The Insider Guide: The American Riviera

Santa Barbara harbour.
Santa Barbara harbour. / SUR
  • Where to stay, what to do and where to go in this part of the Pacific coast

Running from Summerland to Goleta, with the historic, postcard-perfect towns of Santa Barbara and Montecito at its heart, this privileged south-facing stretch of the Pacific ocean coast is the place to stay in Central California


Belmond El Encanto

Santa Barbara’s Mediterranean climate, unspoilt, small-town feel, and natural setting between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains has attracted a wealth of upscale and ultra-luxury properties to the area. Visitors can choose from sprawling resorts, stylish ranches and exclusive hotels.

Yet for the classic Santa Barbara experience, stay in a cosy, vintage-style bungalow suite at the El Encanto. This exclusive hilltop estate, once student accommodation in the early 1900s, became a chic and understated retreat for Hollywood celebrities.

Following its 2014 multi-million-dollar remodelling, the property may have lost some of its eccentric charm, but the stunning ocean view and the essence of this exclusive hideaway remain, yet with new contemporary enhancements including an infinity pool, gym, and public spaces decorated with world-class contemporary art.

The guest bungalows, a mixture of classic American ‘Craftsman’ style or elegant Spanish Colonial Revival ‘Mission’ style boast the kind of amenities and furnishings expected of a Belmond property.

Drop in for cocktails on the terrace; you never know what A-Lister you might bump into. The spa is also open to non-resident guests, and Sara Scott and her team will create a tailored well-being experience.

El Encanto.

El Encanto. / SUR

Vintage Airstreams at AutoCamp

Of course, holidaying on the American Riviera doesn’t mean one has the budget of a movie star. AutoCamp offers on-trend urban Airstream accommodation, in classic, all-American trailers, distinctive for their retro good-looks of polished aluminium coachwork. Choose Airstream suites 1 or 5 and you not only get all the amenities of a fully- equipped luxe caravan, but also a deep-soak bath tub. Luxe beds, linens, spa bathrobes and boutique amenities; a fully-equipped kitchen, TV, MP3 sound system and outdoor barbecue all combine to make this a very cool and comfortable way to enjoy this magical part of California. You can also hire bikes and ride to the beach in 20 minutes.

AutoCamp Santa Barbara.

AutoCamp Santa Barbara. / SUR


Fish & chips on the harbour

With so many sophisticated, and award-winning dining options it can all seem a little pricey and overwhelming. So, for something authentic and relaxed, try fish and chips overlooking Santa Barbara’s harbour at Brophy Bros., a favourite with locals and visitors for seafood, beers and cocktails.

Coffee with culture

Get your morning caffeine fix, with a side order of art at this coffee shop, store and gallery.

Santa Barbara public market

Markets are always a lively place to become immersed in a locality; and Santa Barbara’s public market is perfect for creating your own great-value picnic of regional food and wine! It’s also a fun place enjoy a drink and a chat with the locals.

Market picnic.

Market picnic. / SUR

Dinner at El Encanto

For memorable holiday moments, consider dinner on the terrace at the El Encanto. Expect balmy weather, splendid views out across the Pacific, and a menu that offers the best of California’s earth and ocean. Try the grilled octopus with lamb sausage; and then the delicate and tender day boat scallops. If you’re lucky enough to have a local serving you, you’ll be charmed and learn lots about the area.


Chill on the beach

Santa Barbara remains synonymous with surf culture. Although summer may not be the best time to catch the best breaks on California’s west coast, it’s certainly a perfect season for enjoying the beach. Beautiful sands stretch for kilometres, lined with cedar pines. Head to Montecito and chill on Miramar beach.

Old Spanish Days Fiesta

From 2 to 6 August the American Riviera celebrates its rich colonial Spanish and Mexican culture with themed markets, parades, music, dance and folklore. This part of California was part of colonial Spain and then independent Mexico until the late 1840s.

22nd Mariachi Festival

As part of the annual celebrations of the region’s history, on 5 August The Santa Barbara Bowl concert venue hosts this festival of Mariachi music.

Explore the ‘Funk Zone’

Once a fishing industry warehouse district, it is now a creative hub of downtown studios, galleries, and indie boutiques. The area also forms part of the town’s ‘urban wine trail’ where visitors can try local vintages at different tasting rooms. In September around harvest time, the American Riviera has several wine-related events and festivals.

Channel Islands National Park

Getting out on the Pacific is a must. There are lots of public cruises and sailing trips from Santa Barbara’s harbour, as well as opportunities for private charters. Try and get out to the protected Channel Islands, about 40 kilometres off shore. If you want to stay closer to the beach, there are businesses offering kayaks for hire too.

Polo Party

This upmarket sport just got more fun with the chance to stay on and party each Sunday with DJs and cocktails at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. On 7 October 7, the club has a Polo and Wine Festival.

Get lost in a garden

Montecito’s Lotusland, created by opera singer Ganna Walska, is a magical and flamboyant botanic oasis. When it’s too hot to hike the foothills overlooking the ocean, one can instead be surrounded by exotic nature as well as creative beauty in these fascinating, themed gardens.

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1786, this active parish church is an integral part of the American Riviera’s history. On 10 August, the Franciscan Friars are offering a behind-the-scenes look at the Old Mission, at their ‘Drinks at Dusk’ event.

Old Mission.

Old Mission. / SUR