Sunday, March 13, 2011

Five Things We Love about Santa Barbara

From left to right: Santa Barbara panoramic, redwood trees at the Botanic Garden and Santa Barbara Fish House
If you need a place to escape from late winter dreariness, head for Santa Barbara, California.
The Pacific coast at Santa Barbara runs almost exactly east and west. This south-facing orientation, combined with onshore breezes, gives the place a particularly Mediterranean climate. At this time of year, you are likely to see Monarch butterflies starting to fly north.
Along with the climate, architecture and vegetation adds to the Mediterranean atmosphere. The mountains in the Los Padres National Forest and the numerous red-tiled roofs will remind readers of Cezanne’s painting, The Gulf of Marseille Seen from L’Estaque.
Santa Barbara has something for almost every interest. A good place to start is the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitor’s Bureau and Film Commission’s website. Here are our favorites from two days of visiting the city that bills itself as “The American Riviera.”

1. Mission Santa Barbara. On a rise just north of the city is Mission Santa Barbara, founded by the Spanish in 1786. The Mission’s guided and self-guided tours are informative, comfortably paced and reasonably priced. Garden trees and the buildings themselves provide a cool oasis - - even in the heat of the day. The view of Santa Barbara and the Pacific, from the Mission’s front steps, is one of the best in the world.
2. Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. It would take at least two days to go from California’s redwood forests in the north to its deserts on the Mexico border. At the Botanic Garden, you can see all of these landscapes in less than two hours! The Garden has three species of redwoods and sequoias which were planted in the 1930’s. Although these trees are not height record-setters, they give a great sense of how it feels to be in a redwood grove. Exhibits, some of which are hand’s on, introduce you to California wildflowers, grasslands, desert plants and plants found on the Golden State’s coast and islands.
3. Beach fun. The water may not be at summer temperatures yet but walking on the edge of the surf is a treat. Santa Barbara has a strong network of bicycle paths that are separate from highways, dedicated bike lanes on roads and on highways where you must share the road. We liked the Shoreline trail and found the people at Wheel Fun Rentals capable at fitting bicycles to riders and informative about places to go. Wheel Fun’s rates are also reasonable.
4. Restaurants. Overlooking the beach are the Santa Barbara Fish House and Eladio’s Restaurant and Bar at the Beach and both have a wide variety of appetizers, salads, food and drinks. Crab cakes at the Fish House were outstanding, and the classic burger at Eladio’s was delightful. In town, we had lunch and dinner at the Natural CafĂ©, on State Street. There were enough tasty choices in this place to span the varied diets of vegetarians, careful eaters and oblivious gluttons.
5. Shopping. There is a ton of varied shopping in Santa Barbara, although this is a mystery for me personally. On State Street, you can find an open-air importer of goods from India. Also on State Street is a Cost Plus World Markets. I know West Coast readers probably think this store, with it’s mix of food, wines, housewares and furniture, is nothing much. However, the store’s layout, with its casual arrangement of lots of apparently low priced goods, is appealing - - especially to non-Californians.

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