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Santa Barbara

A rich stars’ hideaway? Sure, but it’s also a choice hangout for the rest of us.

a couple on the beach at Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara Calif., image
Photo caption
At Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara, Calif., a couple strolls in the sand.

Even the mountains bow before Santa Barbara’s graces. The Santa Ynez peaks that back this coastal city run east-west, bucking the north-south trend of most California ranges and shorelines. The city enjoys full southern exposure, the most favorable orientation in the Northern Hemisphere. With a year-round Mediterranean climate—mild summers and winters that bring more sun than rain—the city burgeons with native and exotic plants. Lemons, avocados, pomegranates, and cherimoyas hang from backyard trees. Downtown, a Chilean wine palm—a species endangered in its native land—thrives in the gardens of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

The nearby ocean’s rock crabs, spot prawns, and spiny lobsters are regulars on local menus. At the harbor on Saturday mornings during lobster season (October through March) you can buy the catch, still kicking and clawing, right off the boats. Naturally, such a paradise two hours north of Los Angeles would be claimed by the rich and famous. The red-tile roofs you see cascading toward the beach are multimillion-dollar homes in a neighborhood called the Riviera. Oprah Winfrey purchased her own $50 million estate in 2001 in the city’s Montecito enclave, dubbed "Moneycito" by locals.

But pity the stars.

None of Santa Barbara’s celebrities could have lived it up as I did for practically a song—or a dance, actually. Imagine the paparazzi if I were Jen or Oprah making the weekly Argentine tango scene at Café Buenos Aires. For the cost of some good, reasonably priced Latin American food, I was able to show off my moves to the rhythms of a live orquesta (dance band) while my friend, who doesn’t dance, sat on the terrace savoring our entrées.

Morning presented bright opportunities for even more exercise. Five white-sand beaches were just minutes by car from the Inn of the Spanish Garden a few blocks off State Street, where we lingered in the courtyard over a filling breakfast. We followed a trolley down State Street to its end at the popular Stearns Wharf. Joggers, strollers, skateboarders, and an itinerant hippie with VW bus were all enjoying the fine weather in earnest. Sea kayaking in the protected harbor looked inviting, but we opted for renting bicy-cles from Wheel Fun. We took the flat Cabrillo Bikeway along the curving shore, past the marshes of Andree Clark Bird Refuge, where we easily spotted grackles and a flashy white-and-black woodpecker.

I loved it that we were soaking up rays in Santa Barbara without getting soaked—and said as much to Kent Massey, a man we’d met at Café Buenos Aires.

"Don’t be fooled by the high-profile wealth here," Massey said. "Merchants know who butters their bread—families of average means who they hope will return." He pointed us to a row of affordable hotels near the shore, including Cabrillo Inn at the Beach, where most rooms have ocean views and rates drop to $89 in winter, and the Villa Rosa Inn, whose brochure shouts of all the famous people who "never slept here."

Over the years Massey has shown his young daughter around Santa Barbara. Without tapping her college fund, he has taken her to the waterfront’s Chase Palm Park, a magnet for kids with its shipwreck playground and carousel, and to the recently renovated Ty Warner Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, where we later watched schoolchildren pet live crabs and crawl into a tunnel through a tank of surging seawater. He’s also taken her through the free Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, which rotates into its displays such rarities as the Constitution of the Confederate States of America and Albert Einstein’s scribbled explanation of relativity.

In fact, our Santa Barbara must-see attractions never topped 15 bucks. At the 1786 Mission Santa Barbara ($4), we strolled the friars’ dusky chapel, dark chambers, and tidy garden, and visited the graves of padres and Chumash acolytes, the latter interred without markers. In a quiet canyon above the mission we roamed on winding trails through the 65-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden ($7). And at Lotusland ($15) we heard tales of opera singer Ganna Walska, who funneled the wealth of six husbands into her luxuriant 37-acre estate.

When we were ready to replenish well-spent calories, we were overwhelmed by our options. We had heard about the hearty $12 cioppino at busy Brophy Bros. on the harbor: scrumptious. We supped one night at Eladio’s, where a standout caprese salad with buffalo-milk mozza-rella was moo fresh. On the patio of the Paradise Cafe, lunch of oak-grilled rock shrimp and a calamari sandwich thrilled me so much that a woman two tables away asked what I had ordered. There was Café Buenos Aires’s cerdo relleno (pork stuffed with spinach, dried tomatoes, garlic, and goat cheese), not to mention the mussels in a chile-spiked broth with grilled andouille sausage served at hacienda-style Carlito’s Cava Restaurant & Bar.

All except Cava were on or near downtown’s main drag, State Street, the handsome palm-flanked axis of Spanish revival architecture. As if in Oz, we followed the red tiles everywhere: to the splendid 1929 county courthouse with its 73-foot tower and mosaic-lined stairway, to the 1782 presidio, and to several original adobe homes. And we tracked still more red tile roofs on a $15 tour of the 11-acre Casa del Herrero in Montecito. At once extravagant and homey, this 1920s estate built by industrialist George Fox Steedman schooled our eyes in the prevailing Andalusian style that keeps Santa Barbara sparkling in white stucco facades, iron-grated windows (called rejas), and ornate Moorish tile work.

This rich Spanish (or mission) revival design proliferated thanks to architect George Washington Smith following an earthquake in 1925; for some Santa Barbarans it has become synonymous with a wished-for Iberian history. But the red clay vanishes in the city’s light-industrial Funk Zone, a hip and energetic area bordered by State Street and the sea and bisected by the railroad. "The zone was Santa Barbara’s Cannery Row at the turn of the century," says Nils Hammerbeck, gallery manager at Livingreen, a natural furnishings store. "We have a whole lot of galleries and artists’ studios here."

Beyond art studios, we found Red’s Espresso Bar, with a Cheers kind of clientele; Metropulos, purveyors of Mediterranean charcuterie and artisan cheeses; three winetasting rooms, including that of the 43-year-old Santa Barbara Winery, where $5 buys the crystal glass and a flight of six wines; the open-by-appointment-only Auto Store, asking $20,000 for a 1952 two-tone green Cadillac; and the Italian Pottery Outlet, with dazzling ceramic pieces from Sicily for as little as $10.

As for shopping back on State Street, we were surprised that the highly sung Paseo Nuevo harbored mainly chain stores. (The original El Paseo, a handsome 1923 arcade with narrow cobblestone walkways, is nearby.) But in its shadow we discovered consignment and vintage shops, some of them high-end, all of them a bargain. Worthy of our tender were Victorian Vogue, Renaissance, Alpha Thrift, Yellowstone Clothing, and Marlena’s Finery, where a blue suede dress previously worn by Madonna was selling for $69. As I drove away with a fetching spaghetti-strapped black cocktail dress ($26) and two other new-to-me tango outfits, I realized I’d found ways to share in Santa Barbara’s star-studded opulence after all.

Photography by David Zantz

This article was first published in July 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.