By Jim Farber
"Welcome to El Capitan," said the handwritten sign in front of the lifeguard tower at one of Santa Barbara's most popular state park beaches. It went on to give information about times for the high and low tides, the water temperature, swimming and surfing conditions ("3 feet out of the SW"), and ended with the most important message of all — "Have fun!"
On the beach everyone was clearly following that advice: either resting comfortably under shady tents or immersed in the gently rolling surf, all under the type of azure sky for which Santa Barbara's El Capitan and Refugio beaches are famous.
Looking over this festive scene you would never guess that just three months ago this was the site of major catastrophe. That was the day a pipeline fractured and began pouring more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean and up onto the shores of Refugio and El Capitan state parks. It is a testament to the efforts of the recovery teams that both beaches are open, that the coastline has been painstakingly restored, and that it is now deemed completely safe for camping and swimming. Just ask the energetic members of Santa Barbara's Junior Lifeguard summer camp who have gathered here in droves.
Located just 90 miles north of the knotted freeways of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara nestles like a jewel between the mountains and the sea. But what truly makes it a great escape is the variety of experiences this seaside community offers — whether it's the chance to savor a lobster taco on the pier, sip your way along the city's Urban Wine Trail, take in a world-class concert and art exhibit, or take to water for a romantic sunset cruise. That's what I did — and a lot more.
Since Santa Barbara's waterfront and downtown are connected by an excellent transit system, including a low-cost shuttle service, it's not imperative to have a car. Getting around is easy. This is also the perfect opportunity to leave the traffic snarls behind and take Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner. From Union Station in Los Angeles the comfortable double-decker train winds its way north through the boulders of the Simi Valley, the agricultural fields of Camarillo and Oxnard, through Ventura and on up the coast (the most scenic portion of the trip) to Santa Barbara.
When you disembark, you're within a few blocks of the resort-style accommodations that line the city's waterfront, including the spacious Harbor View Inn with its panoramic ocean-view rooms that look out on the beach, the pier and nearby marina.
You'll immediately sense the laid-back vibe as you watch bike-riders, joggers, kayakers and sailboats passing by, along with visitors to the pier lining up at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Co.
For years the area just north of the beachfront and south of the railroad tracks was industrial. Surfboard-makers and artists gravitated to it because the spaces were flexible and the rents were low.
Now it is the hippest, most rapidly expanding new attraction in Santa Barbara — called (appropriately) the Funk Zone. Dotted with eateries, antique shops and tasting rooms, it is also the heart of Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail. The Zone features a succession of tasting rooms representing a wide variety of Santa Barbara County's regional wineries.
You'll find fine large-scale producers such as Santa Barbara Winery alongside small boutique vintners like Seth Kunin's The Valley Project, whose tasting room offers a chance to "Visit the unique AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) of Santa Barbara, one glass at a time." Also be sure to sip in at Riverbench Vineyard's tasting room, one of the few wineries specializing in sparkling wines. Their Blanc de Noir is the star.
In the Funk Zone the mood is relaxed, the wine-tasting superb, and the architecture playful— including the popular breakfast and lunch stop, the Lucky Penny, with its wall mosaic made up of thousands of pennies.
To really get a sense of Santa Barbara's spectacular setting you need to take to the water. And the best way to do that is to board one of Santa Barbara Sailing Center's cruises. To sip a glass of champagne at sunset aboard the company's graceful catamaran is an experience you will long remember.
Eating your way through Santa Barbara is another treat. Two of the most interesting new members of the restaurant community are Barbareno and the Hungry Cat. Established in 2014, Barbareno has a low-key casual atmosphere combined with a menu that features unique interpretations of classic dishes (including a deconstructed reimagining of the Egg McMuffin, which legend has it was first invented in Santa Barbara). Fresh farm-to-table ingredients are combined with special preparation, such as the Santa Maria BBQ and its signature 12-hour smoked tri-tip. There's also a chilled avocado soup with basil, white wine and avocado blossom honey.
In contrast, Chef David Lentz's Hungry Cat looks seaward for inspiration and features fish and shellfish right off the boat. I was encouraged to sample the eatery's premier item, the local spiny sea urchin. Caught for the restaurant by a local diver, the dish is served so fresh the spines are still moving, which I must admit was a tad disconcerting. But the taste was like none other, creamy with a hint of the sea in every bite.
Culture has long been an integral part of the Santa Barbara lifestyle. During my visit the Music Academy of the West was celebrating the beginning of a multiyear residency program with the New York Philharmonic. At the same time, the prestigious Santa Barbara Museum of Art was presenting a fascinating exhibition devoted to the paintings, film work and kinetic sculpture of Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, a principal figure in the Bauhaus school.
After two and a half days of total immersion in the Santa Barbara experience, it was time to board the train again and glide my way back to Los Angeles. I felt a bit like Dorothy must have felt leaving Oz.
WHEN YOU GO
For general information: www.santabarbaraca.com
Urban Wine Trail: www.urbanwinetrailsb.com
Santa Barbara Museum of Art: www.sbmuseart.org
The Funk Zone: www.funkzone.net
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.