A May 2005 trip
to Santa Barbara by btwood2
Quote: Mix seaside and mountains, and add a balmy coastal climate and warm south-facing beaches. Throw in gleaming, whitewashed buildings; terracotta tile; and wrought-iron ornamentation, around which subtropical plants grow as if possessed. Infuse with arts, culture, and outdoor dining. Spice it up with diverse ethnic mix = PARADISE!!!
State Street is the magnetic core and beating heart of Santa Barbara. We invariably are drawn to this street, always to discover something new. Be it another unique shop, a hidden courtyard we hadn’t found yet, or people-watching, State Street is never boring.
Stearns Wharf, East and West Beaches, and the harbor can easily take a full day and evening of exploration and enjoyment. The pelicans on the wharf seem almost completely oblivious to the human presence. This is the place to get up close and personal with a pelican. Don’t miss the weekly arts-and-crafts shows on Sundays. Good-quality, original art and handcrafted items by locals can be found here. East of Stearns is the famous stretch of beach with seemingly endless (1299 to be exact) palms pictured on countless S.B. postcards.
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse exemplifies the architectural blending of Spanish, Moorish, and Mediterranean styles that grace this city. It’s the most beautiful government building I’ve ever seen – absolutely a must-see. Murals, paintings, and mosaics make this fully functioning courthouse more like a museum.
El Presidio State Historic Park continues to develop as restorations continue. Built in 1782, El Presidio was the last Spanish outpost in Alta California. This fortress was damaged by earthquakes and partially demolished by construction of city streets. Reconstruction began in the 1960s. El Presidio now offers a fascinating look into California’s Spanish past.
Queen of the Missions is the well-deserved title given to this tenth California mission, sitting regally on a hillside, fronted by lawns and rose gardens.
Years ago, we visited Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in the hills above the mission. Founded in 1926, it’s the first botanic garden dedicated to native California flora. Over 1,000 species of indigenous California plants grow on its 65 acres. More than 5 miles of paths wind through meadows, canyons, and forest, and across little Mission Dam.
Freebies: Santa Barbara can be a costly city, but there are countless free and low-cost opportunities for budget travelers. Strolling State Street, touring the County Courthouse, walking and playing on the beaches, exploring Stearns Wharf, and riding the .25 waterfront and State Street shuttles are a few.
Santa Barbara beaches face SOUTH, not west. If you remember this fact, you’ll be better oriented to your directions.
Similar-sounding street names can be confusing: Cabrillo runs east-west along the coastline; Carrillo runs east-west downtown; and Castillo runs north-south just east of the 101, eventually intersecting both Carrillo and Cabrillo!
Fun with the kids: When my kids were little, we spent one memorable vacation with them in Santa Barbara. We took them to Santa Barbara Zoo, where over 600 animals inhabit 30 acres that was once a large estate. We were amazed by the giant blue whale skeleton in front of the Museum of Natural History. My favorite outing was to an orchid farm in nearby Carpinteria.
Santa Barbara Municipal Airport connects with 11 western U.S. hub airports. The Amtrak train station will deposit you right at the foot of State Street, downtown. Greyhound bus depot is on the corner of Carrillo and Chapala, also downtown.
Getting around while there: This is a great city for walkers and bicyclists. But for a cheap, fun ride, waterfront and downtown shuttles cost .25 and run every 15 to 20 minutes. Santa Barbara Metro Transit District buses run all over town and to neighboring Goleta and ritzy Montecito. Parking downtown is available in garages or free street-side for 75 minutes. Six car rental companies operate at the airport and in town.
Hotel | "Sandman Inn"
For $95 a night, this frugal soul expects everything to work. An hour after we’d settled into our room, I went to the front desk with the following complaints: dead phone, dead electrical socket, and no closed-captioning on the TV (for my deaf mother). Abraham was sent to our room to trouble shoot. He immediately fixed the wall socket problem by bringing in a six-outlet power tap, plugging it into the working half of the wall socket. Checking the phone, he explained that sometimes they don’t work, but probably in the morning it would work. He found a Mitsubishi remote for the TV, but the model was pre-closed-captioning. He said he’d leave a message for Alejandro, the morning man, to see what he could do to help.
