If you have an idea in your mind’s eye that bubbles up to the surface when I mention the town of Santa Barbara, I’m not going to try and convince you that it isn’t accurate. It likely is. Sun-soaked sandy shore, beautiful mountains to the northeast, and in between, all the good food and family fun you could ask for. There are beautiful towns, and then there’s Santa Barbara.
West of France and just north of Los Angeles lies one of the best kept secrets in the world of wine. A destination for a great many reasons pristine beaches, incredible shopping, local dining and wine that keeps folks coming back for more.
Stretching back through the annals of California history, from the Mission to the Pueblo era, grapes have been growing in the approved American Viticultural areas. Combining traditional, hand-made techniques with the latest innovations in grape growing and wine making, Santa Barbara continues to see cutting-edge results and flavors come through the county.
Since the 1970’s, when viticulture pioneers expanded the growing varietals, more than 275 vineyards have sprung up, contributing to a hefty economic value per harvested acreage. Not that you’re traveling to see the outcome of bringing 9,000+ jobs to the area through one industry, but keeping the coast in its cups is no small feat. The grapes, always unique and bullheaded, take advantage of east-west valleys running through the coastal Santa Ynez and inland San Rafael range. Hearty, sun-kissed, and delectable, there’s no better time to visit than the present.
For our recent visit, we selected a pair of downtown tasting rooms to sample local varietals – Grassini Family Vineyards and Longoria on State. Both were lovely – the first, located just off State Street in the Historic Presidio Neighborhood – Grassini is a boutique winery specializing in the handcrafted production of wines made exclusively from Bordeaux varietals grown on the Grassini estate vineyard in the Happy Canyon AVA (American Viticultural Area) of Santa Ynez. Established by pioneer winemaker Rick Longoria, Longoria Wines has been producing acclaimed artisanal wines from sone of the finest vineyards in the region for more than 40 years. Purchased in 2022 by Brooke and Lindsay Christian, the winery continues its tradition as a family-owned and operated establishment. The tasting room, located in the heart of the bustling shopping and dining destination on the State Street Promenade, captures the city’s coastal chic vibe in its warm, welcoming space. The service is super attentive and the wines were divine. We purchased bottles at both tasting rooms to extend our Santa Barbara wine tasting experience at home.
Speaking of home, our home base during our weekend staycation was the intimate and elegrant Brisas del Mar, Inn at the Beach. Ideally situated within walking distance to virtually everything we wanted to explore (just two blocks from the glistening, palm-lined beach and scenic yacht harbor and a few minutes stroll to State Street), Brisas del mar is a Santa Barbara classic in terms of its accommodation and Old World ambiance. The suite we selected was super spacious, with plenty of room for the four of us to stretch out and its full kitchen came in handy as a pit stop to refuel and refresh between excursions.
The hotel serves a fresh continental breakfast and beverages each morning, which was the perfect way to start the day. In the afternoon, the hotel hosts a wine and cheese reception and in the evening? Cold milk and scrumptious cookies. What more could we ask for?
Santa Barbara Parasail
Feeling adventurous? Strap in for an exhilarating flight with Santa Barbara Parasail, California’s top-rated parasail operator. Never heard of it? Think about any action movie you’ve ever seen, where a parachute unfurls over an azure sea, and lofts the good guy into the sky from the back of a glistening speedboat deck: now just put yourself in the seat! Take a cruise 1000 feet over the sea and enjoy incredible views of the Channel Islands, Santa Barbara’s splendid south-facing coastline, or simply let the breeze flow through your hair and the sun kiss your face. With flight times varying from 8-15 minutes and a minimum rider age of 5, there’s no better time to fly, and certainly no time for regrets.
isiting The American Riviera at any time of year is a treat, but not having to hoof it on your own two legs while seeing the sights has a special place in my heart. There is no better way to experience Santa Barbara than by trolley. Fully narrated, the original SB Trolley Tour has been in operation for over 30 years, showcasing the community and its hot spots: the Courthouse, Zoo, Museum of Natural History, and of course, Santa Barbara’s historic mission – founded in 1786. The tenth of the California Missions, Santa Barbara has grown to include some of the most beloved sights along the entire California coast.
