Just over an hour from the Valley by plane—and only about seven by car—lies Santa Barbara. Nicknamed the American Riviera for its similarity to the French Riviera, the region boasts dozens of beaches and offers visitors everything from whale watching, rock climbing, scuba diving and backcountry Jeep tours to eagle-watching tours, sky diving, wind surfing, sailing excursions, fishing charters, a skateboard park and seven 18-hole championship golf courses.
Though a mere 90 minutes from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is truly a world apart. Visually, expect more of a Mediterranean vibe as the city bursts with Spanish-, Moorish-, Portuguese- and American Indian-inspired architecture. More than 100 years ago, the region was a major player in the film industry, with over 1,200 movies filmed in the area during the silent-film era. As a result, families including the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and DuPonts invested in land in the area, which inspired poets and artists to come see what all the fuss was about. Overwhelmed by Santa Barbara’s splendor, many made the area their permanent home and still do, giving the area a reputation for being as culturally rich as it is beautiful. The world’s biggest names are still frequenting the area, notably Oprah Winfrey, who loves it so much she moved there.
Given there is so much to see and do, however, getting it all in on one’s first trip—or first trip in a while—is virtually impossible. Here is a look at where to stay, what to do and how to make the most of a visit.
Life’s a journey, not a destination. However, Belmond believes that by exploring destinations and cultures both near and far, one’s journey can be so much richer. A luxury travel and adventure brand with a collection of 46 hotels as well as trains and river cruises in 22 countries, Belmond is no mere travel planner or website, instead considering itself the ultimate travel curator and connoisseur for even the most discerning of travelers. Among its most impressive offerings is Belmond El Encanto. Majestic and regal, the Forbes Five Star award-winning property features 7 acres of gardens and is limited to just 96 rooms, suites and bungalows. Restored in recent years for today’s traveler, it still boasts much of the charm guests like President Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed nearly 100 years ago, including its original 1928 wishing well, lily pond and romantically placed wisteria vines that climb up brick-columned arbor.
Its negative-edge pool not only has sweeping views of the entire city, but one of the most impressive views of the miles of beaches and crystal blue oceans you will ever see. The spa is similarly lavish yet cozy, with just seven treatment rooms and intoxicatingly relaxing men’s and women’s lounges as well as treatments inspired by the California coast.
Drinking and dining on property are special treats. The lounge excels at using herbs and citrus grown on property in its cocktails, and the dining room—which has a stunning terrace known for some of the best al fresco dining in the country—not only does the same with its dishes and has a sumptuous caviar service to boot, but the property even makes its own signature cheese, thanks to a hotel cow named Ellie, who lives on-site. For anything it cannot source from on property, every effort is made to support nearby local farmers, ranchers and fishermen by using their vegetables, fruits and sustainable wild seafood.
Of course, Belmond is not the only culinary adventure to be had in Santa Barbara. People come from around the world to enjoy the farms, waters, vineyards, restaurants, farmers and fishermen markets, cooking classes, and food and wine events that create, cultivate and celebrate the region’s distinctive flavors. A true bucket-list experience is Bouchon. Chef Greg Murphy is a flavor wizard. If there was a doctorate available in kitchen science, he would not simply have the degree, but be teaching the graduate courses. The best way to experience his genius is by joining him through his cooking process via his market tour and gourmet dinner package ($125 per person). Through it, twice a week Murphy leads an intimate group through Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market, both giving a tour and showing how he sources ingredients for his award-winning dishes. And then, later that evening, the group is invited back for a three-course wine-pairing dinner using the ingredients sourced during the earlier adventure.
The Lark, which recently earned the Michelin Plate award, is another must. It is located in a region of Santa Barbara known as the Funk Zone, which is today the epicenter of the thriving arts scene in the city. Urban in design and built using repurposed materials in a nod to the area’s history as an industrial zone in year’s past, the restaurant especially excels at pairing locally sourced dishes with craft cocktails as well as wines grown in the area, with a special focus on the smaller producers.
For some of the freshest seafood—not to mention awe-inspiring views—don’t miss Tyde’s at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara. The indoor-outdoor space excels at taking seafood and infusing it with dreamy Mediterranean flavors that melt in one’s month. The olive oil poached halibut, charcoal-roasted black cod and crispy-skin salmon with Israeli cous cous are particularly spectacular. Insider tip: At sunset, just before dinner at Tyde’s, visit the resort’s Coral Reef Bar, where the actual bar itself is a freestanding, 275-gallon saltwater aquarium overlooking the ocean. The drinks are just as good as the view, and that is saying something.
One final culinary must: the new, interactive downloadable Julia Child Food Trail Map, which is essentially a do-it-yourself culinary tour that incorporates long-time Santa Barbara resident and food goddess Julia Child’s favorite places to eat in the area. A quick Google search makes downloading it a snap.
With a place to lay one’s head and dining set, the final piece to the puzzle is finding a way to experience the myriad attractions, or at least as much as possible. The best way to get one’s bearings while taking in a piece of everything at once is via DeeTours of Santa Barbara.
During these open-air tours, which are led in one-of-a-kind, bright-red stretched Jeeps, expert guides share the geographic and architectural beauty of the city as well as delve into its vibrant history and buzz by most of the major cultural attractions. In just over an hour, the wildly entertaining and often funny city tour visits El Presidio, Queen of the Missions, Stearns Wharf, beaches, a bird refuge and zoo areas, the famous old Moreton Bay Fig Tree, elegant Montecito’s Lower Coast Village and Butterfly Beach. Oh, it also gives a faraway glance at Winfrey’s home.
Artistic attractions beyond the major sights and sounds abound, as the region is home to more than 200 annual classic and contemporary stage productions, including concerts, drama, comedy, dance and musical theater. Of particular note is the State Street Ballet, the internationally lauded dance company. The company is comprised of 20 dancers representing six countries, and its performances are riveting and beautiful.
For those who prefer the beach, there are 25 from which to choose in the area. And nature lovers will be in heaven, touring through acres of orchids and native plants at one of the area’s gardens or public parks, including Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, Casa del Herrero, Lotusland, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Santa Barbara Orchid Estate.
The Santa Barbara Zoo as well as the Santa Barbara Aquarium, respectively, offer families as well as animal lovers full days of fun, with giraffe feeding, a rattlesnake quarry, behind-the-scenes tours, play areas and—of course—dozens of exhibits with animals from every pocket of the world. Other sneaky-cool gems: The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum offers an in-depth look at the region’s maritime roots and surf culture; the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center resembles a working marine science laboratory; and the newly opened MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, offers hands-on ways to explore history, art, culture, technology and science.
For more, visit santabarbaraca.com.