Santa Barbara Travel Therapy
By Christopher Ludgate
Senior Travel Writer
Busting out of a hyper-focused pandemic slumber, it’s been a joy to see this collective release of pent-up tension from so many colleagues across the map.
So much travel inspiration, and so much to see domestically! It felt like a frenzied freedom quest culminating in a wildly cathartic discharge of wanderlust…
For me, the choice was obvious. I set my sights on a classic west coast escape; complete with a black Mustang convertible, dazzling landscapes, sunshine everywhere, California beach vibes, and cool wind in my hair …you catch my drift.
Also game for getting out and about for some west coast adventure was my travel buddy, Steve, who was all-in for the sophisticated-bohemian flair of Santa Barbara, where Hollywood royalty sits snug in the hills, and sprawling ubiquitous Spanish-revival red-tile architecture mingles with a striking allure upon nature’s canvas.
The lovely and picturesque American Riviera with its unassuming, yet classic central coast charms was the ideal setting to reboot my stifled great explorer.
I found myself still resonating with an introspective kind of attitude that seemed to eventually become part of many lives over these couple of stressful past years with no desire for garish settings and wild parties and all that distracting noisy crap.
I had more interest in getting out there and just connecting one-on-one with people and culture, and nature again… Not to mention the food and the wine, naturally.
An ideal setting for enjoying the great outdoors whenever plausible, Steve and I opted to go green upon arrival in Santa B. from LAX. The ultimate convertible by way of two-peddles and a handlebar instead of relying too much on the fossil fuel route was apropos here as the county is one of the top CA biking destinations offering casual sightseeing, going from point A to point B, and many official bike trails.
Dubbed the American Riviera by many, Santa Barbara’s beloved temperate climate boasts a clean, pedestrian-friendly environment along the coastal Cabrillo Blvd. stretch with lush gardens, boutiques, eateries, and those towering palm trees.
There was plenty of nautical panache to instantly set the mood upon arrival.
These are a few of the reasons I was excited for the newly refurbished Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort across from East Beach.
The open-air beachfront dining was alluring from sunrise to sunset. The pool, activity areas, terraces, and the sprawling greenery that embraced the grounds’ classic revival houses and shaded peaceful nooks presented opportunities for a bit of beachfront meditative bliss, too.
Hilton Santa Barbara proudly informs all guests that it does participate in the brand’s Clean Stay Program. And, of course, it is recommended to check for updates regarding the latest safety and health protocols.
In addition to providing an ideal location, we could actually be in the great outdoors with the option of either walking or biking to the many nearby attractions like Stearns Wharf pier and that famed marina and even up to Andrée Clark Bird Refuge where birders can spot some of the region’s 500 species.
The hassle-free bike loans on-site were a breeze to take advantage of. That said, the local bike-share system is also expected to be expanded along the waterfront.
Santa Barbara’s Iconic Waterfront
After our welcome glass of wine at check-in that late afternoon, we journeyed over to the lively pier, passing its dolphin fountain and marina where it’s said some boat-owners rode out quarantine. Strolling by the pier’s old-school restaurants with their wafting fish fry and peeking into its little candy shops harkened familiar whiffs of nostalgic Americana.
At the end of the pier, Steve and I soon climbed aboard the Azure Sunset Sail with Celebration Cruises, easing back into some semblance of normal on the open seas with a small crew of other travelers.
The view from our craft revealed a unique dynamic of nature here with a mist haloing the silhouette of the Santa Ynez Mountains peaks. The sweeping hillside vineyards cascaded along just below. Remote homes peppered the descending slope before the seaside town spread out to eventually meet harboring bluffs and distinctive beaches …A pretty picture to paint, for sure.
The sun was well into its daily dive. Along the bend of the bow, powerful little waves threw off sparkles of light as the vessel circled back. It was then that we noticed a family of seals staring up with a seemingly inquisitive look. Yeah, the humans are back, guys, I thought. It was clearly more their sanctuary than mine. Staying in the moment, I welcomed this resilient but delicate symbiosis of nature in my scope; an essence possessing poetry all its own.
Day-tripping in Lotusland
Where to begin? This is what you might ask yourself upon arrival of the exotic, 37-acre botanical gardens named Lotusland, tucked away in the foothills of Santa Barbara County’s Montecito. Created by Polish native, Madame Ganna Walska, a one-time opera singer turned mystic who lived from 1887 to 1984, Lotusland is unique and immersive, an artful botanical playground.