Bright and early, Alejandro was knocking on the door. Presto! There was a dial tone as he picked up the phone. But the next day, it stopped working again. The closed-captioning problem took much more time, and eventually, Alejandro returned with an old closed-captioning box, the kind used before closed-captioning became internalized in TVs. Try as he might, he simply couldn’t get it to work. The woman at the front desk brusquely informed me that if the box didn’t work, there was nothing more they could do. However, later that afternoon, we returned to the room to find a newer RCA TV with internal closed-captioning.
Besides access to two pools and a hot tub, every guest may pick up a free YMCA Athletic Club guest pass. The Y has a full service gym a 5-minute walk from Sandman. They’ve got cardio, resistance machines, free weights, pool, saunas, steam room, lockers, and even basketball courts. Other freebies include a complimentary continental breakfast between 5 and 10am and high-speed ADSL Internet in the lobby.
Our closet was in the entryway, which was unlit, making it difficult to see in the closet. It did contain a full-sized ironing board and iron. Our dark-blue carpeting was stained. Though vacuumed, it looked like it could use a shampoo. Though the service staff tried their best to be helpful, the front-desk staff was inconsistent.
Flowering jacaranda trees were all over the grounds. The dramatic blue-violet blooming trees are native to Brazil, but thrive in Santa Barbara’s balmy coastal climate.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on July 10, 2005
The Sandman Inn
3714 STATE STREET
Santa Barbara, California 93105
Hotel | "Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Stables"
Our RPI (Resort Parks International) membership allowed us to stay here for $8 a night, plus a $2 reservation fee. Membership is required unless you’re bringing a horse or renting a cabin or covered Conestoga wagon. RV sites cost $36 a night for (non-member) RVers with horses, and rentals cost $59/nightly for a four-person covered wagon (cots inside) and $84/nightly for a Western-themed cabin with double bed, twin bunks, mini fridge, ceiling fan, and barbecue grill. Tent campers can set up right by the river, next to corrals for their horses. For members and guests, there’s also a variety of rental trailers, park models, and cabins of various sizes adjoining the seven tiers of hillside RV spaces. Another more tree-shaded RV section is across the creek from the country store.
Pickleball, anyone? During our week-long stay at Rancho Oso, we enjoyed their pools and hot tub several times. The one next to the steaming spa is unheated and very refreshing to swim a few laps between hot soaks. The more popular heated pool nearby draws families with children. Behind the pools are playground, volleyball, basketball, pickleball, and tennis courts. Pickleball? I’d never heard of this sport, a mini tennis-like game created in Washington in 1965 and named for a family dog!
Rancho Oso contains two historic buildings on its grounds, an 1846 adobe that’s currently used as an operations office and the early 1900s Stone Lodge, now a restaurant. The Stone Lodge was bustling with families breakfasting indoors and on the patio the morning we went to take a look; the recreation room has a big stone fireplace with an obligatory buck’s head mounted above. In another corner is a painted mural of the area with deer, wild turkeys, and a soaring eagle. Both Stone Lodge and the chuck wagon near the park entrance are open weekends and very reasonably priced.
The cowboy theme prevails at Rancho Oso. On the weekends especially… In our May newsletter, special weekend events included a campfire sing-along, harmonica lessons, and performance, all by Cowboy Dave, and singer-songwriter Steve Woods playing country favorites and his own originals. Golden horseshoe hunts for the kids are held on Saturdays. Besides the Stone Lodge, there’s an adult lodge with patio and wooden deck. Indoors there’s a TV room and library with a fireplace, comfortable couches, and knotty pine walls. A sunny game room has tables for puzzles, card and board games, and chess.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 10, 2005
Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Stables
3750 Paradise Rd.
Santa Barbara, California 93105
Open for lunches Monday through Friday and dinners nightly, Mimosa offers fine dining, a full bar, and a banquet room. We arrived as the sun was setting, were seated at a neat white-tablecloth table, and quickly were brought a generous basket of French bread, two kinds, one white, the other whole-grain with pine nuts – delicious! The bread just begged for wine accompaniment, so I ordered a half bottle Cottonwood 98-99 merlot ($16.50) from an extensive list of domestic and French wines. My mother and I perused the menu in this pleasant state of nibbling and sipping. I chose baked salmon nicoise ($13.50), and my mother the grilled petit poulet with lemon rosemary pinot blanc sauce ($18.50).
Both entréees were superb. The salmon was crusted with Dijon mustard and herbed bread crumbs, served over a medley of black olives and summer vegetables. The green beans were unusually thin, and we learned from our server that they’re locally garden-grown haricot vert (green beans) of a special variety preferred by the chef. Along with the green beans were also carrot and zucchini slivers. My rice pilaf was fluffy and tasty, dressed up with almonds and cranberries. My mother was equally satisfied with her chicken, with veggies like mine and basil mashed potatoes.
