Oh Santa Barbara! Affectionately known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is the epitome of the perfect romantic getaway. Cradled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, it calls to mind its exotic sister French and Italian Rivieras. Visitors and residents alike are thoroughly charmed by its panoramic mountains, shimmering seas, abundant gardens, Mediterranean white-washed buildings, red tile roofs and bountiful sunshine.
The charisma of Santa Barbara lies in its ability to preserve its rich history, tradition and culture while at the same time welcoming that which is new and emerging. Our time here was filled with the best of classic and contemporary Santa Barbara – let us introduce you to the standouts!
A Classic: Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore Santa Barbara
Our luxury weekend getaway begins at the glamorous Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore. Located directly on breathtaking Butterfly Beach, this magnificently restored 1927 Spanish colonial style jewel is a famous landmark in Santa Barbara. I call her the Queen of Santa Barbara because she represents everything that has made this destination so popular along the California coast. Frequented past and present by the rich and famous as well as discerning travelers near and far, the Four Seasons Biltmore is known for its luxurious accommodations, gracious hospitality, beautiful grounds and five star service. As we turned into the sweeping brick entrance of the hotel, its appeal beckoned us further in – classic white adobe, red tiled roof, rose gardens, graceful archways, bubbling fountains. The interiors of the lobby and public rooms are richly furnished in warm tones of burnished gold, ivory, sienna and russet – all reminiscent of an elegant Spanish hacienda. Bella Vista, the hotel’s restaurant, is open and airy with floor to ceiling windows and a pretty terrace for spectacular ocean views with al fresco dining. While not a small hotel, the ambiance here is intimate, warm and personal. We felt like we had just been given the keys to our own private villa!
Our deluxe guest room was located in one of the hotel’s 12 cottages. Noted for their privacy and intimacy, the cottages are dotted along secluded camellia-laden pathways and beautiful gardens near a lush lawn with putting green and croquet court. Our cottage is classy and impeccable, featuring hard wood floors with oriental carpets, a plush king size bed with crisp white linens, a comfortable sitting area, an antique armoire containing a minibar and refrigerator, heavy walnut Mission style desk and night tables, large flat screen television and patio. The separate dressing area and bath are spacious and designed with blue and white Spanish tile, double vanities, fragrant L’Occitane amenities, a shower with rain faucet, and bathtub. Ahhh…one minute inside this quiet retreat and I am already relaxed.
Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club Pool
The grounds and surrounding area of the hotel feature scenic walking and jogging paths along the ocean. A two minute stroll from our cottage and situated directly on Butterfly Beach is the hotel’s exclusive Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club Pool. Built in 1937, this historic landmark has been meticulously restored, but the 1930′s art deco motif of this legendary establishment still calls to mind the splendor of a by-gone era. The walls of this place actually talk – throughout the club, vintage photographs are displayed telling the story of debutantes, Hollywood stars and politicians who have made this place their private playground. Today, the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club still boasts many of its original features, including the star of the show, an Olympic-size swimming pool with lap lanes and diving board – now that’s something you rarely see at a hotel these days! In addition, a children’s wading pool, an oversized beachfront whirlpool jacuzzi, 31 private cabanas and 200 guest lounges are perched over the blue Pacific. While not lounging and enjoying attentive Four Seasons’ service and amenities such as chilled towels, spritzers, fresh fruit skewers or cocktails, guests can ‘work it all off’ with a visit to the state of the art fitness center here. The Club is also home to the Four Seasons Biltmore’s signature restaurant, Tydes, which features California coastal cuisine and stunning ocean views.
Classic: The Spa at Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore
To really unwind in the lap of luxury, be sure to include a visit to The Spa at Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. After checking in to the spa, we arrive at a handsome living room to await our couples massage. A toasty fire crackles in the fireplace, and we sink into big easy chairs in front of picture windows which display the rose gardens and Pacific Ocean beyond. Dried fruit, nuts, a selection of gourmet teas and cranberry infused water are offered as we relax in anticipation of our massage. When the masseuses arrive, we’re led to the most gorgeous ocean view spa suite, which features a fireplace, a claw footed bathtub and a view of majestic palm trees silhouetting the peaceful ocean. The spa menu features a variety of restorative beauty treatments which incorporate the bounty of the sea or botanicals from the gardens of Santa Barbara. My Hope Gillerman Organics massage was honestly one of the best I’ve ever had, and all of my cares literally melted away right there in that ocean front spa suite! Afterward, I lingered in the spa’s sauna and steam room complimented by iced washcloths scented with lemongrass. Next to the Spa is another robust fitness center – the two facilities combine to offer the ultimate in The Four Seasons’ tribute to wholeness and body well being.
