Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series examining a pair of Central Cost cities that have much in common universities, historic missions, tourist draws. Last week, a look at San Luis Obispo. Today, Santa Barbara.
SANTA BARBARA Some high achievers at the visitors bureau of this lovely city apparently devoted chunks of time and filled out what must've been reams of paperwork just so they could slap a registered trademark on a phrase they've proudly embraced "The American Riviera®."
All of which comes off as a tad insecure, frankly. It's as if Santa Barbara is the civic embodiment of the proverbial gorgeous yet vulnerable starlet, constantly needing reassurance of her beauty and refined culture in order to shine that much brighter when Mr. DeMille zooms in for a close-up.
And it's not as if other U.S. cities are clamoring for The American Riviera® title, though a cursory Google search did yield some references to Miami's flirtation with the cognomen.
Santa Barbara is to Miami what Brad Pitt is to Billy Bob Thornton. There's simply no comparison. In fact, it may not be that wild a jingoistic leap to refer to the French Riviera as the European Santa Barbara®. (Someone, please, notify the Patents and Trademarks Office.)
Not to gush and go all Chamber of Commerce on you, but The American Riviera® label fits this city with as much velvety snugness as a pair of Jimmy Choo sandals available, naturally, at many of the scores of upscale State Street boutiques.
The French Riviera has a temperate climate, miles of white sandy beaches, architecturally edgy villas and bungalows populated by the jet set and royalty, a film and literary pedigree and, of course, lots of shopping.
The American Riviera®? A temperate climate that may reach 80 during heat waves, a cohesive Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that extends not just to ranch houses and estates but to dentist offices and liquor stores, a populace that includes rock and movie stars (though no royalty, unless you count Oprah), literary figures both high and middle brow (T.C. Boyle and Sue Grafton), and enough shopping to max out Warren Buffet's credit card.
This is not to insinuate that Santa Barbara is merely an exclusive playground for the rich and famous or those famous for being rich. There is opulence, for sure. But there also is a vestigial quirkiness that lingers in certain sectors of the city. It clings to a simpler time of surfing dudes and blue-collar manufacturing, which helps keep Santa Barbara from descending into a snobbish stereotype.
History amid the red tiles
Too, there is a deeply felt reverence for the town's Indian and Catholic-settler past most conspicuous at, but by no means limited to, the Old Mission Santa Barbara, centrally located between the sweep of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the swell of the Pacific.
As a functioning city as well as a tourist resort, Santa Barbara's retail offices look nearly indistinguishable from historic sites.
"Why aren't there old buildings as nice as this on the East Coast," Caroline McGraw, a college student from Washington, D.C., commented to her friend, Natalie D'Onofrio, on a commuter bus to the mission.
"The thing about Santa Barbara that I've noticed," McGraw added, "is that everything's cohesive. Almost all the buildings have tiled roofs and those stuccoed walls. It makes it look like everything belongs together."
That architectural cohesion can best be seen from the top of a four-story climb to the old courthouse clock tower. Assuming the morning marine layer has burned off, vast swaths of red-tile roofs blaze in the afternoon sun, the white-washed adobe walls make wearing sunglasses a requirement. Just beyond lies the ocean, so much bluer and more dazzling from a distance than up close, as it is with so much in life. Look the other way and the Santa Ynez Mountains hover, a mass of shaggy oak-studded hills dotted with jutting estates and winding roads.
What you can't see from a distance is the hidden Santa Barbara, those less-trendy throwbacks to an earlier age. That vestige of Santa Barbara is centered in the Funk Zone (no registered trademark, alas), a half-mile stretch west of the train station near the waterfront, where boutique wineries and breweries rub edificial shoulders with starving (or, at least, pretty darn hungry) artists toiling in erstwhile industrial warehouses. Scuba diving and surf shops endure, catering to the salty sporting types, and dive bars serve those who prefer a different type of liquid release.
There is some cross-pollination between the two Santa Barbaras, as evidenced by the Tuesday night farmers market that turned a three-block chunk of State Street into a fresh-produce utopia, replete with bare-footin' buskers sharing sidewalk space with the Italian loafer set, and earnest, petition-wielding activists from both the right and left holding forth.
Such diversity of thought, and bank-account portfolios, is what drew retiree Jim Smith to Santa Barbara two years ago. Before that, he lived in another resort town, Aspen, Colo. ("The American French Alps®," perhaps?)
"In Aspen, you just don't have anyone under a certain income level, but here there are real people, too," Smith said, as he dug into breakfast at Esqu's Cafe, a popular local haunt. "But is this like the (French) Riviera? Yes and no. It probably doesn't quite have the crystal clear water they have on the Riviera and all that, but the one thing I like is the architecture. It's soothing. It really is. I never get tired of it. I walk everywhere. I love seeing the adobe."