After viewing the desserts, we just couldn’t resist ordering one and splitting it. Though it was a difficult choice among very tempting creations, we selected the mocha torte with chocolate genoche outside and buttercream inside in a cappuccino sauce – simply out of this world!
Mimosa offers nightly specials and such classics as soupe a l’oignon gratinee, escargot, and sautéed frog legs served in a citrus-and-lavender cream sauce on arugula. Though red meats are becoming somewhat scarce in health-conscious Santa Barbara, Mimosa’s menu still includes filet mignon and pork. For a delicious mid-day meal, Mimosa offers summer lunches consisting of entrée and soup or salad for only $9.50. Reduced price dinners on Monday through Wednesday also include soup or salad for $14.95. (We were there on a Thursday.)
The old-style European ambience, good service, and carefully and lovingly prepared dishes, served so you can see them well, won my mother’s heart the first time we ate here. Mine too. But for an elderly and rather picky Dutch lady, that’s saying a lot.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 10, 2005
2700 De La Vina St.
Santa Barbara, California 93105
We arrived at 5:30pm at Paoli’s, and sure enough, signs advertised everything half-off, with the exception of shelf drinks. Paoli’s could very well be the best restaurant deal in Santa Barbara. It serves great Italian food in a homey atmosphere for pennies. We decided to sit inside, as everyone else had, due to an unusually windy day making the patio almost uninhabitable, despite its being sheltered and enclosed. Taking a table near the front, with sun streaming in the west-facing windows, we began to look over the menu. The front of the menu tells you three important facts: Your beautiful mother is my only competitor. Best Pizza in Santa Barbara. Late Night Dining. Another page in the menu gives a bit more insight into the Paoli way. Not into fancy stuff, Paoli’s is proud of its good, solid home-cooked meals, flowered tablecloths, and wine served in kitchen glasses.
The menu is divided into pizzas, pastas, chicken and seafood dishes, and sandwiches for lunch only. There’s also a whole page of appetizers, soups, and salads, including a minestrone bowl for $3.95. Many of the entrées looked tantalizing, but how could we NOT order the best pizza in Santa Barbara? Our half-price deluxe was topped with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onion, and green pepper. It was served to us bubbly hot in a well-used baking pan, with a medium crust and deliciously seasoned sauce. The veggies weren’t overdone, and everything was in perfect proportion. Our Firestone beers were half-priced as well, so we didn’t care that they don’t serve pitchers. Cost pre-tip: $14.81.
I don’t recall we’ve been anywhere else for pizza in Santa Barbara, but I’m ready to believe that Paoli’s does make the best. You also can’t beat the friendly, comfy, homey atmosphere. It’s obvious this is a locals’ favorite. The bar, festooned with tiny Christmas lights, looks inviting, with laughter and conversation among the guys sitting on flowered barstools (matching the flowered tablecloths).
You don’t have to come Mondays to get a delicious meal dirt-cheap. Every day, early bird meals are served for $7.95, and discounted drinks at happy hours daily between 4 and 7pm. Lunches, all under $10, are almost half the price of dinners, with the same entrées, but without the salad or soup choice. Paoli’s has one other restaurant in Big Bear Lake, California.
Paoli’s Italian Country Kitchen
202 State Street
Santa Barbara, California
A chain is a chain is a… It’s here I admit that this venerable establishment in what is possibly Santa Barbara’s most interesting courtyard is a chain, with 40 locations in California (most in SoCal), and one in Oregon. The first Acapulco was founded in Pasadena in 1960 by Ray Marshall. All of the Acapulcos now are owned by mega-portfolio company Real Mex Restaurants, of Chevy’s and El Torito "fame." Since acquiring Chevy’s last year, Real Mex has become the largest operator of casual-dining Mexican restaurants in the U.S.
