Time and Again in Santa Barbara
by Karen Misuraca

A teenager on vacation in the 1960s, I stayed with my girlfriend, Martha, and her family in Santa Barbara. Every morning, we spent hours doing our hair, putting on make-up and packing up sandwiches, bathing suits and towels, before setting off for the entire day, every day. We were allowed to walk and take the bus all over town and to the beaches, and after three summers, we knew every neighborhood and patch of sand.

The waters off our favorite beaches were warm, calm, and sapphire blue, the same blue as the summer sky, so blue at midday as to appear as flickering light, rather than a color. We often stayed in the pelucid water until our hands and feet shriveled and our "Cute Tomata" nail polish peeled off.

Nowadays, when my husband and I come here on long weekends, we wander the streets of my youth beneath the same waving palms and gnarled, century-old fig trees. Creamy-white, dinner plate-sized magnolia blooms drown us in heavy scent. Memories of the good old days flood back when I see lavender pools of petals under the jacarandas and, all over town, wave after wave of magenta bougainvillea rampant on whitewashed walls and red-tile roofs.

Blessed by a semi-tropical climate, the magnificent trees, the gardens, the Spanish Colonial architecture and the sandy beaches create a romantic Mediterranean setting, earning this coastline the title, "The California Riviera."

Since Martha and I had the run of the town, Santa Barbara has been discovered, big-time, by well-heeled weekenders from L.A. and by movie stars and wealthy retirees who hide away in sprawling haciendas in the verdant hills of the suburb of Montecito, dubbed "Moneycito" by the locals. And, in the nearby Santa Barbara County wine country, recently made famous by the movie, "Sideways," farmers' pick-up trucks and horse trailers share winding country roads with sports cars and limousines full of holidaymakers.

Celebs and limos notwithstanding, the charms of Santa Barbara are as seductive as they have always been. A good starting point for first-time visitors is the palatial, Moorish-style County Courthouse, the ultimate example of the architectural panache that sets this city apart from all others. Mosaic-tile-decorated, spiral stairways (you can take the elevator) lead to a tower overlooking a sea of terra-cotta tile roofs and the blue Pacific beyond. Fancy iron chandeliers hang from hand-painted ceilings, and behind heavy, carved doors are vivid murals depicting the city's early days of Spanish and Mexican settlement. Martha and I spent lazy afternoons on the sweeping lawns of the courthouse grounds. My husband and I, cameras in hand, tour the sunken garden, the Art Deco bas-reliefs, fountains and outdoor sculpture.

It was a devastating earthquake in 1925 that spurred the city to celebrate its Spanish and Mexican heritage and to preserve the stunning coastline from development. The entire downtown was restored in flamboyant California Mission Revival and Spanish Baroque styles, and expansive public parks and gardens were laid out. Wrought iron balconies emerged, brightly painted ceramic tiles, hundreds of stone fountains, graceful archways and thick-walled adobe buildings and walls. Add to this thousands of palms and exuberantly blooming, courtyard-enclosed gardens, and the most impressive of the California mission churches, and Ferdinand and Isabella, today, might mistake Santa Barbara for Seville.

Visitors take self-guided walks in the twelve-block-long "Red Tile" district, to see museums and more than seventy landmarks, including a precious collection of adobes from the 1700s and1800s, notably El Presidio de Santa Barbara, the last military outpost of the Spanish Empire in the New World.

Off State Street, the main boulevard, Spanish Colonial Revival architecture is at its most melodramatic in El Paseo Viejo, a labyrinthine shopping arcade built in the 1920s around Casa del La Guerra, a large, antiques-filled, 1827 home.

Snug in flower-filled patios are shops and galleries galore, quaint with whitewashed walls, and bubbling fountains. If you see Oprah, Kevin Costner or Kirk Douglas shopping, do as the locals do and ignore them. Eschewing anonymity one weekend of the year, Academy Award-winning writers, producers, directors, and actors cruise down the red carpet every year at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Among other annual events are costume parades and pageants, a rodeo and fiestas heralding Spanish history and equestrian traditions. When Old Spanish Days Fiesta in August reenacts the days of the rancheros, a mercado is set up at City Hall, and historic carriages, a horse-drawn fire truck, and an old wine cask cart are featured in the big parade. Descendants of the prosperous Spanish settlers dressed in fringed riding outfits, and ladies in ruffled gowns and Spanish shawls, sit high on their fancy silver saddles.

Known as "Queen of the Missions" for its massive twin towers and pink sandstone, Greco-Roman facade, Mission Santa Barbara was founded by Franciscan friars; and, in fact, brown-robed friars inhabit the mission today. On warm days, visitors cool off in the dim, candlelit nave and stroll in the shade of the cloister gardens, lingering in the courtyard by a beautiful Moorish-style fountain.

One in a chain of parks along miles of beachfront, Chase Palm Park is a lushly landscaped, palm-lined strip of plazas, picnic grounds and footpaths, with an antique carousel and a "shipwreck" playground, complete with a whale that spouts water onto unsuspecting kids. Bikers and rollerbladers, joggers and baby strollers cruise Shoreline Park and the waterfront esplanade where, every Sunday, hundreds of art and crafts booths are set up to showcase and sell the works of the city's voluminous art community.

A trolley runs down State Street to Stearns Wharf, a wood-planked pier built in 1872. Jutting out into the ocean between the popular East and West beaches, the wharf is beloved by crab and rockfish anglers and by tourists who stroll up and down, eating ice cream and fish and chips. At the top end of West Beach, more than a thousand pleasure boats and fishing vessels bob in the harbor. The tremendous harvest from the Santa Barbara channel--lobster, shrimp, sea bass, halibut and salmon--are sold off the decks of the boats at the Fisherman's Market on Saturday mornings.