A culturally diverse city
What adds to Santa Barbara's allure is its mutability. The traveler can pick which type of city to visit.
You can stick to the conspicuous-consumption Santa Barbara and stroll State Street with bulging shopping bags in hand, or never leave the monied enclave of Montecito just to the south.
You can cloak yourself in sacradotal history and explore the lore of Father Junipero Serra and the Spanish friars, as well as the church's complicated relationship with the native Chumash Indians.
You can immerse yourself in surf culture, dude, rent a board and catch a wave on one of the famous breaks, or just revel in others' gnarly experiences by visiting the Santa Barbara Surf Museum (see Discoveries column).
You can go native and go to the less-tourist-traveled neighborhoods and embark on a quest to find the city's most authentic taqueria, a pastime that obsessed the late Julia Child, long a Santa Barbaran.
Or you can try to do it all smell the bougainvillea, smell the money and smell the briny kelp. It can be accomplished in a single 24-hour period, if you're motivated.
And you don't necessarily need a car to do it, either, a tribute both to the compact layout of The American Riviera® described by many as "croissant-shaped" and the foresight of city fathers to begin a shuttle service that makes it easy for even the most slothful tourists to cover a lot of ground.
A downtown shuttle runs continuously up and down a two-mile stretch of State Street (ground zero of retail shopping) from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and similar service cruises along the waterfront from the epicenter at Stearn's Wharf east to the Zoo or west to the harbor and Maritime Museum. (Cost had been 25 cents, until the cash-strapped City Council raised the fare to 50 cents, beginning July 1.)
Those not wanting to scuff their Jimmy Choos by hoofing it can rent cruiser bikes fairly cheaply some hotels even provide them gratis and navigate the streets in relative tranquility knowing that drivers here are infinitely patient with two-wheeled traffic.
Such patience by locals perhaps comes from their knowledge that their very livelihood depends on a thriving tourist industry.
In search of the best taco
Restaurants anchor nearly every corner in the downtown hub of State, Chalapa and Anacapa streets. Most are locally owned and higher-end, and the few chains allowed access to the hub are required to hide their signage. (The lone McDonald's, on State Street, bears Golden Arches only 11 inches high on the brick front facade.)
Choices range from French (Bouchon, on State and Victoria) to sushi (Shintori on State) to fancy pastry (D'Angelo Bread on Gutierrez Street, near State) to seafood at any number of places both on and off the water.
But the city's culinary star is its taquerias, the madre-and-padre joints dotted all over town but centered primarily on Milpas Street, a half mile from the shopping hub.
Rising above all challengers is La Super-Rica Taqueria, a haven of spicy deliciousness housed in a humble green-and-white wooden shack with patio. At peak hours, the line for service extends nearly a block down the street, not surprising since foodie icon Julia Child crowned it as purveyors of the city's best tacos.
"I've been coming here (for) 30 years," local Alex Rubio said. "It's always crowded. But I've been coming here so long that I go up to the window and they know what I want and make it for me."
And what Rubio always orders is not Rica's tacos; rather it's chilaquiles. The tacos, apparently, have become too hyped for some locals.
By the same token, there's more to Santa Barbara's artistic flourishes than Spanish Mission Colonial. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, though small, often features works of the masters. On a small level, there is movement afoot to make art seamlessly meld into the lifestyle.
Take the Presido Motel, a trendy (and at $119, extremely affordable) 1950s-themed "motor lodge" on State Street. It may not have the cache of the San Ysidro Ranch or Montecito Inn, but each of the 16 rooms was designed and muralized inside by UC Santa Barbara graduate art students.
The room we stayed in featured a circus theme, with a funky mobile of origami birds dangling above the queen-sized bed.
Entering the Funk Zone
But the real "funk" can be found two miles south on State Street in the designated Funk Zone, where hollowed-out former aviation warehouses and marine building now house wineries and artists' alcoves.
But even something as mainstream as a tasting room gets transformed in the Funk Zone. Municipal Winemakers has taken an old scuba shop and turned it into an oddly furnished tasting room. Old, cheap sporting trophies line the walls, buttressed by stacks of institutional file cabinets, lie by lamps with shades made from old megaphones.
It's a hipster's heaven, but you still get the same expert wine advice from the server.
"We want to keep it serious about the wine but not stuffy," said Stephanie Dotson, who owns the winery with husband Dave Potter. "It's quality but not pretentious."