That said, we’ve enjoyed dining here over the years. Most often, we ordered the Fajitas Gigante, a huge, sizzling platter of steak, chicken, and shrimp fajitas, which more than satisfied both of us, for only $14.99. This time, however, we’d arrived early enough for a happy hour, which included free appetizers. With the $15 pitcher of Cuervo on the rocks, self-serve appetizers in the bar included rolled deep-fried sausage and potato burritos; very tasty, hot artichoke dip; and, of course, chips and salsas. Feeling like fajitas would be just too filling on top of that, we opted for the $7.99 Grand Fiesta Platter, a combination of appetizers. This huge plate consisted of four spicy chicken drummettes, four beef taquitos, four chile/cheese quesadilla strips, two Mexican pizza quarters, two cheese crisp quarters, a centerpiece of nachos with dollop of sour cream on top, and guacamole and picante ranch sauce on the side for dipping. This was more than enough for us. I didn’t like it as much as their fajitas, partly because it was so heavy (fried, deep-fried), partly because it looked as if it had been hurriedly thrown together (not pretty like on the menu), and probably also partly because we’d eaten those free appetizers before and really weren’t all that hungry any more!
Acapulco’s really gets busy after 5pm, with most of the fountain-side tables filling up and the young servers and bus people delivering food, drink, and cleaning up as fast as they can. It’s a popular place in a super location, with a festive atmosphere and reasonable prices for reasonably good (although fattening) food.
Acapulco Mexican Restaurant y Cantina
1114 State St.
Santa Barbara, California 93101
Restaurant | "Ruby’s Café and Spirits Lounge"
Other dining options are indoors, with a full bar and tables covered with white linen and fresh flowers on polished hardwood floors and out front on State Street. Ruby’s menu isn’t strictly Mexican, but that’s where their heart is, and what my stomach yearns for most. I’ve tried just about all of their Mexican breakfast selections, all steaming hot and served with a bowl of wonderful red salsa. This time, I ordered machaca and scrambled eggs. The tender shredded beef had not a particle of fat in it, with chunks of onions and bell pepper in the scramble, covered with ranchero sauce and coming with cottage fries, refried beans, and fresh corn tortillas. Another frequent choice of mine is chorizo and eggs. Bob likes omelets, and he chose Italian sausage omelet with onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and jack cheese – also a winner. Ruby’s makes a mean corned beef hash, great with eggs and potatoes. Breakfast classics such as ham-and-eggs, pancakes, French toast, oatmeal, and granola with fresh fruit are all on Ruby’s menu.
There are too many good restaurants in Santa Barbara. Otherwise, I might be tempted to frequent Ruby’s for all meals. With consistently top-notch service, their menus for both lunch and dinner are varied and very reasonably priced. Besides Mexican meals, Ruby’s describes their foods as "international" and pride themselves on the freshness of their ingredients; I’d say the accents are Italian/Californian. Four kinds of hamburgers and lots of sandwiches, including the Mexican torta, and several wraps all come with fries and soup or salad for around $8. Seven salads and two soups include a scrumptious tortilla soup, which we shared one time for breakfast. It got Bob hooked on tortilla soup. The lunch menu includes more substantial Mexican lunches, such as enchilada and chile relleno platters, fajitas, burritos, tacos, and tostadas. These are all also offered in the dinner menu, most the same price as for lunch. Dinner’s menu eliminates a few of the sandwiches, but then adds lots of more typical dinner-type meals, such as five steaks, including filet mignon, all for under $20. A nice selection of chicken, seafood (mostly broiled or grilled), and pasta dinners round out the menu. Dinners are served with scalloped potatoes or rice pilaf and are around $13. Flan and cheesecake are the dessert offerings.
Ruby’s is a salsa discotheque Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10pm to 1:30am, with bands providing live music: salsa, Latin, and sometimes swing. The one-and-only Ruby’s is owned by Guadalupe Martinez, a family restaurant since 1984.
Ruby’s Cafe and Spirits Lounge
734 State St.
Santa Barbara, California 93101
Attraction | "Stearn's Wharf"
Stearns Wharf, the most-visited tourist attraction in town, is a good place to begin your waterfront explorations. Lumberman John Stearns built the wharf in 1872, and it became an important shipping and transportation center for the California coast and helped end Santa Barbara’s relative isolation.
This wharf had a rough life. In 1925, it was damaged by a big earthquake. A devastating Harbor Restaurant fire in 1973 closed the wharf for almost 9 years, finally reopening in 1981. We used to eat at the old Moby Dick restaurant until it and the last 150 feet of the wharf were destroyed in 1998 by yet another fire, believed to have originated in Moby Dick’s kitchen. By 2002, Moby Dick was back in business, along with the reconstructed remainder of the wharf.
