Exploring Santa Barbara, the "American Riviera"

After more than two years apart due to the pandemic, I found myself reuniting with my East Coast mother in Santa Barbara. Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara boasts temperatures in the 70s year-round and has about 80 cloudy days a year. Even though we arrived during May gray, that wasn’t going to stop me from showing my mom the beauty of Santa Barbara, including its red-tile roofs, classic Spanish Revival architecture, culinary delights and coastal beauty. Recently included on Conde Nast Traveler’s “Hot List” for travel destinations in 2021, Santa Barbara was the only California locale mentioned.

We checked in to The Eagle Inn, located a block from the beach. The quaint Spanish Mission-style B&B features private balconies and patios and in-room fireplaces and spa tubs. Each morning complimentary made to order breakfast arrived at our door. From this West Beach neighborhood my mom admired the surrounding homes as we walked a short distance to the historic Stearns Wharf pier above the sprawling beach. Completed in 1872, it became the longest and deepest water wharf between San Pedro and San Francisco, serving passenger and freight shipping needs for over a quarter of a century. Our mission was to dine at the end of the pier at one of Julia Child’s favorite lunch spots—the Santa Barbara Shellfish Co. where local uni arrived plated over raw sea scallops and sliced limes. I couldn’t get my mom interested in the sea urchin, but she sure loved the fresh mussels, clam chowder and crab cakes!

Afterwards we only had to cross the pier to board a 70-foot vessel with Celebration Cruises’ Azure Seas for an hour and a half sunset sail. We huddled to keep warm, captivated by the Santa Barbara coastline, where the Santa Ynez mountains meet the sea.

The next day we walked a few minutes from our hotel to the Funk Zone, an exciting area with 13 blocks bustling with eateries, wine tasting rooms, street murals, artist studios, art galleries, craft breweries and boutique shops. Once a manufacturing hub in the 19th century, this area is home to the city’s urban wine trail, a self-guided tour of over 20 tasting rooms representing Santa Barbara County wines. Sip a sparkling wine tasting flight at Riverbench, craft brews from Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., or artisanal spirits from Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, the city’s first distillery since Prohibition.

Stroll over to Lucky Penny for lunch where actual pennies cover the restaurant exterior. Place your sandwich, salad or pizza order and dine outside on a muffaletta or wood-fired pizza, like The Salty Surfer with prosciutto and pineapple. Don’t miss the FROSE or Italian sodas in flavors like pistachio honey and blood orange. For a fancier dinner in the Funk Zone, try Spanish tapas and craft cocktails at Loquita.

The main artery, State Street, is now car-free with wine bars and restaurants spilling onto sidewalks. Nearby in the historic Presidio my mom and I bonded even more sipping a sensational red and white tasting flight outside at the new Sevtap Winery located next to Lobero Theatre. The winemaker “Art” Sevtap is a former baker for Emeril Lagasse, so freshly baked breads like rosemary Kalamata and focaccia plus tapas make a nice addition to the Sevtap wines sourced from grapes from the Santa Ynez region. It was impossible not to leave without Sevtap bottles of Happy Canyon’s Sunday Kind of Love, La Presa’s Dry Riesling, and Martian’s Grenache Rose.

Afterward, we zigzagged our way over to La Paloma Café, a bustling restaurant with plenty of outdoor seating that celebrates the early California settlers who used Spanish and Mexican influences with indigenous ingredients cooked over fire. We shared oak-grilled Crispy Brussels Sprouts quick fried with syrah-porcini mushroom reduction, Santa Maria Tri-Tip, Pork Shoulder Carnitas and a spicy Mexican salted chocolate tart.

One morning we found ourselves in the nearby low-key luxurious town of Montecito, just 10 minutes away. We may not have seen Prince Harry or Meghan Markle, but I did manage to take my mom on another adventure—electric bikes! The new e-bikes can be rented right on Coast Village Road from newcomer Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Terrified for my mom since it was her first time on a zippy e-bike, we walked our bikes through the chic town to buzz off in various speeds down through idyllic neighborhoods to the Butterfly Beach waterfront. A bike path allowed us to fly up the hilly coastline admiring the colorful flower blooming path along the ocean while also gaping at the Four Seasons Resort grounds.

A highlight of our visit was exploring Lotusland since we are both plant and garden fanatics. This 37-acre botanical paradise in Montecito boasts 25 different gardens with rare cycads, cacti, palms and euphorbias. The horticulture nirvana had us repeatedly exclaiming, “Look at this!” as we waltzed through a Japanese garden, a rose garden, an insectary garden and a shade palm garden and immersed ourselves in bromeliads, succulents and silvery blue-grey foliage. Tropical exotic blooms overhead, brightly colored seed explosions down below, pools with massive clam shells as water features, odd-looking worn statues from France, and symmetrical carved leaves are all part of this fantastical plot of land. The whole estate is a result of Madame Ganna Walska’s purchase with her sixth husband in 1941, where she spent 43 years cultivating the plant utopia until her death at age 97.

I couldn’t resist taking my mom to witness the New England-style Rosewood Miramar Beach estate with its expansive lawn, a drool-worthy location to stroll and clink cocktail glasses or share a bite with your loved one oceanside. The Miramar Bar was designed to feel like you are on a yacht.

And just an 8-minute drive from town, the Santa Barbara Zoo changed my opinion about zoos and gave me a new appreciation for their dedication to preservation and conservation. Set on 30 acres of lush grounds, giraffes have beachfront views and the California Trails area features threatened and endangered California natives like Channel Island foxes, bald eagles and condors, and desert tortoises. We marveled over the gorgeous gaggle of flamingoes, toucans, gorillas, gibbons and a snow leopard.

We packed in a lot over two nights and three days, but we could not miss the nearby seaside town of Summerland for a bite at high-end home store Field + Fort, where a new outdoor eatery dishes up fancy toasts, breakfast, salads and carefully crafted sandwiches on their terrace. Filled with antique shops and expensive boutiques for home décor on the main street in Summerland, we noticed many vintage Porsches and found ourselves in an unusual haven, the Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary. A 45-minute docent-led tour divulged the stories of 30 relinquished birds who had been rescued because they had been abandoned, abused, injured or orphaned—reminding both my mom and me how important it is to commit to taking care of one another.  

At the end of our getaway, my mom had been seduced by these seaside towns and kept asking, “How can I move here?”

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