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36 Hours in Santa Barbara

By Finn-Olaf Jones
November 16, 2008
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Correction Appended

SANTA BARBARA, Calif., may be tiny — its 90,000 residents could be seated in the Los Angeles Coliseum — but it packs Oprah-like cachet. Indeed, the queen of daytime TV and other A-listers have made this former outpost of Spain’s American dominions their second home. Posh hotels, seven-figure mansions and trendy boutiques have opened along the so-called American Riviera, catering to members of the Hollywood set who drive up every weekend to frolic among the languorous palms and suntanned celebrities. But don’t let the crush of Ferraris and Prada fool you. With its perpetually blue skies and taco stands, Santa Barbara remains a laid-back town where the star attraction is still the beach.

Friday

5 pm

1)

LINGERING GLOW

Santa Barbara’s main beaches face southeast, but you can still catch the Pacific sunset by driving along Cliff Drive until it takes you to secluded Hendry’s Beach. Hemmed by vertiginous cliffs that turn deep orange as the sun sets, the beach is popular with locals, surfers and dolphins. Order a rum punch ($9) at the new Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach (2981 Cliff Drive; 805-898-2628; www.boathousesb.com), where you can still feel the warmth of the sun (or is it the fire pit?) long after it has set.

8 pm

2)

MAKING FRIENDS

Fresh California cuisine is the rule in this region of outstanding vineyards, luscious orchards and right-off-the-boat seafood. One of the freshest is Brophy Brothers Restaurant and Clam Bar (119 Harbor Way; 805-966-4418; www.brophybros.com), which overlooks the harbor. Sit at the long, communal table and strike up a conversation with your new friends. The night I was there, I was offered a job by a local developer. While I didn’t take the job, I did sample the clam chowder (“The best in town,” I was told about five times), followed by a terrific grilled swordfish with artichoke sauce ($26.20 in all). Hmmm, what was that starting salary again?

Saturday

10 a.m.
3) BIKE TO BRUNCH

Rent a bike at Wheel Fun Rentals (23 East Cabrillo Boulevard; 805-966-2282; www.wheelfunrentals.com; starting at $8 an hour) and roll along the ocean to the East Beach Grill (1118 East Cabrillo Boulevard; 805-965-8805), a greasy but bright breakfast institution popular with surfers, cyclists and skaters, who swear by its banana wheat germ pancakes with eggs and bacon ($7.25).

11:30 a.m.
4) SACRED MISSION

It’s hard not to feel awed when driving up the hill to Mission Santa Barbara (2201 Laguna Street; 805-682-4713; www.sbmission.org), a 1786 landmark with ocher-colored columns and known as the Queen of the 21 original Spanish missions built along the California coastline. Escape the crowds by wandering outside the flower-scented Sacred Garden. If there’s a docent around, ask if you can see the glazed terra-cotta sculpture of St. Barbara watching over Mary and Jesus. The 1522 masterpiece was discovered three years ago in a storage room that was being cleaned out. It is now installed in an alcove in the garden’s private portico.

1 p.m.
5) TACO HEAVEN

Locals argue endlessly about the city’s best taco joint. Julia Child threw her weight behind La Super Rica (622 North Milpas Street; 805-963-4940), ensuring perpetual lines for its homemade tortillas filled with everything from pork and cheese ($3.40) to spicy ground beans ($2.75). Lilly’s (310 Chapala Street; 805-966-9180), a tiny spot in the center of town run by the ever-welcoming Sepulveda family, serves up tacos filled with anything from pork to beef eye ($1.35 each). And Palapa (4123 State Street; 805-683-3074; www.palapa.biz) adds fresh seafood to the equation in its cheery patio just north of downtown, where the grilled sole tacos ($4.25) are fresh and light. Try all three places and join the debate.

3 p.m.
6) PAPER CHASE

Walt Disney’s original will. A letter by Galileo. Lincoln’s second Emancipation Proclamation (the 13th Amendment). The Karpeles Manuscript Library and Museum (21 West Anapamu Street; 805-962-5322; www.rain.org/~karpeles; free) was started by David Karpeles, a local real estate tycoon, and has one of the world’s largest private manuscript collections. If this whets your appetite for collecting, wander seven blocks to Randall House Rare Books (835 Laguna Street; 805-963-1909; www.randallhouserarebooks.com), where the ancient tomes and rare documents include a signed calling card from Robert E. Lee ($4,500) and the first official map of the State of California ($27,500).