On our last visit in May 2005, a volleyball tent city was being erected on West Beach. Preparations included setting up nets, tent booths for vendors, a soundstage, and a long row of porta-potties. Along the beach, besides a wide sidewalk, there’s a well-used two-way bike/skate path. Bikes and more are for rent just across the street: tandems, surries, three-wheelers, cruisers, mountain and road bikes, kid’s bikes, and even strollers, as well as rollerblades. East of the wharf is a new skate park, where young skater dudes show off their prowess.
Dolphin Fountain: Arriving at Stearns Wharf, in the center of the traffic circle stands a fountain, out of which three dolphin leap in graceful arcs. It’s a half-mile out to the end of the pier. High heels are not recommended. Parking on the pier costs $2/hour, $1/hour for disabled, and the first 90 minutes are free with a validated merchant ticket. As you walk along the wharf, you’ll pass several homeless person’s wishing well structures in the sand below, some almost artsy, others simply junky-looking. The idea is to toss coins into them. Longboats are very popular here, too.
Shops, restaurants, Sea Center, Nature Conservancy, boat rides and cruises, and even a fortune teller are among the attractions on the middle portion of the wharf. Harbor Restaurant has upstairs patio dining, but is more expensive than Moby Dick, farther down and still our favorite.
Pelican encounters of the close kind are what I find most enjoyable, all the way at the end of the pier. Brown pelicans are one of the more than 20 species of birds feeding and resting in the harbor. It’s fun to watch them high-dive headlong into the ocean for their fish meals. Seagulls look for dead food or handouts. Among the sand birds are snowy plovers, an endangered species that this spring (2005), for the first time in many years, nested and hatched a few precious baby plovers right on the beach by the wharf. Some concern existed about the West Beach 4th of July fireworks putting them into shock, but the city had them anyway. Most of the fishing by humans is done at pier’s end too. Perfect weather enticed us to linger, people- and pelican-watching the afternoon away.
Foot of State Street at Cabrillo Blvd.
Santa Barbara, California 93101
El Cuartel, on the east side of Canon Perdido Street, was part of the western wall and the residence of the last soldier guarding the West Gate of the garrison. This is a good place to begin your tour. This simple, windowless, white-washed adobe happens to be the second-oldest building in California. Next to it, a 1992 tile plaque commemorates the quincentennial of the "discovery" of America and Presidio restoration.
Chapel and bell tower stand across Canon Perdido from El Cuartel. Some of Santa Barbara’s earliest settlers lie buried beneath the tile floors of the chapel. The bell tower was reconstructed and rededicated in 2001. A plaque informs that El Presidio, built in 1782 by the command of King Carlos III of Spain, was the last Spanish fortress built in Alta California. Protection of mission and settlers and provision of a social and cultural center for settlers were its functions. A brochure informs that many of the descendents of these Spanish settlers reside in Santa Barbara today. The chapel and housing formed a quadrangle around a central plaza, la Plaza de Armas. Adobe blocks for continued reconstruction are produced and dried in the large square in front of the chapel.
The Comandancia (Comandante’s Quarters) next to the chapel was attached to a larger officers’ complex, but was sliced in two by the construction of Santa Barbara Street. A corner of the reconstructed wall is glass, allowing a view into a large room furnished with solid wood table, chairs, and benches.
Interesting interpretive exhibits can be found across Santa Barbara Street in the Northeast Corner complex, reconstructed upon the foundations of officers’ and soldiers’ quarters and a two-story observation tower. In one room, a crude weaving loom of the type that makes "homespun" fabric or rough blankets. In other rooms, exhibits describing trade, chocolate, the Yuma Campaign, and a painting of the garrison as it must have looked in the late 1700s. Behind the Cocina, a small vegetable garden has been planted.
Educational focus: Up the street, a sign in front of a 1928 building informs that it will soon be reconstructed into the Presidio Resource Center, with a library, research room, and collections. Docent-led tours of students can be arranged appropriate to the grade level. Hands-on youth archeology programs teach by digging right at the Presidio site. The Trust partners with educators groups, the Girl Scouts, and summer day-camp sponsors.
