California luxury: Santa Barbara bliss

I am sure we don’t need too much introduction to California, with it’s incredible diversity and 1200 odd miles coastline. It is a great state for a road trip, and a popular stop on any California Road Trip is Santa Barbara, situated on the sunny California Coast, about 100 miles north of LA. It is also great holiday destination in its own right. (The west coast Surfliner train also passes right through the heart of Santa Barbara making it a great place to visit from LA even if you don’t want to drive.) Santa Barbara is one of my favourite coastal stops in the state, and here’s why:

Things to do

You can ride the Santa Barbara Trolley, visit the famous “funk zone” where many vineyards and breweries have opened up contemporary bars and restaurants in old restored warehouses, take a boat trip from the harbour, a great way to watch the fabulous sunset, and maybe even spot some marine life, and visit State Street where there are upscale boutiques and restaurants offering local wines and seasonal fare.  Visit the zoo, stroll on the beach, and if that’s not enough, simply sit and eat lobster on the famous pier.

Wine

No visit to Santa Barbara would be complete without venturing into the nearby Santa Rita Hills wine country. Less well-known than Napa, it is still firmly on the map and said to produce the best Pinot Noir in the world due to the climate and the sea haar which often settles in the valley. We visited Ampelos Cellars, a small organic wine producer with fabulous Pinot Noir – one of the best I have sampled – as well as Sanford Winery, with its stunning ranch-style shop and terrace, taking in the gorgeous views of the Sanford Vineyards in Lompoc, CA.

The beach

Known as the American Riviera with a very Mediterranean feel and climate, the beach at Santa Barbara is the longest stretch of south-facing beach there is in California. Split by Stearns Wharf (the famous pier), there are endless golden sands on one side and the lively marina on the other.

The beach is a hive of activity at any time of day – I personally loved it first thing in the morning (yes, I was up with jet lag!) when everyone was out walking and jogging.

Accommodation

Hotels here specialize in laid-back luxury in a range of settings, from hilltop arenas with views to die for, to secret bungalow hideaways and edge-of-the-sea dazzlers. It is also home to many Hollywood stars and there is no shortage of luxury around. Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage. On a nearby hill, Mission Santa Barbara founded in 1786, houses Franciscan friars and a small museum.

Often visited by A-listers, consider Belmond El Encanto with its terraced gardens and sweeping views of the Pacific. I was fortunate enough to have lunch here and took the chance to look around this beautiful resort.  Perched in the hills above town, it feels like a private enclave that doesn’t draw attention or flash, just pure relaxation and sigh-worthy settings. Pull on a fluffy robe from the closet of your classic bungalow and dip into the pool or get a treatment at the onsite spa. The staff and service they provide is second to none, and the relaxed terrace has a view to die for. They were even setting up for a wedding around the koi pond in the gardens when I was there, just beautiful.

Natural beauty is interlaced with classic luxury and romance at San Ysidro Ranch, nestled in the Montecito foothills. This stunning retreat was made known to the outside world when Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier exchanged vows here and it was also the chosen honeymoon retreat for then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his bride Jackie.

At the Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore, expect ultimate five-star service just a seashell’s throw from the ocean. This luxury lodging feels the most like a see-and-be-seen destination in the region, where arriving for brunch in a chauffeured Bentley is the norm. The waterfront property is built in colonial Spanish style and has onsite tennis courts and provides access to nearby golf courses. Guests can also use the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club across the street at the secluded Butterfly Beach.

For total pampering in a dramatic oceanfront setting, head to Ritz Carlton Bacara Resort & Spa, situated on 78 acres along the rolling hills and ocean bluffs of the Gaviota Coast, 20 minutes west of Santa Barbara. Posh rooms have private balconies or patios, and the resort boasts a full-service spa, a 12,000-bottle wine cellar and a Paris-born executive chef. Hotel staff can arrange tempting activities: guided tours into the surrounding wine country, a cruise on a sailing yacht or a game of golf on the adjacent Sandpiper Golf Club. Or, of course, you can simply loll by the zero-edge pool and do nothing more taxing than watching the Pacific for passing dolphins and whales.

Next time you are planning a trip to California, make sure Santa Barbara is included in your plans.

Kim Robertson is Director at Your Way (Travel) Ltd. Your Way (Travel) Ltd. specialises in long haul, tailor-made, cruise and luxury travel to the USA, Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Far East.

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