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Santa Barbara, the heart of the American Riviera

The American Riviera has been a favourite retreat among the Hollywood A-list.
The American Riviera has been a favourite retreat among the Hollywood A-list. / Jay Sinclair
  • This charming Californian town is home to fascinating history and refined West Coast hospitality

California has always been synonymous with the notion of the American Dream, and it consistently makes for a compelling holiday destination. The glitz, glamour and urban energy of Los Angeles in the south; together with the renowned openness of San Francisco in the north are always on the visitor hot list.

Yet instead, last month I headed to the central coast of the Golden State, to sample the archetypal Californian lifestyle of Santa Barbara. Here the state’s Pacific coast is south facing, and the valleys, sheltered by the Santa Ynez mountains, are home to the cluster of small ocean-facing communities of Summerland, Montecito, and Goleta – with Santa Barbara at their heart. This is among the most desirable and exclusive areas to live in the United States.

As a retreat it has been a favourite among the elite and the Hollywood A-List for at least a century, yet now it has a new moniker, the American Riviera. Conjuring thoughts of European sophistication, small-town charm and Mediterranean chic, its seems a smart choice for this refined region.

European charm, American vibe

The town of Santa Barbara has plenty of European elegance, yet a distinct identity, built upon food, wine, sport and culture. The wealth of California has nurtured this idyllic small town into a place of upscale boutiques, diverse art galleries and an abundance of restaurants and cafes that celebrate the wholesome food and acclaimed wines of the region. Deli-style eateries, micro-brewery and wine bars, and upscale restaurants all seem to share the same commitment to quality, a sophisticated sea-to-table and farm-to-table ethic. I had not been so impressed since I visited South Africa’s Cape Winelands.

In fact, continuing the international comparisons, one could sum up this destination as a place with the climate of Andalucía, the charm of Tuscany, the elegance of Provence, yet the vibrancy, energy and great service that really one only finds in the States.

Fly, drive or train

Downtown Santa Barbara.

Downtown Santa Barbara. / Mark Weber

Getting to Santa Barbara is easy from the main international hubs of San Francisco or Los Angeles. Although Santa Barbara has a small airport, it makes better sense to rent a car (essential in California) and cruise the state’s multi-lane freeways to the Riviera. Yet expect traffic; especially if you drive the 150 kilometres north from Los Angeles airport to Santa Barbara; it’s simply a fact of life in this part of the world. Alternatively take it slow and make the journey part of the adventure by choosing the coast-hugging Pacific Coast Highway 1. It’s a narrow, two-lane road which, believe me, is worth the extra travel time and more leisurely pace. California has beautiful, unspoilt coastline and Highway 1 showcases it, making for an unforgettable journey.

Next time though, I want to let the train take the strain, and ride the Amtrak train, evocatively named ‘Surfliner’ from Los Angeles.

Tent, airstream or suite

There are plenty of options for places to stay. With a similar climate to southern Spain, with over 300 days of sunshine, camping in this part of California is always a popular choice, and here there are beach sites, urban parks, as well as more isolated campsites in the canyons and mountains.

Quaint, sometimes eccentrically-styled guest houses; boutique hotels, as well as Spanish-style inns offer distinctive accommodation – and of course, the big hotel, spa and resort names are here too, including Rosewood, Four Seasons and Belmond. New for 2017 is the Hotel Californian, a large dining, spa and hotel resort on Santa Barbara’s waterfront.

Hollywood hideaway

One of the most historic properties is the El Encanto. Its modest beginnings as student accommodation in 1913 (before its transformation into a hotel in the 1920s) is easily forgotten when one strolls around the elegantly-landscaped grounds or sip a cocktail on the Pacific-facing terrace. In the early noughties, this iconic estate had begun to fall into disrepair, so the family-owned property was sold to Orient-Express Hotels (later rebranding to Belmond) who, under the supervision of Santa Barbara’s Historic Landmark Commission, restored the estate into what is now the only Forbes Five Star resort on the American Riviera.

The guest bungalows retain their vintage style and it still very much feels like a 1950s Hollywood hideaway. The spa, bar, and dining areas are open to non-hotel residents, so it’s well worth a visit to capture the essence of the historic American Riviera.

Spanish colonial

Santa Barbara’s new destination marketing moniker is not the first time the town has been reimagined. A short walk down from the El Encanto hotel, one finds another charming part of Santa Barbara; the town’s historic white sandstone Old Mission, with pink pastel-coloured columns and twin Spanish Colonial bell towers.

Regarded as the Queen of the Missions, this parish church and monastery was once one of 21 colonial missions built by Franciscans in the late 18th Century. ‘California Alta’ was then part of New Spain and later came under Mexican rule before the state joined the Union in 1848. The Mission makes an interesting part of any visit to the Santa Barbara. There are guided tours, or alternatively just buy an entry ticket and look around on your own, and feel the Spanish and Central American history of this part of the United States. The setting, gardens and architecture are very photogenic, and there are regular community events held there. My visit coincided with the end of the Madonnari street painting festival, when the church’s plaza was covered in more than a 150 striking pastel chalk images. Summer brings the Old Spanish Days Fiesta and the Mariachi Music Festival.

The Old Mission is a colourful and picturesque icon of Santa Barbara’s colonial past, but it has been significantly rebuilt following the Santa Barbara earthquake of 1925. As well as toppling the Mission’s unique bell towers, the quake also devastated the town centre. The disaster provided the community with an opportunity; to rebuild in a cohesive, unified style. Santa Barbara chose the Old Mission as their inspiration, and the town was rebuilt in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.

So now visitors to Santa Barbara can enjoy a quintessential Spanish colonial style town, with vintage buildings that date back a century; including the County Courthouse.

Terracotta red roof tiles, intricate ironwork, whitewashed walls and romantic courtyards make Santa Barbara an old-world holiday destination, yet with all the dynamism of contemporary California. That’s the unique quality of the American Riviera.