El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
Intersection of Santa Barbara and East Canon Perdido Streets
Santa Barbara, California
Rancho las Prietas y Nagalayegua was the long, melodious name given to the parcel (including present-day Rancho Oso) granted to José Dominquez by California governor Pio Pico in 1845. The Flores adobe standing at the entrance to Rancho Oso was built shortly after. From the late 1800s to the present, the land passed through several ownerships, first called E. W. Ranch, later T. P. Ranch, a favorite hangout of silent movie stars of the ‘20s and cowboy artist Edward Borein. Sold and bought a couple more times, owner M. K. Duryea named Rancho Oso (Bear Ranch) in 1949. Its last private owners were the Jamisons, enjoying Rancho Oso for over 30 years, until 1984. Today, the ranch, managed by Thousand Trails/NACO West, is a part of Los Padres National Forest.
Horseback riding has been and remains central to Rancho Oso. Wranglers lead trail rides, ranging from the 1-hour Rancho Oso Loop ($30/per person) to the 4-hour Arroyo Burro Trail ($90/per person). They were a bit beyond our budget, and there were plenty of free activities to keep us busy, such as using our own two feet to take several short hikes.
Wildflower extravaganza: The exceptionally rainy winter and spring had caused luxuriant growth and an explosion of wildflowers that were still in full glory by mid-May. I picked up a few maps from the ranger at the entrance kiosk. The Waterfall Trail began right behind the back circle of covered wagons. Up a dirt road past the water tank, the trail crisscrossed the bubbling stream several times before arriving at a small but lovely waterfall. Another afternoon, I took a dustier trail used as part of the Loop horse trail winding around Rancho Oso. Around every bend, I came across more wildflowers in all colors: purple, yellow, blue, pink, white, and cream. Some I recognized: lupines, poppies, and blue dicks. Others I had to look up in my field guide: mariposa lilies, golden yarrow, thick fields of bird’s eye gilias, and hairy nettle lupine with small purple flowers. On yet another walk from the RV area to the entrance, ground squirrels were popping up from their burrows and popping back down or scurrying away at my approach, with squeaks of alarm. I almost stepped on a burrow right by the roadside, from which three baby ground squirrels were peeking out, apparently too young yet to fear me. They looked curious as I snapped several photos (see below).
1000 trails… It was a pity we couldn’t stay longer, as so many trails beckoned longer hikes. Aliso Canyon Loop from Sage Hill Campground was reportedly overgrown with just about every kind of wildflower to be found in Santa Barbara County. From Rancho Oso, the Bath Tub Trail turns into strenuous Arroyo Burro. Snyder’s Trail passes some falls and eventually a mysterious structure signed on the map as "Knatt’s Castle (ruins)," about which I wasn’t able to find any information. For backpackers, Camuesa and Santa Cruz trails lead deeper into the mountains. It is truly a place where "Thousand Trails" almost lives up to its name!
Trail hazards… Shortly after arriving at Rancho Oso, I’d spotted signs on the restroom/laundry house bulletin board that caught my eye. Things to watch out for. It included cautionary remarks about poison oak and rattlesnakes, the former oft encountered, the latter seldom, on the extensive trail system in and surrounding Rancho Oso. Ticks are also prevalent here. Los Padres National Forest, with its bountiful wildlife, lies on all sides of Rancho Oso. The third sign was very specific about how humans should respond to a mountain lion encounter. Do NOT run, do NOT turn your back, and do NOT bend over. These actions will cause you to be perceived as prey. DO look directly at the cougar, raise your arms above your head, and make a lot of noise. You will more likely be perceived as a threat, and the big cat will retreat. And, of course, hiking alone is best avoided.
Beach zone: From its beginning across the street from the Pacific Ocean to the 101 underpass, State Street has a beachy feel. You can buy surfing gear and beachwear at Beach House Surf ‘n Wear’s. Everywhere, there are places where you can rent all kinds of vehicles, from basic bikes to fancy, surried paddle-contraptions that carry four persons. Almost a decade ago, while in Santa Barbara with my mother and son, we rented a two-person paddle-surry, on which the three of us had a blast paddling up to the harbor and back. Continue walking and to your left as you cross the railroad tracks, you’ll see the railroad station a block to the west. Besides being a transition zone, the underpass under 101 is an interesting structure in and of itself. Ivy has overgrown the north-facing arch of the overpass entirely, while the south-facing side is bare. It’s dark and noisy from overhead traffic as you walk underneath, making it difficult to hear skaters approaching from behind.