Santa Barbara is a popular destination for those who love to wine and dine, and we are no exception! Here are three places that we found to really indulge:
The Contemporary: Toma Restaurant and Bar - A “Must “Dine”
It’s our first night in Santa Barbara, and for dinner we head to the hottest place in town – Toma Restaurant and Bar. Recently opened in April of 2013, this restaurant is a “must dine”! With soft lights and the hum of happy diners, a charming ambiance is created at the trendy waterfront bistro with views of the famous Santa Barbara harbor. The restaurant has a stylish Tuscan feel, with modern art on the walls and smooth jazz playing softly in the background. The pride of owners Tom and Vicki Dolan is evident and well founded in all aspects of Toma. To dine here is to feel like you are part of something special.
We start off with a couple of Toma’s many hand-crafted cocktails -the Tuscan Pear (Grey Goose La Poire, Ventura Limoncello, King’s ginger liqueur, orange juice and mint) and The Local (Square One Cucumber Vodka, strawberries, basil leaves, agave nectar, drizzle balsamic reduction). These innovative cocktails are the perfect blend of tart and sweet, and are accompanied by Toma’s signature flash fried green olives stuffed with blue cheese.
As we peruse the menu which is is a combination of Mediterranean and Italian dishes, my dining partner keeps pointing out the fabulous looking plates of food emerging from the kitchen. It’s clear that we are in for an extraordinary dining experience. Our server is attentive, knowledgeable and spot-on in his recommendations. With his help, we choose from a tempting array of dishes. When our appetizers arrive, we see from the generous servings that they are practically meals in themselves! Each one is uniquely delectable, and we enjoy shamelessly:
- Tuna Cones Ahi Sashimi, Ginger, Sesame, Soy, Chile and Chive in Crisp Sesame Cone
- Crostada Baked Goat Chevre, Caramelized Pear, Walnut, Organic Greens, Shallot Dressing
- Grilled Romaine Warm Lemon Parsley White Beans, Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette, Shaved Parmesan
Whew! We need to rest between courses, and our server offers a smooth Napa Valley Cabernet to accompany our entrees – Heaven in a glass! We sip and savor the ambiance of this little restaurant – looking around, our fellow diners appear to be having as much fun as we are! Before too long, here come our entrees, and they are absolutely mouth-watering:
- Lasagna Braised Beef and Pork Ragu, Spinach, Fresh Ricotta, Mozzarella and Parmesan.
I ordered this because Toma is famous for their home made pastas – this lasagna is off-the- chart delicious (and that says something coming from someone who is married to an Italian.) I’m not sharing!
- Braised Short Rib White Polenta, Red Onion Confit, Natural Jus, Arugula, Lemon Oil.
My husband’s choice – the look on his face as he tastes this savory dish tells me that he isn’t sharing either!
- Breast of Duck and Duck Confit with Cranberry Reduction.
One of the evening’s specials which our server brought us “just to taste” – I’m not sure that I’ve ever had duck prepared quite this beautifully – it’s lean, tender enough to cut with a fork, and the sauce is a perfect compliment
We’re not done yet – there’s a seductive dessert menu, and we succumb to sharing a Phyllo Crisp,filled with local strawberries, strawberry mousse, pistachio pastry, and vanilla bean cream served with fresh berry sauce. Divine and decadent! Only a romantic walk by the beach after dinner would make this evening more spectacular. Cheers to Toma – it’s not to be missed. Be sure to book a reservation as this place is an attraction for locals and tourists alike!
The Contemporary: Finch & Fork – Comfort Food with a Twist
Who doesn’t love to go to brunch? It’s practically an American institution on a Saturday or Sunday morning, so we sought out a special place to start our day, deciding on Finch & Fork, located in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. It has a modern elegance, and its intimate feel makes you think you are in someone’s Santa Barbara ranch style home. Brown leather studded booths, plank tabletops and little touches like pillows for your back all contribute to a very comfortable place to kick back and enjoy some great food. Long farm tables down the center of the restaurant make for a friendly atmosphere to gather for small plates and cocktails with friends, while intimate booths just for two are perfect for couples. Arriving in Santa Barbara just nine months ago, Finch & Fork is a welcomed addition to the beach town. The service is warm and friendly making you feel right at home.
