Santa Barbara is a city I can see my husband and myself retiring in one day in the (unfortunately) distant future. Approximately 90,000+ people live in Santa Barbara but they protect the small town feel with its unique culture. There’s never a bad view as you have the Oceanic view on one side and the Santa Ynez mountains as a dramatic backdrop on the other. As much of a bummer it was to leave Big Sur, we couldn’t wait to check out Santa Barbara and the surrounding wine region.
But what is a road trip without a few stops along the way?!
Just as you wind down the last mountain of the Big Sur region, you’ll find yourself in San Simeon where a heard of elephant seals bask in the sun on Elephant Seal Beach. Street signs will point you to the parking lot pull-off where you can get out of your car and look over a railing to see the seals at play (or probably sleep). Just south of the parking lot is a large flat rock where we saw hundreds of seals sunbathing. It’s hard to believe that these seals were thought to be extinct in the late 1880’s. If you’re curious as to what a day in the life of an elephant seal is like, check out this live Seal cam.
Just a few short miles south of Elephant Seal Beach is Hearst Castle in San Simeon. I recall visiting as a young kid. It was my first taste of opulence (and seeing an indoor pool) and I was mesmerized. While we didn’t make the stop this trip, I felt it was worth mentioning that you can catch any of their many tours offered throughout the day and is conveniently located not far off the Pacific Coast Highway.
In the Santa Ynez Valley between Santa Barbara and the Santa Rita Hills is a town called Solvang. This small town stands out among the rest with its Danish icons that include a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid Fountain, five windmills, and a giant red clog and Round Tower. Had time permitted, we would have stopped for a bit but for tourists, this little town would be great to visit with kids or to just stop by and browse their 150 boutique shops for unique treasures.
A short drive later and we finally arrived in Santa Barbara, home to Tim Allen, Marc Anthony, Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise, Whoopie Goldberg, Jennifer Lopez, Julia-Louise Dreyfus, Steven Spielberg, and Stevie Nicks… and the list goes on. The first thing I noticed about Santa Barbara was the Spanish style architecture. What a nice surprise!
A brief history lesson: The first permanent European settlers landed in present day Santa Barbara around 1782. The Spanish period ended in 1822 when the Mexican war for independence concluded and the area became Mexico…but for only 24 years until the US claimed the territory. In 1952, when an earthquake destroyed the better part of down town, the city adopted architectural style guidelines to preserve the culture of Santa Barbara. Many late 1800’s Victorian homes remain near down town and in the “Upper East” neighborhood. We happened to stay in one of those Victorian homes at a B&B called the Cheshire Cat Inn. We loved our stay and would absolutely stay there again. It was centrally located, just one street over from State Street, the main thoroughfare through Santa Barbara. State Street is home to many shops and restaurants where many patrons enjoy dining al fresco or strolling down to the beach.
We wanted to soak in some of the Santa Barbara culture so we popped into the Santa Barbara Courthouse where tourists can freely walk around. The Mural Room depicts the history of Santa Barbara and is still used as a courtroom today. The top of the courthouse offers spectacular views of the city on a clear day. The Courthouse is located right on State Street and is an easy drop-in as you mosey down the promenade.
If you’re still craving more history, the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum should certainly fill your appetite for a small fee. We probably got more than we needed and I would say that unless you’re a die-hard. It’s probably safe to skip.
We had dinner one night at The Lark in Santa Barbara and really enjoyed the food and dining experience. This restaurant is modern and chic located near the ocean in the more industrialized district so expect to complimentary valet park and bring cash to tip. Side note, a friend of mine saw Julia-Louise Dreyfus and Conan O’Brien dining at The Lark.
Having spent a week in Santa Barbara, we knew we would be dropping the ball if we didn’t get some of the west coast style Mexican food. So THAT we did, at Los Agaves Restaurant. Holy Guacamoly! Don’t be fooled by the walk-up counter and seemingly fast food service, this food is good and FRESH at very reasonable prices.
About half an hour’s drive north of Santa Barbara lies the Santa Rita Hills. If you’re not familiar with the Santa Rita Hills, you should be. The ocean breeze flows into the valley every afternoon creating an environment perfect for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other cool climate grape varieties (such as Syrah, Savignon Blanc, Viognier). There are over 2,700 acres of 59 different vineyards grown in the Santa Rita Hills. Surprisingly, growing wine is rather new to the area which means that wine growing will only become better over time.
Most people understand traditional vineyards where you can taste wine on the property site. However, in the Santa Rita Hills, there are several smaller wine makers who band together to create the Wine Ghetto in Lompoc located in industrialized warehouses. Visiting the Wine Ghettos is a great way to taste several vineyard labels without having to drive from property to property. Because we had a rather limited time in the area, we hit up as many vineyards as reasonably possible but not before stopping in town to grab some sandwiches, cheese, and crackers to have a picnic lunch among the grapes.
Our impressions of the wine we tasted…
- Our first stop was Babcock where we enjoyed our picnic lunch. Babcock offers a large rustic warehouse for tastings that include boutique items for purchase (think vintage cameras and fun oil paintings).
- We enjoyed Foley and sat on their nice patio to enjoy the tastings. They offer a beautiful setting and we were pleased with their chardonnay.
- Alma Rosa may have been one of our favorites in wine and in experience. Their indoor tasting room was modern with a giant Olive tree in the center. Next door is a popular eatery, Industrial Eats, if you’re looking to time lunch with tastings.
- We also visited Lafond but it wasn’t one of our favorites. I hate to say their wines were “decent” as everyone’s taste in wine will differ but perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Lafond came recommended to us by some friends who enjoyed their wine and experience.
- Sanford had a very lodge-y, pretentious, commercial feel in our opinion. However, the setting was beautiful and we enjoyed the wine while I browsed the wine knick-knack items for sale.
- We enjoyed our experience at Melville, another large facility, and appreciated talking to the wine sellers about their wine. We had purchased a case and actually had wished we purchased more.
- Ampelos might have been our favorite experience. It’s a very small tasting room in the Wine Ghetto. The wine seller was very friendly and interesting to talk to. We purchased a case and it has treated us well. In our opinion, Ampelos was the best value we had tasted in the Santa Rita Hills area.
If you’re not up for a picnic lunch, we enjoyed Scratch Kitchen located near the Wine Ghetto in Lompoc. The crab cakes were delicious!
Other activities that are offered in Santa Barbara: Paddle boarding, sailing, bike riding, touring, kayaking, botanical gardens, festivals, wine-ing and dining and so much more. The Santa Barbara website is great for getting information on local activities. It also is a useful resource for finding an itinerary for your stay in Santa Barbara.