36 Hours in Santa Barbara County

With its Mission-style facades and showy tropical foliage, Santa Barbara could be a commercial for the California good life. It can be easy to underestimate the struggles of a place so seemingly flawless. But Santa Barbara has had a tough few years. From the devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018 to the flooding and mudslides that followed, the county has experienced more than its share of trauma. Yet if it weren’t for the charred chaparral faintly visible on the surrounding hillsides, the average visitor might never know. This is, after all, a place that’s good at reinventing itself. That spirit is on display at the new Hotel Californian, which sits on the site of a grand beach resort that was destroyed — just weeks after opening — by the 1925 earthquake that defined modern Santa Barbara’s architecture and character. Smack in the center of Southern California’s spectacular coastline, the county is surprisingly rural. In its multigenerational ranches and farms, its remarkably undeveloped public beaches, and the expansive Los Padres National Forest, Santa Barbara County offers glimpses of California before it got crowded.

Pence Vineyards and Winery, on Route 246, is a working cattle ranch that grows Burgundian varietals, mostly pinots and Chardonnays, on a creatively landscaped vineyard with a pond, trails and an appointment-only tasting room. If you’re not a drinker, or traveling with children, head instead to Solvang’s Ostrichland ($5 admission), where you can buy a pan of bird feed ($1) for the farm’s 100 or so ostriches and emus. The gift shop sells the bird’s oversize eggs. Then, hop over to Los Olivos, an impossibly cute town that overflows with tourists on weekends, and stop into Story of Soil, a tasting room manned by the husband of the winemaker, Jessica Gasca, who focuses on single vineyard, single varietal wines, including a standout Gamay, that have a cult following.

Drive down Route 154 from Los Olivos, past Cachuma Lake, to Cold Spring Tavern. This former creekside stagecoach stop at the top of the San Marcos Pass has been a staple of California road trip culture since 1865, before the automobile was invented. A wooden shack draped in ivy and filled with Old Western charm and tchotchkes, from taxidermy to wagon wheel chandeliers, serves the region’s famed tri-tip grilled over red oak and has live music in its backyard, where picnic tables offer extra seating. Or, for a more cosmopolitan dining experience in the city of Santa Barbara, sit beneath the strung lights on Loquita’s side patio, where quintessentially Spanish dishes like pan con tomate (pan de cristal — a ciabatta-like Spanish bread — with grated tomato, garlic and herbs, $9) and pulpo (Spanish-style octopus with black garlic aioli, lemon vinaigrette, potato purée and pickled red onion, $22) mix with the gauzy atmosphere in ways both intoxicating and magical. The restaurant, which is one of the restaurateur Sherry Villanueva’s many hits (including popular local spots like Helena Avenue Bakery, The Lark and Tyger Tyger) also offers a drink list heavy on Spanish wines, sherries, vermouths and gin and tonics. Don’t miss the Loquita Martini with an El Bulli olive ($15).

Carpinteria’s Esau’s Cafe is an old school breakfast diner with bright orange vinyl booths, housemade muffins cooling on the ledge of an open kitchen, hot sauce containers crowding the diner counter, and — because this is California — surf posters on the wall. A nearly 90-year-old institution, Esau’s serves heaping platters of diner classics along with some California-centric riffs, like the roasted Pasillo chile relleno omelet ($13.95) and the so-called “Basic Breakfast” with a mahi-mahi steak and eggs ($11.95) in place of the more conventional beef steak. After breakfast, head up the coast and across the train tracks to join the locals at Padaro Beach — or, as it’s known here, Santa Claus Beach.

The Funk Zone’s Seaside Makers Collective opened last year in response to the economic toll the city’s recent hardship was taking on the area’s artists and artisans. The shop’s handmade crafts, jewelry and body products — including a skin-care line made from the byproducts of the local wine grape industry, and jewelry made from local sea glass and abalone shells — are great gifts and souvenirs, evoking Santa Barbara’s personality while supporting its craftspeople. Around the corner, The Blue Door is a multistory emporium of vintage and antique housewares, furniture, clothes and more. Along with its eclectic used goods, the shop also carries some Santa Barbara-made products, like a line of beach-inspired candles from Santa Barbara Apothecary Company, in scents like San Isidro Lavender, Surfer’s Point, Ellwood Eucalyptus, and, amusingly, Montecito Money.

With a look designed to reflect California surf culture nostalgia, Kimpton Goodland (5650 Calle Real, Goleta) has yoga mats and turntables in every room (starting around $250), an on-site record shop, bikes to borrow and a courtyard pool.

Part of Shelter Social Club, a small local chain of vintage motels that have been stylishly rehabbed, Agave Inn (3222 State Street, Santa Barbara) is a basic, budget-friendly option with a bit of character and 13 rooms starting at $139.

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