Chef James Siao has created a menu filled with modern American comfort food favorites, with a twist. Our brunch started with never ending tangerine or fresh squeezed orange mimosas – always a wonderful addition to any brunch. Everything we ordered was tasteful and distinctive – the Cream of Mushroom Soup was possibly the best we’ve ever tasted – anywhere. We decided to sample both a breakfast item and a lunch item from the menu. I ordered Crab Cake Benedict, a traditional dish with a new angle – featuring crispy crab cakes under soft poached eggs in place of the traditional Canadian bacon. A light but creamy hollandaise sauce over it all and roasted potatoes and vegetables made me a very happy camper. On the “lunch” side of the menu, my better half, who is somewhat of a lamb connoisseur, ordered the Lamb Burger with date chutney, onion relish and cilantro yoghurt. Served with a green salad with champagne vinaigrette dressing, the lamb burger was pronounced a winner! Once you’ve had your meal, do not – I repeat, Do Not leave this place without ordering Finch & Fork’s famous Caramelized Banana Milkshake. How on earth anyone ever came up with this sublime concoction, I do not know, but it is fabulous – rich, creamy, caramely, cookie laden and topped with fresh toasted meringue. This should be shared, unless you don’t care a thing about calories!
Our time at Finch & Fork ended on a humorous note – the bill came in a folder labeled “Fork it Over!” Good times abound here – it’s a trendy restaurant that is fast becoming a Santa Barbara favorite.
Classic: The Stonehouse – Truly Exceptional
It is not an overstatement to say that The Stonehouse is absolutely exquisite. Located in historic San Ysidro Ranch, The Stonehouse is widely acclaimed as the ultimate in fine dining experiences. The ranch is a part of the rich history of Old California, and nostalgia permeates the place.
We arrive on a starry Sunday evening and right away are seemingly transported into another time and place. The grounds of this spacious ranch are hushed tonight, and we follow the softly lit paths as they wind their way toward The Stonehouse. As we arrive, we are met with the sight of majestic olive trees filled with thousands of twinkly lights creating a canopy over the patios of this gracious restaurant.
Located in a 19th-century citrus packing house, the warm interior of The Stonehouse features the original stone walls, open-beamed ceilings, overstuffed mahogany leather furniture and pieces from California history. The dining room is impressive, complete with fireplace and creek-side views. Tonight, however, we are seated on the terrace under the generous glittering branches of the trees, next to a big stone fireplace. The ambiance is absolutely enchanting, and undeniably romantic.
Our server is friendly in his welcome and a complete professional. We chat about the extensive appetizer menu which includes Pan Seared Diver Scallops with Sweet Corn Puree, a Smoked Muscovy Duck and Avocado Spring Roll, and Hamachi Sashimi. Unfortunately, we can’t try everything on the menu, and we vacillate before deciding on a pairing of soups, The Stonehouse’s famous Chilled Yellow Heirloom Tomato Consommé, served over jumbo lump crab, Maine lobster, avocado and lemon verbena oil; and Leek Soup, which is a special tonight, prepared with leeks from the garden and blended with cream. The tomato consommé is light and refreshing, the leek soup rich and satisfying. Both whet our appetites for our next courses, first Pan Seared Santa Barbara Abalone with house-made capellini, chanterelle mushrooms, Arbequina olives and drizzled with Ranch Meyer Lemon Nage. This was a unique and utterly flavorful dish. Next came Grilled California Quail, accompanied by black eyed peas, grapes, cranberries, Nueske’s bacon, Vidalia onion and thyme jus. Again, inventive and unusual in preparation, an absolute delight to the palate.
The Stonehouse has one of the most extensive wine lists we have seen anywhere and guests can select wines from around the world as well as local vineyards. Our server brings us three different tastings of reds he thinks we might like – a Syrah, a Cabernet and the wine we eventually select, aSTORM Pinot Noir 2011 from John Sebastian’s Vineyard.
Our entrees are sublime – Oven Roasted Colorado Rack of Lamb, served with Creamy Polenta, Sugar Snap Peas, Heirloom Cauliflower with House-Made Lamb Bacon and Garden Mint Jus and Snake River Farms Pork Chop served with Apple Butter and Brioche Crusted with Wild Rocket Arugula and Calvados Demi-Glace. Unsolicited, our waiter brings a side of San Ysidro Ranch Signature Mashed Potatoes for us to taste, playfully warning us that they contain “an undisclosed amount of cream and butter.” Of course, they are wonderful.