Walska, whose autobiography, Always Room at the Top, recounts parts of her fascinating life, spent 43 years as the devoted designer and curator of these gardens. Originally purchased by her and husband number six, yogi scholar, Theos Bernard, the intent was to create a retreat for Tibetan monks. The Montecito estate which Walska herself renamed Lotusland after the sacred Indian bloom, came to boast one of the most eclectic horticulture collections in the world with roots just as wide.
Madame Walska cultivated her passions in a deep devotion resulting in the often eccentric, sometimes whimsical, and occasionally abrupt dreamlike design.
And it seems as if Ganna is still present among the gardens. Our docent revealed, that whenever a new idea presents itself for the ever-growing garden, the designers ask, “What would Ganna do?”
Docents are available for tours and reservations are required, but it’s a soothing delight to just wander or get lost in, figuratively and literally. Events and educational programs are also part of the botanical wonder. Designated plaques with Q codes will also inform along the way during a self-tour where we felt free to let our senses guide us.
Copious bird breeds frolicked overhead and probably many other creatures, too. Walking through the flourishing landscape between dense wispy willows, Zen gardens, English Rose gardens, and fountains, then onto open pathways and into lush pockets of obscure flora like the blooming Tillandsia, and that impeccably manicured cacti garden… I gathered that like most museums, one just couldn’t easily take in this botanical wonder with just one visit.
Detour to Summerland
At the bottom of the hills of chic Montecito in between the busy highways and the steep cliffed beach is a little compact town called Summerland. With a name like that, we had to explore a bit.
We stopped at local Field + Fort for some refreshments and while they crafted our drinks, we perused their shelves of stylish home goods geared towards tastes for elevated living and low-key luxury. I wouldn’t doubt that local resident Oprah has been here.
We wandered next door to peruse Sacred Space’s space and admire their statues of Buddha and other symbols of the esoteric philosophical kind. Inside, useful supplies one might use for Far East-inspired interior design, rites, and rituals were displayed throughout the boutique.
Antique stores and various markets peppered the hill descending toward Summerland’s Lookout Point which looked perfect for a sunset picnic or surf watching. A painter stood with his easel in the distance absorbed in the scene. Horseback riders trotted along the sand below and a sign pointed to a path towards the new Bocci ball courts. Summerland, indeed. But alas, we had other places to be this time around.
Another Santa Barbara must-do is the Red Tile Walking Tour which encompasses a few of the county’s neighborhoods. Many notables are located downtown where glimpses of several classic Spanish-revival abodes with the classic white stucco and their distinctive eye-catching red tile roofs can be explored up close during the self-tour.
The self-tour approach to exploring this important part of Santa B. trivia made for casual on-the-go spotting of these treasures.
The history of these significant architectural structures includes Old Mission and the County Courthouse which embraces a gorgeous gem of a courtyard within and attracts many as an ideal setting for nuptials. Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, being noteworthy among those.
Downtown offers much to explore from historic theaters to remote pathways to stylish cafes, including Cat Therapy for relaxing chamomile with some feline characters and a cuddle.
One of my new favorite discoveries for lunch one beautiful afternoon downtown was Olio e Limone Ristorante on Victoria Street. As an Italophile with an upscale rustic taste, I wanted to try all three of the classic Italian fare establishment choices owned by Elaine Morello. But Olio e Limone with its outstanding wine selection and the relaxed but elegant vibe was the go-to this time.
Husband of Elaine, Alberto, is the head chef and their passionate mission in both front and back of the house is all about the “integrity of the ingredients and the quality of the preparation to offer Santa Barbara creative, authentic Italian cuisine served in an inviting atmosphere.” I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Buzzed in the Funk Zone
Born out of the old local industrial hub from the 19th century, Funk Zone is a 13-block mixed-use area right off the waterfront. Repurposed warehouses and manufacturing plants have been transformed by creative entrepreneurs, establishing a supportive community and subculture of artists and showcase galleries interspersed with boutiques.
An array of choices ranging from casual to sophisticated eats also thrives here. Reminiscent of what the Hamptons used to be, it’s diverse, laid-back, and unpretentious; a stylish bohemian neighborhood with a catchy, unique vibe.
Part of the area’s transformation includes some exciting and eclectic tasting rooms as part of the Urban Wine Trail.