5 p.m.
7) SHOP LIKE THE STARS

The main shopping drag, State Street, is filled with the usual chain stores like Abercrombie & Fitch. The consumerist cognoscenti head for the hills, to the Platinum Card district of Montecito, where you’ll find local designers and one-off items along the eucalyptus-lined Coast Village Road. Highlights include Dressed (1253 Coast Village Road; 805-565-1253; www.dressedonline.com), a small boutique that counts Teri Hatcher and Britney Spears among the fans of its resortwear look, which might include an earthy necklace made of bamboo coral ($733) by a local jeweler, Corrina Gordon. Next door, Angel (1221 Coast Village Road; 805-565-1599; www.wendyfoster.com) sells casual sportswear with a youthful vibe and hot accessories like tie-dyed hair ties. Across the street, Lewis & Clark (1286 Coast Village Road; 805-969-7177) sells funky curios like colorful Guatemalan altar figures (from about $110), a local favorite given the city’s Franciscan roots.

8 p.m.
8) CELEBRITY DINING

J.F.K. and Jackie honeymooned there, Hollywood luminaries like Groucho Marx were regulars, and last year the San Ysidro Ranch reopened after a $150 million renovation by its new owner, the Beanie Babies creator Ty Warner. Mr. Warner added an enormous terrace, a 4,000-bottle wine cellar and a lot of buzz by redoing the Stonehouse restaurant (900 San Ysidro Lane; 800-368-6788; www.sanysidroranch.com/dine1.cfm). On a recent evening, the T-shirt-with-blazer set sat around an open fire while dining on warm mushroom salad, juniper-dusted venison loin and fresh pastries. Take a post-dinner stroll around the terraced gardens where many of the ingredients were grown. Dinner for two around $220.

11 p.m.
9) GLAMOROUS STATE

State Street heats up after 11 o’clock as college students and moneyed folk from the glittering hills descend to its bars and nightclubs. Wildcat Lounge (15 West Ortega Street; 805-962-7970; www.wildcatlounge.com), a retro bar with red-vinyl banquettes, is the place to mingle with the university crowd and local bohos grooving to house music. Cater-corner is Tonic (634 State Street; 805-897-1800; www.tonicsb.com), an airy dance club that draws students in chinos and recent graduates in designer T-shirts to its cabanas. The international set heads to Eos Lounge (500 Anacapa Street; 805-564-2410; www.eoslounge.com) to dance to world music in a tree-shaded patio that looks like Mykonos on the Pacific.

Sunday

10 a.m.
10) PAGING MOBY-DICK

From December to February, some 30,000 gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja California through a five-mile gap among the Channel Islands, a cluster of rocky isles 20 or so miles off the coast. Catch the commute — and breaching whales — from the decks of the Condor Express, a high-speed catamaran that makes daily whale-watching tours (301 West Cabrillo Boulevard; 805-882-0088; www.condorcruises.com; $94). Porpoises, sea lions and the occasional killer whale join in on the fun.

3 p.m.
11) CRIMSON TIDE

The vineyards of central California gained prominence from the movie <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="455456;296117">“Sideways,”</object.title> but few can match the vistas at the Coastal Winery (217 Stearns Wharf; 805-966-6624; www.coastalwinery.com). It features an airy tasting room where you can tap your inner Miles Raymond and for $15 compare seven wines, including cabs, pinots and chards, while marveling at the amazing views of the Pacific.

THE BASICS

Numerous airlines, including United, Delta and Continental, offer one-stop flights to Santa Barbara Airport from New York, starting at $340 in early December, a Web search found. Or you can fly nonstop to Los Angeles International Airport (from $289) and drive two hours north on scenic Highway One.

Hotel Oceana Santa Barbara (202 West Cabrillo Boulevard; 800-965-9776; www.hoteloceanasantabarbara.com) was recently renovated and offers modern, Mediterranean-style rooms clustered around lush gardens facing the beach. Doubles start at $195.

The renovated, historic San Ysidro Ranch (900 San Ysidro Lane; 800-368-6788; www.sanysidroranch.com) still attracts celebrities from J. Lo to Gwyneth Paltrow. Doubles start at $650.

The new Canary Hotel (31 West Carrillo Street; 877-468-3515; www.canarysantabarbara.com) is a Moorish-inspired hot spot frequented by the Los Angeles crowd. The chic rooftop pool and bar offer stunning views. Doubles start at $355.

The first Motel 6 (443 Corona Del Mar; 805-564-1392; www.motel6.com) is still there (and will be renovated come January). Opened in 1962 by Paul Green and William Becker, the original motel is still cheerful, immaculate and a mere block from the beach. Doubles start at $71.99.


Correction: November 23, 2008

<i><i>The 36 Hours column last Sunday about Santa Barbara, Calif., misstated the surname of the chef, author and television host who praised La Super Rica, a taco stand. She was Julia Child, not Childs. </i></i>

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