200 for Adults, $75 for children 17 and under); Parking is $5.
Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market
232 Anacapa Street (between Yanonali St. and Montecito St.), 805-962-5354
Every Tuesday and Saturday.
Santa Barbara Trolley (www.sbtrolley.com)
Trolleys run every 15 minutes with 14 pickups and stops around town. One stop is conveniently located across the street from the Hyatt on Cabrillo. Tickets are $19 for adults, with one child included; $8 per additional child; the fully-narrated tour takes approximately 90 minutes. (Note: You can get a free cup of clam chowder from the Santa Barbara FisHouse by showing your trolley ticket)
This trip was sponsored in part by the Hyatt Santa Barbara.
About the Author: Lindsay Taub is an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience as a writer/editor/photographer covering travel, lifestyle, culture, arts, food, health, and all facets that make life a journey. Follow her on twitter @lindsaytaub58.