In an effort to prolong our time here, we go ahead and indulge in dessert – an artfully prepared Grand Marnier Souffle and a tantalizing Meyer Lemon Tart made from the lemons here on the ranch. When we have relished the final morsels, we sit back and contemplate the beauty of the food, the service, and the night around us. The Stonehouse is truly exceptional. As we drove away, we felt a bit like we were leaving another world behind – one of beauty, intuitive service, grace and good taste. The Stonehouse is a special place, and those of us who shared that stellar evening there won’t soon forget its magic.
Santa Barbara offers a cavalcade of interesting things to see and do. Art lovers, sports enthusiasts, food and wine lovers, history buffs, shoppers and theater goers will all find something here to enjoy. Popular pastimes include shopping and taking in the sophisticated downtown vibe of State Street, wine tasting along the trendy Urban Wine Trail, bike riding, playing beach volleyball, golfing, walking on Stearns Wharf, boating, visiting the many art museums, the zoo, or historic landmarks such as the Mission Santa Barbara and the County Courthouse. There is always something new happening in Santa Barbara, and on this trip we found something really great:
The Contemporary: Savor Santa Barbara Food Tours
Attention foodies…fun lovers…walkers! One of the best things to do in Santa Barbara is to take a walking food tour with Savor Santa Barbara Food and Walking Tours. This new venture and the only guided culinary walking tour in Santa Barbara is the inspiration of Santa Barbara cousins Erin O’Rourke and Sara Dill. “This is what you do on one of our tours,” they say, “Eat. Drink. Walk. Repeat!” That says it all!
The easy walk is just under a couple of miles and is made over a period of about 3.5 hours. It’s packed with fun and showcases the food, drink, architecture and natural beauty of Santa Barbara. The goal of the walk is to take visitors off-the-beaten path to places they might not otherwise find. Mission Accomplished! We loved every stop along the way of this walk, and it turned out to be our favorite activity, giving us a unique perspective on this enchanting city.
Over the course of our culinary adventure, we covered a lot of ground and participated in seven eclectic tastings. Our small group started on “the other side of the tracks” where we tasted a Crispy Shredded Beef Taco with five types of fresh salsa made daily on the premises and three varieties of handcrafted beer within sight of the room where it was brewed. At our third tasting site, we were served a wonderful Lobster Bisque laced with butter, sherry and topped with golden puffed pastry.
By now, I was getting full, and wondered how I would survive four more tastings! “I think we need to incorporate a nap stop!” joked someone in our group. After a lot of playful banter, it was decided – no naps! We had places to go, lots to see and things to taste! Erin paced us well, and we enjoyed getting to know our new-found walking friends as we strolled in the sunshine. With feet on the ground and the breeze blowing on our faces, we realized that we were appreciating so much more about this fair city than if we had just been whizzing along in a car.
Next we came to Santa Barbara’s vogue and ever-changing neighborhood, the Funk Zone, named for its unique mix of artists, surfboard shapers, craft workers, locally owned shops, galleries, eateries and wine tasting rooms. Here we tasted a flight of lovely red wines at one of Santa Barbara’s oldest wineries. Then, we were headed to the historic Old Town District of Santa Barbara. Our promenade took us along beautiful hidden paseos to our next tasting, a healthy bowl of cool ambrosial fruits stuffed with acaí, bananas and strawberries, goji berry and granola. Erin shared some great stories about Santa Barbara’s unique red tiled roofs as we were arriving at our next stop, where we tasted a tempting Cedar Plank Salmon with balsamic mustard glaze and fresh local greens. Then, it was on to bustling State Street for our final tasting – ice cream! Topping off the tour, we sampled not one, but two flavors (Salted Caramel Chip and Winter Cranberry Chip) of fabulous artisanal ice cream.
We were sorry to see the merriment end, but the time did come when our tour was over and we had to say good-bye to our bon vivant friends. Kudos to Erin for a super fun, high energy, interesting, informative and absolutely scrumptious tour. Now we can say we have walked and tasted Santa Barbara, and we pronounce it very, very good!
NEXT TIME . . .
Santa Barbara is deserving of much more time than we were able to give it on this weekend getaway. Its allure ensures that we will return again and again, like a moth to the flame. One thing is certain – we will go back to the classic spots we cherish, and we will always explore new things to see and do, adding to the long list of things that we love about Santa Barbara.