At the nascent Marrakech International Film Festival in 2014, I found myself the sole western journalist amongst a sea of Al Jazeera correspondents. As such, I was given unprecedented access to screenings and talent, including rather surreally, an invitation to dine with the royal family.
THE PACKING EDIT
The film premiere drawing the most buzz was Sideways, where much of the action takes place on a road trip through Santa Barbara’s wine regions. Unfortunately, my flight to Morocco arrived too late to attend the official screening, but I figured with research, I could get away with interviewing the film’s writer and director, Alexander Payne.
I bluffed my way through the interview, somehow getting along so swimmingly with the talented Mr Payne that he suggested we continue our conversation over lunch the following day. Panicking that my analysis of this opus might crumble under closer scrutiny, I contacted a friend in the US who’d seen the film and asked him to suggest a few questions that would dazzle with insightfulness. Despite a delightful lunch, anytime I attempted to fudge an ambitiously clever observation or query, I was met with a quizzical look because my friend had given me insanely misjudged pointers.
It was only when I returned to the UK and signed up to a press screening that I questioned whether my friend had indeed seen the movie, so bizarre were his comments. Mercifully, my attention was enraptured by the glorious scenery and I soon forgot my embarrassing buffoonery. Santa Barbara’s captivating and magical backdrop proved to be a most welcome distraction and I vowed one day to visit the region referred to as the American Riviera.
Some 15 years later, that day has now arrived and what a joy it is to escape the gloom of the British winter for the nigh on constant Californian sunshine. It doesn’t get much better than sitting beside the Pacific ocean with a glorious mountain backdrop, a mere 90 miles north of Los Angeles.
Santa Barbara is renowned for its connection to food and the arts. The notable A-lister attended annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival reminds that the area was once home to California’s first major movie studio. As the film industry boomed, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle gravitated towards the area, building the Montecito Inn as a haven away from the intensity of prying eyes. Today, Montecito continues to offer respite from LA and the constant public glare, attracting Ellen Degeneres, Rob Lowe and Oprah Winfrey – who recently bought neighbour Jeff Bridges’s beautifully restored home adding to her acreage, to name a few of its renowned inhabitants.
The booming gourmet scene draws visitors from around the globe, lured by the many thoughtfully curated food and drink festivals. In 2019, a dozen of Santa Barbara’s best restaurants were rewarded with inclusion in the new Michelin Guide California. An eagerly anticipated event on the gastronomy calendar is the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience (SBCE), inspired by the legacy of former resident, Julia Child, the renowned television cook with a love of French cuisine. The inaugural SBCE takes place from March 13th to 15th 2020 and the programme encourages visitors to explore and taste the delectable produce from the many farms, vineyards, ranches and fisheries of the region. Partnering with The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, various restaurants, bars and hotels across the city will serve menus based on classic Julia Child dishes, as well as holding various educational and tie-in events.
What to do
See the sights
Stay aboard the Santa Barbara Trolley for the entire duration of this informative 90 minute tour or take advantage of the 2nd day ticket validity, hopping on and off at whim. Highlights include Stearns Wharf, the Harbor and the Old Mission which was founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1786 and still operates as a parish church and home to a community of friars. Also worth disembarking the trolley for is the Old Courthouse with sweeping views of Santa Barbara from the Clock Tower and architecture indicative of the city’s Spanish heritage.
Whilst walking through the Courthouse corridors, we were halted in our tracks by the gravitas of the “American Firefighter’s Flag”. This powerful and poignant piece, designed by former firefighter John Carrillo, depicts the stars and stripes with fire hoses incorporated into the artwork. It honours the first responders and community members who tragically lost their lives in the Montecito Debris Flow of 2018 and 2017 Thomas Fire, using the hoses actually used in the latter tragedy.
Nature is centre stage in Santa Barbara and an official landmark since 1970 is the sprawling magnificent Moreton Bay Fig Tree, planted in 1876. This tree is thought to be the largest of its genus in the country, ranking high on the official Californian Register of Big Trees.
Trolley tours run daily from 10am to 3pm. $25 per adult, includes one free child fare 12 & under.