Particularly notable to my preferences of Rhone blends and Sauvignons were The Valley Project and nearby Kunin Wines, both of which are owned by the delightfully affable Magan Kunin, who we made fast friends with during tastings of her impressive small-batch collection from the local American Viticultural Areas.
Inside Valley Project, the finishing touches were just being completed on LA artist, Elkpen’s, epic mural behind the tasting bar as we popped in to take a look before sitting out on the terrace. The illustration depicts the region’s vast terroir with a comprehensive overview of its six appellations and 80 grape varieties, including insights into the soils and microclimates of the region.
A captivating conversation piece for sure, Kunin herself described the map and some bits about the diversity and complexities of the region.
She explained some of her processes as we geared up for TVP’s soft, yet bright rosé.
“We use the same kind of neutral type of winemaking in everything that we do, so not a lot of oak influence… There’s a lot of purity in our wines which makes it more interesting to taste.”
We ventured on and took a deep dive down the street at Kunin Wines with the winemaker and collective faves, Pape Star 2016 (a Rhone blend), and a Zin that officially tipped us past the buzz zone at 17% AVB.
The generous tastings were easily comparable in palate to any I’ve done throughout France. And while back home in the city, I scoured and, indeed scored that velvety Pape Star, at a little shop under the Brooklyn Bridge. It was that good.
Rendezvous with Venus
It was a given I’d add Venus in Furs to the sophisticated bohemian happy hour itinerary on a local’s suggestion. This swanky establishment off of popular State Street’s pedestrian-only promenade in Santa Barbara’s lively unofficial restaurant district oozes a Velvet Underground era type of influence and even provides a “curated playlist of upbeat proto-punk and new wave rock that sets this wine bar apart.”
Commanding attention through the industrial-sized windows is the ultra-cool centerpiece bar where deco-style cocktails and natural wines of local and global origin flow. Sexy deep colors and artistic touches were bathed in chandelier lighting.
Like the entire neighborhood, which also offers lots of retail therapy prospects, Venus has taken to embracing the outdoor service thing, too, creating a blend of patrons filling the air with joyful energy here, live music there… the whole pedestrian promenade situation has become all the rage and may just stick around from what I hear. There was plenty of flavor spilling onto the street from the street-pens that evening during another gorgeous sunset.
I enjoyed selections from the ‘Electric Whites’ wine list and Steve enjoyed the ‘Real Wild Child’ cocktail which incorporates “French vermouths, cucumber, lime, and zero inhibitions” among other tempting ingredients. The concept of this contemporary spot includes a rotating chef in residence and offers an array of tasty small plates from their Provisions menu, saving us room for dinner around the corner this particular night.
Love Letter at Loquita’s
We soon headed down the street for a date with Loquita, another raved-about spot with its authentic Spanish cuisine, its tapas, paella, and cultural cocktails.
The waitlist had people lined up, but willing to wait it out as we were ushered to our seats. ‘Loquita’ translates into a colloquial term for a wild and fun-loving girl. They opened their doors in 2016 with a locally sourced menu created under Executive Chef, Jasmine Shimoda. The menu is admittedly an open love letter to the Spanish origins and history of Santa Barbara.
The chic partially open-air courtyard had lovely touches complete with a double fireplace and elegant cultural flavor. The aromas from the open kitchen permeated our senses instantly. As does often happen with tapas, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, and when the delectably savory paella with tempura squash blossoms, avocado, and tomato rallado was served after our starters, we had to take a break to make room, so be prepared to take your time, Madrid style!
Sweet Spot Helena’s
An ideal area for meandering on foot while buzzed, the vicinity is also very bike-friendly (sober, of course). One morning, Steve and I rode over to Helena Avenue Bakery a highly recommended bakery run within the Santa Barbara Wine Collective’s repurposed old fish market warehouse.
Offering an eclectic showcase of savory and sweet provisions for any time of day, with libations including coffees and kombucha, the setting was charmingly artisan with indoor/outdoor seating available.
The bustling kitchen is part of the atmosphere with the culinary action in view from the glass counter showcase of fresh abundant temptations.
The avocado toast, which is done flawlessly here, with some sweet treats shared with Steve and our new local friend, Karna, on the patio, and that quintessential central coast climate hit all the right notes to start the day. It’s a pretty cool nook to get a glimpse of the local life, too.