In the concluding part of her tour across La La Land, after the wilds outside San Diego and the bustle of Santa Monica, Jess Baldwin finds sanctuary on what they call the American Riviera…
Our Californian road trip was drawing to an end and having just spent a crazy week in busy Santa Monica watching men in leather skirts casually saunter down the promenade, body builders try to out beef each other on Muscle Beach and hundreds of people flock daily to share a slice of sunset, how we wished for some well-earned peace and relaxation. The destination seemed obvious: hello Santa Barbara.
Boasting 300 sunny days per year, Santa Barbara peacefully resides between the boozy Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The laidback city has a distinctive appearance with red tiled roofs and stucco walls, which it owes to an intriguing past. The Spanish, Moorish, Portuguese and American Indians have all laid claim to this beautiful city at some point, but it is the Spanish that have left their mark visually.
In the 18th century Spanish Franciscan monks arrived on a mission building quest and successfully created 21 Californian missions. Somewhat more productive than our road trip, granted. Santa Barbara’s mission is widely regarded as the finest of them all, indeed Old Mission is considered ‘the Queen of the missions’. Following a destructive earthquake in 1925, the city was rebuilt, and it was decided that Old Mission’s striking Spanish style would be the muse. Today, ‘the Queen’ sits on a rise between the mountains and the sea, overlooking her city’s red-tiled roofs and swaying palms.
But monks weren’t the only savvy visitors to be won over by the city’s charm. In the 1900s Santa Barbara became the pre-Hollywood film capital of America, creating hundreds of westerns and silent films and as a result it became the favoured playground of Charlie Chaplin et al. Its showbiz connections didn’t go unnoticed and it soon became the go to place for the rich and famous. Its celebrity following, fantastic climate and world-class wines soon earned it the title of The American Riviera.
Tucked away in the hills, just beyond Old Mission, resides Santa Barbara’s only Forbes five-star rated resort, Belmond El Encanto. Encapsulating the areas romance and glamour the luxe resort sits perched above the city and ocean, backed by seven acres of pristinely manicured grounds. Dating back to 1918, this historic Hollywood hideaway was once the ‘in-the-know’ retreat of the rich and famous and hosted countess film stars and even President Roosevelt. A few years ago it was sensitively restored to its former glory and now the gleaming property also boasts a picturesque zero-edge swimming pool from which to take in the sweeping vistas as well as a spa and fitness centre.
The hotel’s 92 bungalows and suites share the winding paths and lush gardens with a quaint wishing well, lily pond and arbour. We were staying in one of the hotel’s elegant bungalows, Hummingbird. Having spent the last week in a modest hotel bedroom, it was almost therapeutic to see our ten suitcases (yes ten, and that was with my Choos rammed in to a steriliser! Travelling with a baby is something else). As we took in our fire place, enormous marble bath and tranquil terrace, Sam and I looked at each other and smiled; silence. The ultimate Californian retreat indeed.
Having spent the day exploring the pristine downtown area, with high end boutiques and fancy white tablecloth restaurants and taking in the coast’s vast golden shores, we were ready to relax and ordered a vino on the hotel’s immaculate panoramic terrace. It reminded me of being above it all in the hills surrounding Antibes; tranquil and exclusive. As the sunset drew closer, a few well-dressed guests began appearing at the perfectly positioned tables as we all watched the islands in the distance fall in to a wash of purple and bluey hues before the fiery sky enveloped them completely and we were all left sipping beneath the stars. Not a bad introduction to Belmond life.
The hotel’s fine dining restaurant serves Californian coastal cuisine with incredible views of the ocean. The team here are passionate about using locally-sourced seasonal produce, so much so that the hotel even has its own cheese, produced by their cow, Ellie.
Picking a dish from the tempting menu was tricky, but our favourite starter was the octopus with lamb sausage and garbanzo beans with a smoked piquillo pepper relish. The dish was beautifully presented and the punchy lamb perfectly complimented the tender octopus in an unlikely but spectacular marriage of flavour and texture. For mains, I enjoyed a wonderfully silky local black cod, which came roasted alongside a yam mash with passionfruit – another intriguing pairing from a clearly adventurous chef. Sam enjoyed his first ever kurobuta double pork chop; the wagyu of pork chops. Regarded by many as the highest quality pork in the world, the meat comes from an ancient British breed called Black Berkshire, prized for its heavy marbling which makes it particularly tender and juicy. However, as odd as it may sound I cannot stop thinking about my side dish, an enormous plate of warm wild mushrooms served with a raw egg yolk to stir in; genius.
The next day we were up early and rewarded with a blissfully empty terrace on which to enjoy our morning coffee and breakfast with that view before exploring the waterfront. The secluded hotel offers a convenient Mercedes shuttle within 5 miles of the property so we hopped on board and snaked our way down the hills towards the main city (you can also borrow one of the hotel’s electric bicycles if you need to burn off brekkie).
After a leisurely walk down State Street, the main vein of downtown, we reached Stearn’s Wharf. It was originally build in 1872 to load passengers and freight aboard large ships and has fought its way through two fires and an earthquake. Offering fantastic views of the palm-lined city and the Santa Ynez Mountains as well as the busy harbour it remains Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark.
The wharf may still be going strong but other parts of the city have changed with time, like the popular Funk Zone. Once an industrial area used by the fishing community, today it is awash with artists’ studios, craft brewers and warehouse galleries. It also has a fantastic collection of wine tasting rooms which can be explored using the Urban Wine Trail, a genius setup which gives you access to 29 tasting room experiences, most within stumbling distance of each other. However, as delightful as Santa Barbara’s funky bits are, the looming dusk means only one thing, getting back up the hill as fast as possible to sit with a vino and take in that view.
Now, I have always looked at those couples that don’t speak a word to each other and vowed not to become them, but frankly this view deserved my full attention. As the islands once again melted in to a heathery haze and the sky ignited Sam and I stared out across the ocean and savoured our last sunset, not a slice, but a whole sunset just for us. Dinner was divine, as ever and as we tottered our way back to our bungalow we took a little detour to the wishing well. Fingers crossed that was one dime well spent…
…so, it turns out that the wishing well doesn’t work. As I write this I am staring out at Hertfordshire’s latest bounty of snow, not at that view, Waitrose had no milk from Ellie the cow and there isn’t a charming bellboy in sight. Outrageous.
Accommodation at Belmond El Encanto starts from $425 per night. For more information, visit www.belmond.com.
For more information about Santa Barbara Old Mission, including details of tours, visit www.santabarbaramission.org.