The REAL La-La Land: Quieter than Los Angeles, better restaurants than Palm Springs – no wonder superstars (and Ronald Reagan) have all settled in Santa Barbara
- Some 92,000 people live in Santa Barbara, about 95 miles up the coast from LA
- The city was largely rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1925
- The best way to see everything is by bike, ideally a power-assisted one
President Reagan was never shy about making bold pronouncements. ‘No place before or since has ever given Nancy and me more joy and serenity,’ he said of Santa Barbara.
Today, the likes of Oprah Winfrey (who some want for President) live here, while Natalie Portman, Tom Cruise and Drew Barrymore are all regulars who come to get away from prying eyes. Well, almost.
The consensus is that the city has all the best parts of Los Angeles — but without the traffic and egos.
Some 92,000 people live in Santa Barbara, about 95 miles up the coast from Los Angeles. Pictured is the city’s main street
Some 92,000 people live in Santa Barbara, about 95 miles up the coast from Los Angeles. The city was largely rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1925, when architects adopted a Spanish Colonial style as a testament to the maritime explorers who landed here in the 18th century.
The best way to see everything is by bike, ideally a power-assisted one.
Starting off in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, at the Belmond El Encanto hotel, it’s a 15-minute downhill cycle to Santa Barbara’s beachside strip E Cabrillo Boulevard.
From there, I pedal hard against a backdrop of glowing red bottle-brush trees. The road takes me along the beach, where you will find California brown pelicans for company, and striking baby-blue lifeguard stations lining the sand.
Carrying on, I pass hopeful crowds looking for humpback whales as I pull up in Shoreline Park to take in the soaring mountains on one side, the vast Pacific Ocean on the other.
‘My ancestors were originators of the Old Spanish Days Fiesta, a huge celebration of our history, which takes place every August,’ Kelly, a local I meet in the park, tells me. ‘These days we go just to dress up and drink tequila.’
In search of more local knowledge, I arrange to meet Charlotte, the production editor of the Santa Barbara Magazine, downtown in State Street.
‘You’ll be out having dinner and at the table next to you will be someone famous,’ she explains as we tuck into local sea urchin with spicy rice.
Big fans: The Reagans
After lunch, we stroll past historic buildings. There are pretty, hand-painted images of flamenco dancers etched onto structures such as the Lobero Theater, which is still intact from the 1920s. These buildings are often decorated with mismatched tiles, creating a European feel in the heart of the Golden State.
The height (both literally and figuratively) of the Spanish Colonial style is the Santa Barbara Courthouse.
Dating back to 1929, the building is buzzing with legislative staff as well as tourists and wedding parties who flood on to the Sunken Lawn for picnics and respite between proceedings in the chambers. The top of its clock tower offers the best view of the city — and the chance to rest from the sun under the shade of an awning.
From this spot I can appreciate the beauty of the vineyard-laden mountain. The only jarring note is the sight of the not-so-beautiful Golden Arches halfway down State Street. It was in this McDonald’s in 1972 that Santa Barbara local Herb Peterson developed the ubiquitous Egg McMuffin. Now you know. Later that evening, I drink the end product of those sprawling vineyards at the beachside Convivo restaurant.
My waiter tells me locals are celebrating, as the California Michelin Guide has included a new section on Santa Barbara restaurants for the first time this year.
That’s a triumph: other famous Californian cities including Palm Springs aren’t deemed to have culinary scenes impressive enough.
On my final day I get a sense of how much simpler life was in early 1900s Santa Barbara, thanks to a collection of stirring photos at the Historical Museum.
No wonder the former President settled in Santa Barbara — it seems to be the ultimate carefree destination — truly a place to go with no particular agenda.
Travelling the length of the pier, I feel the urge to obey the sign flapping in the wind and ‘eat lotsa lobster’. Then I’m back on my bike and ready to explore this fascinating town some more.
British Airways (ba.com) London to Los Angeles from £316 return. The Santa Barbara Airbus goes from LAX airport, takes an hour and a half and costs £76 return. Double rooms at the Belmond El Encanto from £453, while suites start at £608 a night. Rooms at the Santa Barbara Inn, based on double occupancy, are from £229 a night in the low season and £307 a night high season. More information at santabarbaraca.com.