Jen Santarossa, who was serving wine at Municipal, is a native Santa Barbaran and says it's a good thing the Funk Zone is changing sort of.
"Growing up here, this place had been so industrial and not a place where you'd want to go," she said. "All of a sudden, in only about two years, everything's been popping up here. There's a lot more foot traffic and that's good. But (the Funk Zone) is eventually going to become not what it was once. It's like, in New York, all the artists moved to Soho because it was cheap, then Soho built up this thing and it became expensive, so they all moved to Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and now that's expensive ...
"I'm not saying anyone's moving out of here yet, but that's what's happened in other places."
Gentrification or loss?
The Funk Zone is getting gussied up. The latest addition is the Hotel Indigo, a former residence inn gutted and remade as an elegant boutique hotel. It pays homage to the Funk Zone by decorated the walls with artistic prints.
"It's all about the neighborhood," said Kay Morter, the Indigo's general manager. "All of the photos were taken of art supplies and things used in the Funk Zone."
What do longtime Funk Zoners think?
Daniel Swann, whose studio abuts the swirl of State Street a block from the beach, has expressed his feelings the best way he knows how through art. A poster out front shows a stop sign with the warning (or, perhaps, promise) "Funk at your own risk."
"Let me tell you about Santa Barbara," he said. "You've got Montecito over there. Rich area. You've got the Riviera up on that hill looking down on us. Super-rich area. Then you've got Hope Ranch over there. Really rich. Then, you go up and down State Street. Used to be local shops. Now it's plastic ladies flashing plastic (credit cards).
"This is the only place left. This is where the funk is."
With only a little prompting, Swann launched into his elegy to the Funk Zone, the six-stanzaed "Developer's Disease." An excerpt:
Brings you to your knees
Get ready for some pain
Here they come again
Make it all look nice
Now you can't afford the price
You must pay to see the view
They've just taken it from you
Others see it differently. They see the revitalization of the Funk Zone as adding to the aesthetic of The American Riviera®. It's doubtful, most say, the Funk Zone will ever be gentrified out of existence.
Santa Barbarans seem content to keep diversity, of thought and design alive. This is a city, after all, where Young America's Ronald Reagan Ranch Center "This is the schoolhouse of Reaganism!" docent Mike Lovell told visitors is located less than a Molotov cocktail's toss from a mural honoring Santa Barbara's occupy movement "Resist and Survive."
Neither of the above is featured in the online site devoted to The American Riviera®. After all, there is an image to maintain.
Old Mission Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna St. www.sbmission.org. Hours: Self-guided tours 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; docent-led tours are by reservation and cost $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $1 youth 6-15 (children under 6 are free).
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St. sbma.net. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays. Cost: $9 adults, $6 seniors (age 65+), $6 students and ages 6-17, free for under 6. Ongoing exhibit: "Van Gogh to Munch: European Masterworks from the Armand Hammer Foundation and Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation."
Santa Barbara Surfing Museum, 16 1/2 Helena Ave. #C. sbsurfingmuseum.com. Cost: free. Hours: Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Surfing culture and memorabilia from the past century.
La Arcada Court, 1114 State St. www.laarcadasantabarbara.com. Shops and galleries in alleyways off State Street, studded with art and statues.
Paseo Nuevo: 651 Paseo Nuevo. www.paseonuevoshopping.com. A mall cleverly disguised as an old mission building, it features chain stores (Macy's, Nordstrom), restaurants and local boutiques.
San Ysidro Ranch, 900 San Ysidro Lane. www.sanysidroranch.com. High-end resort where John F. and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned.
Montecito Inn, 1295 Coast Village Road. www.montecitoinn.com. Boutique luxury hotel built by Charlie Chaplin.
Presidio Motel, 1620 State St. thepresidiomotel.com. Affordable "motor inn" on State Street with rooms decorated by UC Santa Barbara art students.
Bouchon, 9 West Victoria St. www.bouchonsantabarbara.com. French and wine country cuisine.
Esau's Cafe, 721 Chapala St. esauscafe.com. Breakfast and lunch joint with surfing decor and a continuous loop of surf films.
La Super-Rica Taqueria, 622 North Milpas St. Considered Santa Barbara's best tacos? Says Who? Julia Child. Note: Closed Wednesdays.
Beaches: The closest is East Beach in central Santa Barbara. El Capitan State Park and Beach and Goleta Beach are a few minutes north, while Rincon Beach, known for its swells, is south near the Ventura County line.
Hiking: You can hike the Santa Ynez Mountains above the city or the San Rafael Wilderness.
For hikes, go to: www.santabarbarahikes. com.