Old Town: On the other side of the underpass, a fancy wrought-iron clock on a pedestal announces you’re entering Old Town. In years past, we’ve enjoyed Farmers Markets and 4th of July parades on the spacious terracotta-tiled sidewalks that line both sides of State. Enlightened city officials back in the ‘60s changed this portion of State Street from a congested, urban-blighted, four-lane nightmare to what it is today. Four lanes were reduced to two, and sidewalks were greatly widened, improved, and landscaped on each side, changing State Street from a car street to a people street. Brilliant! Santa Barbara set a precedent for many other Western cities and towns struggling to revive their downtowns.
Most of the restaurants on State take advantage of the wide-tiled sidewalks to offer street-side dining, giving the street a European feel. Santa Barbara weather almost always accommodates, with sunshine and mild temperatures, even when foggy or overcast. We did experience one very windy day, though, when only the hardiest of souls were eating outdoors and tablecloths not anchored down were blowing away. Choosing a restaurant can be a daunting task. There are so many good ones, and almost all of them look inviting. Most post their menus outside, and price ranges vary, making decisions easier. Some of our favorite State Street restaurants are Paoli’s, Ruby’s, the Palace Grill (just off State on Cota), El Paseo Restaurant in El Paseo courtyard, and Acapulco’s in La Arcada courtyard.
As you wander State Street, don’t be surprised to stumble into one of the many hidden courtyards (such as La Arcada) in unlikely places. As you turn a corner, suddenly the bustle and activity of State Street will be replaced by relative silence and serenity, punctuated by the tinkling of water from fountains and the chirping of birds hanging out in the bushes and trees, ivy, and brilliant bougainvillea creeping up buildings.
La Arcada, at 1114 State St., is just south of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. You can also enter La Arcada from the back or side, via library or art museum grounds. It’s easy to lose yourself in this courtyard, because it’s so full of museum-quality sculptures, antiques, great shops, restaurants, and even an old-fashioned barbershop. Sculptures by J. Seward Johnson Jr. highlight the common man. A dad carries his son piggy-back in front of a carousel mural; window washer "Bob" (no relation to my husband) in white coveralls stands with his back to you, squeegying the cleanest window in Santa Barbara. Other human sculptures include old Ben Franklin seated on a bench reading and a grandpa sharing a chocolate bar with his young granddaughter. The charming centerpiece of the courtyard, though, is the Mozart Trio Fountain, an elevated fountain around which diminutive cellist, French horn player, and flautist are taking a break between pieces. This piece was created by Bonifatius Stirnberg of Germany. Sea life sculptures outnumber human ones; bronze dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, and even a whale tail bench are the work of Bud Bottoms, sculpture laureate of Santa Barbara. Be sure to take a peek inside the La Arcada Building, the barbershop, and Acapulco Restaurant, which all contain antiques, many from turn-of-the-century Chicago. Architect Myron Hunt of Chicago designed and constructed La Arcada in 1926. A large fish and turtle pond and fountain, around which you can dine and enjoy margaritas at Acapulco Restaurant, make for a tranquil experience.
El Paseo was once part of Casa de la Guerra, an 1826 historic adobe complex. El Paseo Restaurant, deep inside, is a unique indoor/outdoor setup, a courtyard within a courtyard with retractable roof. We were here one Thanksgiving when it began to rain, and prepared Santa Barbarans pulled out their umbrellas and continued to eat placidly as the rain misted down. As if the fountains, flags and flowers – arches of magenta bougainvillea – didn’t make El Paseo colorful enough, this time, a man was wandering around with a brilliantly colored parrot on his shoulder.
El Paseo Nuevo is roughly across the street from El Paseo, on the west side of State. You can’t miss this one, because it takes up an entire block. An arched entrance with a smiling copper sun welcomes shoppers to the outdoor mall, and an arresting portico arch inlaid with tile peacock with tail spread out serves as entrance to one of the department stores. One year, we attended opening day of a music festival at Paseo Nuevo free, watching, listening, and taking pictures from upstairs. This mall contains over 50 specialty and gift shops, restaurants, theater, and art galleries. In fact, though, all of State Street is shopping heaven, whether buying or browsing.