One of the prettiest parts of the littoral, Butterfly Beach lies at the foot of the garden district of Montecito. Above the beach, like a flapper in a peachy-pink dress, the Art Deco-style Coral Beach and Cabana Club reposes across the road from the Four Seasons Resort Santa Barbara. Ancient fig trees and a brace of towering palms guard the low-slung, white stucco hostelry, built in 1921 as the Biltmore Hotel. Potted palms and orchids lend a tropical feel to the lobbies and restaurants, while ornate, gold leaf mirrors and seventeenth-century santos--carved figures of the saints--are rich accents. Garden clubs and horticulturists from around the world make their pilgrimages to the hotel grounds to see hundred-foot-tall Phoenix palms, giant Camphor trees, old Monterey cypress and a gigantic Moreton Bay fig.

Sated with city life, wine aficionados and history buffs take daytrips into the nearby Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys to explore more than a hundred wineries, farms and horse ranches, and a clutch of tiny western towns.

The cool nights and mornings and warm, dry days in these inland coastal valleys comprise a climate similar to the Rhone district in France, giving wine grapes a long "hang-time"--perfect conditions for the peppery Syrahs and rich, dark Pinot Noirs that make Santa Barbara County wines famous. My husband and I love to bike on quiet weekdays on the oak-canopied country lanes, passing through wild stream canyons, vineyards, and pasturelands where thoroughbred horses, long-horned steer, ostriches and llamas graze, and old windmills spin in the breeze. Wine lovers from Sonoma, we stop in at the small, barnboard tasting rooms on the roadside, where, more often than not, winery owners and/or winemakers are on hand to greet visitors.

On Foxen Canyon Road, a sylvan stretch of hilly terrain between Santa Ynez and Los Olivos, Zaca Mesa Winery was one of the first in the county to plant Syrah grapes, in the 1970s. In the low-slung, wooden farm building that serves as a tasting room, we sip their plummy Syrahs and spicy, exotic varietals--Roussanne, Voignier and Mourvedre. With time on our hands, we like to picnic on a high knoll on the winery grounds and take a short walk on the wildflowery trail. A huge chessboard awaits players, who move the three-foot-high chess pieces around the courtyard. Come harvest time, a band of scarecrows stands on duty in the vineyards in their overalls, long underwear and hospital gowns.

Deeper into Foxen Canyon, the television star of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone fame in the 1950s, Fess Parker has his own winery, a copper-roofed Australian-style ranch house in a tall meadow. 82-year-old Parker is often on site signing autographs and pouring wine.

Down the road apiece, above the Sisquoc River in a compound of white farm buildings surrounded by pastures and fruit orchards, and some 300 acres of vineyards, Rancho Sisquoc Winery opens its rustic redwood and stone tasting room to winebibbers, who picnic on the grass under mossy oaks.

Anchoring the wine valleys is a handful of small, historic towns. In the Western village of Santa Ynez, nearly 400 old horseshoes are imbedded in the street, honoring the long history of cattle ranching and horse breeding. Cowboy memorabilia, art galleries and antiques shops are among the attractions along the two-block long main street. At the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum, you will see native Chumash Indian baskets and stagecoaches, surreys and carriages. A good place to hear gossip and hang out with the locals (who are often movie and TV stars, such as Bo Derek, who owns a horse ranch nearby), the Maverick Saloon looks like an old western movie set, complete with dollar bills on the ceiling and grizzled cowpokes at the long bar. Country western bands and line dancing, and tri-tip barbecue, are on the menu.

A 1918 flagpole stands guard in the one-horse burg of Los Olivos, lined with falsefront wooden buildings from the 1800s that house upscale art galleries, antiques shops and wine tasting rooms. In a miniature log cabin, Kahn Winery is said to be the smallest tasting room in the state. Here you can settle into an armchair on the patio and try the Syrah and some of the Avelina label Italian varietals. Kahn christened their Cabernet Franc "Cab Frank," in honor of Frank Sinatra. His music is played at every stage of the winemaking process to infuse the wine with the smooth sounds, and the labels feature paintings by Sinatra.

If the wisteria draped Los Olivos Café seems familiar, it may be that you remember it from the movie, "Sideways." Here the profligate leading men, Jack and Miles, flirted with their dates while knocking back a few bottles of the grape. Connected to the Los Olivos Wine Merchant next door, the restaurant offers dozens of Santa Barbara County wines by the glass and the bottle, to accompany inventive California-Mediterranean cuisine.

On the edge of town, a cavernous, white clapboard building was a stagecoach stop in the 1880s. These days it's The Brothers at Mattei's Tavern (pronounced "Matty's"), where locals cut loose on open mike night and travelers lounge in armchairs by a river-rock hearth and peruse the tavern's original guest book and photos of bygone days. Specialties include wild mushroom risotto, steaks and grilled lamb and veal, and the signature fudge brownie sundae with roasted banana ice cream.

Heading out of Los Olivos on the way back to Santa Barbara, Highway 154 winds up through the Los Padres National Forest, topping out at San Marcos Pass, a thousand feet above the valley. Travelers pause, as they have for over a hundred years, for food and refreshments at the old stagecoach stop, Cold Spring Tavern, at the top of the pass. On weekends, daytrippers from the city rub shoulders with cowboys and Harley riders, kicking back with beer and platters of beefsteak, venison and buffalo, while live bluegrass music or a blues band makes Monday morning seem a world away.

Now, wouldn't Martha and I have loved rubbing shoulders with those cowboys . . .

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.