Despite growing up in California, I’m sometimes surprised at how little of the state I’ve actually seen. On this trip alone I have visited several new-to-me travel destinations in SoCal, and I’m excited to add another: Santa Barbara. The beautiful beaches, pretty hills, and famous wine country have beckoned for years, and now that I live 5,000 miles away, it only makes sense to visit. Yes. It does.
After a great time in downtown LA, my Southern California trip with Visit California takes me north on a scenic two-hour drive along the coast to Santa Barbara. I arrive just in time to get a quick tour of the city’s Funk Zone, a colorful row of murals by the waterfront, before heading to do what I love best: wine tasting.
But it’s not just any wine tasting. It’s a tasting with a master sommelier, of which there are only 214 in the world. Brian McClintic, a self-proclaimed baseball jock-turned-wine expert and star of the documentary SOMM, hosts an enjoyably intense wine tasting at his new Les Marchands Wine Bar in Santa Barbara.
Brian does a blind tasting, guiding my group through everything from acidity to tannins as we try to guess what varietals we are sipping. Both educational and entertaining, it is the perfect way to try new wines and learn about them in the process.
After the tasting, I move on to Les Marchands’ sister restaurant next door. The Lark has a huge communal table made from a single piece of Douglas fir from Oregon, and as I sit down to fresh salads and delicious local meat and produce, I learn that in addition to the unique table, the restaurant also has furniture in the form of former church pews and a 100-year-old Catholic confessional.
Full from lunch and wine tasting, I walk off the calories on the beach in Santa Barbara. A long pier extends from the end of State Street out into the Pacific Ocean, and at the end I am rewarded with great views of the hills.
Back on the street, I walk past a million boutiques, cafes, shops, wine tasting rooms, and restaurants, all of which are housed in harmonious mission-style buildings. Their whitewashed walls and orange tile roofs are perfectly Californian and make me homesick even though I’m home.
Up in the hills, I arrive at El Encanto Hotel, a five-star Orient-Express luxury hotel with stunning views of the ocean below. I am ensconced in a beautiful room nestled among lush gardens and trees, and between the cozy fireplace and inviting bathtub, I don’t want to leave.
But the grounds are just as pretty as the room, and I can’t help watching the sunset from the pool terrace. Afterwards I am whisked away to nearby Montecito, where dinner awaits at the famous San Ysidro Ranch hotel. The meal is great, but the real highlight is getting to see the Kennedy Suite afterwards.
JFK and Jackie honeymooned at the San Ysidro Ranch, and I get a glimpse into their room, which is rumored to be a favorite of local celebrities like Oprah. The four-poster bed is covered in a gauzy canopy, and the living room has comfy sofas and a photo of the former president and first lady. Outside is a terrace with a hot tub, and from where I stand under the stars, I can hear the sound of the ocean. It feels like a dream.
In fact, my whole trip feels like a dream. The California sun, the great food and wine, the beautiful hotels in the hills, they all give me a whole new understanding of the cliched phrase “California dreaming”. And now that I live 5,000 miles away, I will be dreaming about my home state even more.