Moxi, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation is packed full of fun and educational interactive exhibits related to science, technology, arts, maths and engineering. It’s not just for kids and there’s something for everyone to learn from the fascinating exhibitions and displays. End the experience on the roof at the Sky Garden for even more play among the outdoor exhibits, complete with dramatic mountain view.
The city has a very healthy art scene spearheaded by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. We were entranced by how much the subject of Ernest Ange Duez’s painting, “Woman in Grey on Board Ship, Gazing at the Sea”, is a doppelgänger for actress, Chloe Grace Moretz.
Be sure to explore the side streets nearby where many small independent galleries are based, such as Sullivan Goss, which specialises in an eclectic mix of American artists from the 19th to the 21st century.
The influence of Sideways still reigns supreme and capitalising on the film’s enduring success, eight winemakers joined forces in 2007 to create the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail. The Trail covers wineries in several neighbourhoods, plus several easy to reach on foot from Santa Barbara’s centre, such as Margerum and Kunin. We selflessly visited many of these in the name of research, spending a most enjoyable afternoon sampling the generous pours at Pali Wine Company’s Tasting Room, where the knowledgeable staff were on hand to cater for all our party’s palates.
Those planning to undertake some serious wine tasting, should consider investing in the Urban Trail Membership Card. The $150 fee includes one free tasting at all of the 33 wineries on the Trail, plus a 10% single purchase discount on the day of the tasting. Priced at less than 5 bucks per tasting, this card offers fantastic value for oenophiles.
Explore Santa Barbara’s coastline from the relative comfort of a kayak during a two hour paddle. When the timing’s right, the oceanic experience is enhanced by a group of local seals enjoying their daily constitution.
Eat, Drink and Shoot
In just three hours, your photo skills will be improved immeasurably as key pointers are given into everything from negotiating lighting issues to how to capture great Instagram images with Eat This, Shoot That!
During this extensive tour of Santa Barbara’s ever-expanding culinary scene, not only will you be educated into the city’s history whilst honing camera expertise, you’ll also sample some of their finest food and drink offerings, covering everything from an artisan bakery, Helena Avenue, to leading beer maker, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. This tour helpfully explains that the Funk Zone earned its moniker owing to the fishy smell that used to exude when it was home to the fish markets and warehouses, long before it became one of the hippest areas in town.
Key sites on the tour include Enterprise Fish Company, which has queues around the block anticipating opening time; Mony’s Mexican Food Taqueria and South Asian inspired Tyger, Tyger.
The Salt Caves provide an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of the main Downtown shopping street. Over 60 tons of pink crystalline salt was shipped in from Pakistan’s Khewra Salt Mine to line the floors, walls and ceilings of North America’s largest salt cave, creating a cocoon of calm. Himalayan pink salt, one of the planet’s purest forms of ancient salt, is also rich in minerals.
Time spent meandering through the heaven on earth Lotusland is nourishment for the soul. As one of the world’s leading botanical gardens, they protect the DNA of endangered species, cultivating and sharing them with other international gardens. No pesticides are used and insects are given free reign, encouraging rare succulents, ferns, trees and exotic plants to thrive within the natural order of things. These gardens are so well regarded, Prince Charles’s gardener recently visited to learn from their experts.
Go to Market
Santa Barbara is a great city for walking around in and to appreciate its culture of fresh, seasonal and local produce, take a stroll through the weekly Farmer’s Market which takes over Main Street in the Downtown area. We were inspired by the fruit, vegetables and items on offer, mentally devising recipes using purple tomatillos, cherimoya, and from the array of organic fungi on sale at Gold Coast Mushrooms‘s stall.
What To Eat
Confirming our belief that Californians make some of the best breakfasts and brunches, Mediterranean influenced Goat Tree’s extensive menu makes it tough to decide between their excellent shakshuka, waffles, pancakes and frittata. If in doubt, order one of their delicious freshly made pastries to kickstart the day.