A street with personality: Some old characters who’ve inhabited the streets for decades are practically landmarks. We’ve watched them age: a grizzled, bushy-eyebrowed, gray-haired fellow is a work of art himself, in flowing robes (in cool weather) and loincloth (in warm weather), wearing headgear loaded with fresh flowers and ribbons. Another, rasta-haired in dark clothing, is getting a paunch. Panhandlers, young and old, in laid back SoCal style, are generally not too aggressive. A young, dingy-looking blond girl in overalls approaches giggling, with the line, "Cash for white trash?" Before I know it, I respond, "No thanks, hon. I’m managing okay," leaving her still giggling but open-mouthed. Bob, on occasion (and this was one of them), will delve into the "why would an able-bodied, seemingly intelligent young man such as yourself do this sort of thing," followed by the "when I was your age I never got help from anyone" lecture, with closely on its heels, the "I worked hard all my life for every penny I earned" spiel. The shaven-headed, pierced and tattooed dude on the receiving end looks bemused and concedes that if he were in Bob’s shoes, he might not be inclined to give his hard-earned money away either.
Though I’m a firm proponent of "until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes," panhandling, as I’ve experienced it in the U.S., disturbs me. I feel it’s degrading. I don’t like to see people degrading themselves. Beyond that, in many cases, it’s likely a con, and in many cases, the cash probably goes to feed a drug habit. I don’t mind helping people out, but I like to choose who and what I help, not the other way around. So, as you’ve guessed, we don’t give to panhandlers. If accosted by one, I’ll usually continue walking, acknowledge him (or her), and say no or shake my head. Bob’s more of a smart-ass. He usually directs them to a nearby store or restaurant or tells them, "There’s a food kitchen just around the corner."
A SoCal earthquake proved to be the catalyst behind this work of architectural art. The old 1872 Greek-Revival-style courthouse was getting too small for Santa Barbara anyway when a severe earthquake, in 1925, damaged it beyond repair. The much-larger Spanish-Andalusian-style courthouse that stands today, completed in 1929, was designed by San Francisco architect William Mooser III.
The courthouse takes up a full block, and you can enter from all sides. But if you face the building from the front (on Anacapa), you’ll notice that there are many asymmetrical features in the whitewashed, red-tile-roofed complex. Building heights vary, and windows range from square to arched to round; some are small, some large, and they’re at different levels. Some are decoratively barred, others unbarred. To the right, a clock tower rises above all.
Reconstruction is going on in a big way to the left of the entrance arch. The Hall of Records building and adjoining gardens are pretty well fenced off at the corner of Anacapa and Anapamu Streets. The project began in 2003. Later, from the heights of the clock tower, we will view the progress of restoration of the 44-foot skylight. Approaching more closely now, attention is drawn simultaneously to the massive entry arch and the frolicsome statue to the left of it: A nude couple holds up a large fanciful fish between them, from whose mouth issues a stream of water trickling into the blue-tiled fountain beneath. This is the Spirit of the Ocean fountain. Above the arch solemnly sits Justice with sword and scale and the words Dios nos dio los campos. El arte humana edifico ciudades. (God gave us the countryside. Human art built cities.) Walk underneath and the arch passes right through the building into the sunken gardens. This is where the old courthouse once stood, which is now lawn and garden space, popular for concerts, celebrations, special events, and today, a small wedding. Behind a low hedge, a white-haired homeless guy sleeps soundly on the grass while the couple is getting married just a few yards away.
But step back inside to take a look at the intricately ornamented tile stairs, benches, and even drinking fountains in bold turquoises, blues, and mustards. You’re stepping on highly glossed terracotta tile, and even these are interspersed with smaller squares of decorative tile. Look up. You’ll be amazed at the hanging light fixtures, from which dangle superfluous ninja-star-like appendages. Look farther up and you’ll see kaleidoscopic-painted, wood-beamed ceilings, edged by tiered arches and painted blue with yellow stars. It’s geometry gone wild. It’s way beyond sensory overload by now. But the amazing thing is, it all fits together perfectly and pleasingly.
The Mural Room on the second floor is mostly used for meetings, but is so spectacular that it remains open for the public, meetings or not. The mural by Dan Sayre Groesbeck, set artist for Cecil B. DeMille, tells the story of first contact and early settlement. European invaders and indigenous American cultures forever changed. Pry your eyes away from Chumash and Spaniard upwards. There are gilded circles and floral patterns on deep-blue background, a velvet night sky.
Take the elevator and remaining steps to the Clock Tower for 360-degree views of Santa Barbara. Suffice it to say, there’s scarcely an inch of this building and surrounding grounds and gardens that isn’t worth a look. Daily docent tours of the building are free. Check at the information counter on the ground floor under the arch as you enter for times. View this map of the courthouse, sunken gardens, and terraced lawns. For yet more detailed information, go to the Santa Barbara County Historic Courthouse’s official website.
Rodeo, New Mexico