Santa Barbara Zoo
Home to more than 500 animals, this zoo-with-a-view is set on 30 acres near the Santa Barbara waterfront. The California Trails exhibit complex features threatened and endangered California natives like the spectacular California condor, Channel Island foxes, bald eagles, California desert tortoises, and threatened reptiles and amphibians native to nearby Los Padres National Forest, underscoring the zoo’s dedication to sailing preservation and conservation in the natural world.
My daughter and I especially loved the Australian Walkabout, a 15,000 square-foot habitat that transports guests “Down Under,” where they can walk among the wallabies, kangaroos, emus and native birds. And we literally spent a half an hour oohing and aahing over the zoo’s newest addition: a Masai giraffe calf born on November 2nd.
Horseback riding on the beach
It’s a no brainer to imagine that every activity on the California coastline would be sun-drenched and cinematic. It would follow then, that taking a beach ride with Los Padres Outfitters and their magnificent horses would be at least a majestic way to spend an afternoon: and at best, a core memory you’ll carry for years to come. Starting in the hills of Summerland, and meandering down a trail to the sandy expanse of Santa Barbara’s southern-facing shores (the longest stretch in the US outside of Alaska), the ride gives you time with a knowledgeable wrangler and some of the most well-trained, friendly horses in California. Book a private group ride for the whole family, or steal away while the kids are streaming a movie in the hotel room and watch the sun set over the sparkling Pacific together. Either way, let Los Padres use their local knowledge to wow you with an adventure you’ll be talking about for years to come.
And then there’s dining … with so many options, you’ll have your work cut out for you in deciding upon on the culinary adventure in which to embark each evening. For our part, we indulged in two distinctly different offerings – Loquita and Gala.
This lively eatery showcases authentic Spanish dishes, including hot and cold tapas, wood-fired seafood and meats and its signature seasonal paella. Our family loved the chorizo y pollo which arrived chock full of the flavorful pork sausage, rocky free-range chicken, gigante beans, hen of the woods, salmorra, shishito and lemon aioli
A sweet treat at meals end? My husband and I barely enjoyed a taste of the churros with dulce de leche, passionfruit vanilla and Mexican chocolate – it was all arms and elbows as our teens literally devoured the dessert.
The Mediterranean climate and terroir of Santa Barbara County mirror that of Spain, making the translation of locally sourced produce, meats and seafood an ideal match. The wine list is composed almost entirely of Spanish wines with exceptional local wines that pair well with the cuisine.
Our new favorite downtown eatery? Gala, which opened earlier this year, has already made a name for itself with its elegant ambiance and a perfectly executed menu of delectable dishes – some remain constant while others rotate daily per seasonal offerings and inspiration depending on what looks good at the farmer’s market and what local divers are bringing in.
High ceilings, wide open windows, a large bar overlooking the bustle of State Street define the space – these define the vibrant space that its owners Tara Penke and Jaime Riesco envision as the “a true neighborhood restaurant where lawyers and surfers rub shoulders.”
Having spent 20 years in Barcelona (and owning a restaurant there) and here in Santa Barbara, the couple utilize farmers market and fish market ingredients in every plate to create a flavorful spin on an eclectic menu that includes small bites, entrees, seafood specialties.
Think inventive dishes like the crunchy ‘coca’ Catalan flatbread, salmon gravlax toasties (house-cured salmon, creme fraiche, dill, radish, fried capers) and oyster mushroom risotto which deliciously combines butter, thyme, parm, oyster and portobello mushrooms.
With plenty to do, see and eat just over an hour from Los Angeles, there’s no better time to visit the American Riviera – because, well, there’s no bad time to visit.