Malibu Farm at Rosewood Miramar Beach showcases farm-to-table fare in an relaxed elegant environment in this five star hotel restaurant. Miramar, Spanish for “behold, the sea”, was designed with a colour scheme complementing the sand and sea, most spectacularly seen from the dining terrace. The extensive menu features some of our breakfast favourites – lox and bagels, huevos rancheros and lemon ricotta pancakes, all washed down with delicious smoothies and fresh juices.
Dough is fermented for at least 48 hours at Bettina Pizzeria providing a delicious base for inventive pizzas. The Sottocenre, topped with local mushrooms, truffle cheese, fontina, dandelion and parsley gremolata gets our vote and is the perfect fortification to enjoy before encountering a hike up to Inspiration Point, located in the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains.
Ensuring optimum freshness, the harbourside Shellfish Company – a favourite of Julia Childs, offers the opportunity to meet your meal before you eat it as staff bring out a selection of freshly caught lobsters and crab for perusal. Originally opened 40 years ago as a selling station for shellfish, this perennially popular restaurant adapts family recipes to suit the catch of the day.
Brothers Gary and Jessi Singh chose Santa Barbara for the third US outpost of their “unauthentic Indian” restaurant Bibi Ji. Avoiding heavier ghee based dishes, they opt for a cleaner ethos of water based cooking. The sight of a spiky sea urchin scooped out and filled with uni biryani attempting to scoot off the plate is truly one to behold.
For a sweet tooth fix, artisan chocolate maker Twenty Four Blackbirds specialise in handmade bean to bar delicacies.
McConnell’s ice cream is a local institution which has been whipping up varieties since 1949. Using grass-grazed milk, cage free eggs and ‘no crap added’, current flavour favourites are lemon & marionberries, turkish coffee and whiskey & pecan pralines.
Monkey Shine may not have the history of McConnell’s, but their organic soft serve ice cream infused with Asian spices and key ingredients such as mango sticky rice and ube – purple yam, provides a refreshing alternative to regular flavours.
Enjoy expertly prepared paella and tapas at Spanish restaurant Loquita.
What To Drink
There’s a very healthy bar and beverage scene reminding that Santa Barbara caters for all ages. Those in search of the perfect cocktail have plenty of choice at Test Pilot, their eponymous concoction is comprised of house rum blend, clove, citrus, bitters and absinthe foam; Shaker Mill proffers a Cuban influenced menu; and we insist you save room for Pearl Social’s divine Fuji apple pie topped with crispy sage to accompany a bespoke nightcap.
A genuine astronaut’s suit greets you when entering the space themed Satellite. They’ve got a terrific wine list to choose from, not surprising as they run the only scheduled wine education classes in the city.
Santa Barbara has a splendid selection of vintage shops. We lusted over some fabulous Japanese table lamps at The Blue Door, which has three storeys of well-selected stock, specialising in mid-century modern. Although not vintage, the scents from Santa Barbara Apothecary’s candles on sale here are exquisite and well-worth making room in your luggage to bring a few back home.
Make a point of looking in all corners of Old Town Antiques as there are hidden gems to be unearthed throughout the store.
Where To Stay
Belmond El Encanto
Exuding old school Hollywood glamour, Belmond El Encanto lies high in Santa Barbara’s hills offering outstanding views of the city below. For over a century, this classic hotel’s luxurious bungalows and suites located amongst seven acres of secluded lush gardens have been offering a haven from everyday life and privacy for those living in the spectre of the public eye.
The architecture is an homage to the region with its mix of Californian craftsman and Spanish colonial revival. Breakfast on the terrace courtesy of talented chef Johan Denizot makes creative use of local produce and fresh herbs picked from the hotel’s garden.
Harbor View Inn
Split into several wings, we stayed in Harbor View Inn’s North Wing, centrally located near the waterfront and State Street. All the rooms have a balcony or patio area. There’s a bit of a ghost hotel vibe as this property was without reception staff for the duration of our stay apart from checking in and out times.
This was only an issue when we left our key in the room late at night and then had to navigate our way around the other sites which we weren’t previously aware of until we eventually found a human being who could provide us with a back up card.
Discover what Santa Barbara has to offer, from exhilarating outdoor adventure to fascinating arts and culture to an incredible variety of local food and wine.