I took another sip of wine. Shadows of orange and banana trees stretched across the Spanish Garden Inn’s courtyard. Far above, doves cooed and rustled in the palm thatch.
In search of an anniversary destination out from under the hem of Seattle’s blanket of clouds, my husband and I had swiped down a map of the West Coast. A hundred miles from Los Angeles on a stretch of south-facing coast, we found Santa Barbara.
There, at the foot of a jagged range of bobcat-colored hills, Spanish missionaries established a mission in 1786. The United States claimed California sixty years later, but the city never lost its Spanish flavor. When a disastrous 1925 earthquake nearly leveled the town, the residents determined to rebuild in a style befitting their heritage. The result is a charmingly harmonious cityscape in which everything from Nordstrom to the County Courthouse is tucked into cream-colored buildings with red-tiled roofs. It looked like the perfect spot for a romantic weekend.
A Perfect Place to Stay
Hidden in a thicket of bougainvillea and birds-of-paradise a few blocks from Santa Barbara’s historic center, The Spanish Garden Inn lived up to the reviews that had enticed us to book. Our suite had a palm-shaded terrace overlooking the pool, a fireplace, and a deep soaking tub. Wi-fi, parking, and breakfast in a light-flooded room were included, as were nightly cookies and twice-daily room service. The breakfast room converted to a wine bar in the afternoons, offering chances to taste the bounty of the nearby Santa Ynez Valley’s vineyards.
The hotel was an easy walk past some of Santa Barbara’s original Spanish adobe buildings to the shops and restaurants of State Street. The early nineteenth century Presidio of Santa Barbara sits across from today’s civic center, and both seem architecturally comfortable with each other. State Street itself is lively with college students and visitors who fill a good mix of local boutiques, pubs, and national chains.
We strolled down State Street past cascades of bougainvillea in crayon colors to the historic Stearns Wharf. Walking the rough timbers to the pier’s end, past the fish restaurants and the roosting pelicans, we turned in circles looking from the mountains to the sea. A nearby path climbed a cliff with vistas of the uninhabited Channel Islands and stairs to an uncrowded white beach. The view was punctuated by distant dots of offshore oil rigs, a strange and slightly surreal necklace strung the length of the Santa Barbara Channel.
Delicious Things to Eat
Since our arrival, we’d been searching through Santa Barbara’s ample restaurant listings for a suitably romantic anniversary dinner venue. We settled on Bouchon Bistro. Located just beyond the bustle of State Street, Bouchon has an extensive list of local wines by the glass and a menu of refined wine country cuisine in a quiet but friendly and unstuffy atmosphere. Alerted to the occasion, the staff had scattered rose petals on our tablecloth. We nibbled on sautéed mushrooms in Chardonnay emulsion and herb-crusted yellowfin tuna with chorizo before walking hand-in-hand back to the hotel.
Dining well in Santa Barbara is not all goat cheese foraged greens, however. When the first European explorers arrived they found the indigenous Chumash seaside village so friendly and boisterous they had to move inland to get some sleep. Today, The Santa Barbara Brewhouse sits on that very site, carrying on the tradition of cheerful bustle in the shadow of an immense Moreton Bay fig tree. Along with other pubs along State Street, the Brewhouse upholds the excellent and innovative local craft beer scene. We were so enamored of the chocolatey yet tangy Casey’s Black IPA that we felt obligated to visit the pub twice just to make sure it was as good as we remembered.
We were not the only ones with a warm spot in our hearts for Santa Barbara’s less formal restaurants. The great cook and writer Julia Child catapulted La Super Rica Taqueria to national prominence by praising it on a television show. What was it about the humble Mexican restaurant in a weathered building on Milpas Street that attracted the attention of the author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”? We joined the line one afternoon to find out. Inside, we found a woman making tortillas by hand and stuffing them with an array of fillings. We ordered the most expensive thing on the menu, the “Especial,” and were hard-pressed to spend $20 for two, including beer and hibiscus-infused agua fresca. We sat under a plastic tent in the restaurant’s courtyard and devoured warm corn tortillas filled with an earthy mix of roasted chiles, dissolvingly tender marinated pork, and sharp cheese.
Beautiful Things to See
Fortunately for our waistlines, Santa Barbara appeals equally to senses beyond taste. We wandered the Botanic Garden amid a staccato symphony of birds flitting among the live oak branches. On the way back, we stopped at Mission Santa Barbara. It was easy to imagine the Franciscan friars going about their duties 200 years ago among the cream-colored buildings with their cool, dark timbered interiors, perhaps pausing as we did to breathe in the scent of the church’s tranquil courtyard rose garden.
The shadows slanted further across the Spanish Garden’s courtyard. The fountain murmured softly. Tomorrow, we were flying home. We sipped the last of the liquid sunlight in our glasses and thought of the bottles lovingly bubble-wrapped in our suitcases.
“Next anniversary?” I said to my husband.
“Santa Barbara, of course,” he answered.
All photos are courtesy of the author.