Santa Barbara’s sunny blend of sand and culture

Just around the corner, flags of nations are flying in the breeze above the boutiques of a Spanish-themed shopping area, and there, among them all, are blue-and-white colors of Israel.

Santa Barbara (photo credit: george medovoy)
Santa Barbara
(photo credit: george medovoy)
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – A music fan spots Nir Kabaretti seated at a table in a State Street café, walks over, and greets him warmly.
Kabaretti, wearing an open shirt and sipping a cup of tea this sunny morning, is well-known around town.
He is the Israeli music and artistic director of the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra, whose home is just down the street in the beautifully restored, 1,500-seat Granada Theater, one of the city’s architectural gems dating to 1924.
Just around the corner, the flags of nations are flying in the breeze above the boutiques of La Arcada, a Spanish-themed shopping area, and there, among them all, are the blue-and-white colors of Israel.
It’s all a mark of the sometimes-overlooked cosmopolitan side of this laid-back beachside community about two hours north of busy Los Angeles, marketed as the “American Riviera.”
When Kabaretti and I end our chat, things are still rather quiet, but the sidewalk cafes along State Street will soon begin to fill up, giving the town a warm Mediterranean feel, which gets even better down at the end of the electric tram shuttle on the beach promenade at Cabrillo Blvd.
That’s where you can bike, stroll or climb aboard a surrey and pedal with a bunch of friends.
And on Sundays, beginning at 10 a.m., there’s a big arts-and-crafts fair on the promenade near Stearns Wharf, the Santa Barbara landmark where fishing and whale-watching adventures begin.
The fair is a fine opportunity to buy items like jewelry and paintings, or just to browse to your heart’s delight near the beach.
And as far as beaches go, there are some very nice options nearby, including Butterfly Beach across from the Biltmore Hotel and East Beach and West Beach by Stearns Wharf. At East Beach, if you’re lucky, you may catch a spirited volleyball game on the flat sand.
Across from Santa Barbara City College and close by the harbor is Ledbetter Beach, while Campus Point Beach is located just below the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).
Goleta Beach County Park also offers a nice stretch of sand in the town of Goleta adjacent to Santa Barbara; it has a long pier, where early-morning anglers drop fishing lines to try their luck for halibut.
About 17 miles north of town you’ll find El Capitan State Beach, a popular spot for picnics and camping.
And of course, as far as surfing goes, the Santa Barbara area is a long-time favorite, including Rincon State Beach Park – known as a world-class surfing spot – south of Santa Barbara in the community of Carpinteria.
For native New Yorker Helene Schneider, Santa Barbara’s current mayor, the city really offers the best of both worlds.
She describes Santa Barbara as “a small city but with big ideas and aspirations.” “There’s really something for everyone here,” she says. “The climate is always amazing. You’re between the ocean and mountains, so the natural resources are just incredible, but it’s also very beautifully done architecturally.
“We take very good care of our historic downtown core. It’s a cultural arts destination, so if that’s of interest – whether it’s an art gallery, performing arts or poetry – there’s just so much to choose from. There’s also so many great restaurants that are locally owned.”
But what really makes Santa Barbara different, Schneider stresses, is being able to enjoy the outdoors. “You have these vistas, you’re at the ocean, and in literally five minutes, you can be on a wooded trail up a creek and not see any buildings, and feel like you’re in the middle of some very rural place. I think that combination [of urban with rural] is what makes Santa Barbara so special.”
Something else that is special, but of manmade vintage, is Santa Barbara’s “Funk Zone,” an old warehouse district at the southern end of State Street close to the beach and across from the Mission Revival train station.
This area is undergoing a noteworthy rebirth as a center of cafes, breweries and tasting rooms representing 15 Santa Ynez Valley wineries.
The tasting rooms, part of the new Urban Wine Trail, offer an option for visitors who might prefer to stay in town instead of trekking over the mountains to the wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley.
If you’re into wine and film, by the way, the Kalyra Winery tasting room in the Santa Ynez Valley was used in the movie Sideways.
In exchange for the right to film at the winery, the movie company built Kalyra’s new tasting room, creating a kind of outback, Aussie theme, which makes a lot of sense given the fact that winemaker Mike Brown is an Australian from Adelaide.
“I think [the movie company] spent about $45,000 in a week,” said Martin Brown, Mike’s brother, who handles marketing.
“renovating it, getting props, painting it, decorating it. At the end of that week, Mike and I were standing across the set, and we were like, ‘Wow, this is better than anything we were going to do.’ It was amazing!” Driving out to the Santa Ynez Valley wineries is always a nice option during a visit to Santa Barbara, and if you’re so inclined, you can continue on to Solvang, the small Danish town whose windmills and shops will make you think that you’ve landed in Denmark.
No matter what your interest, whether it’s the arts, the beaches, State Street shopping, or just soaking up the town’s charm, you can’t miss the mountains as you drive along Highway 101 – the link between Southern and Northern California.
The hillsides overlooking the palm-lined beaches are studded with lovely homes and breathtaking views, but then most of the views of Santa Barbara are priceless, whether you’re looking down from the hills or up from the water.
And speaking of views, one of the most interesting here is on the Santa Barbara Red Tile Walk, spread out along 12 downtown blocks.
These iconic red tiles are visible at 17 stops and 22 historic adobes, whose Spanish character echoes the mood of early California.
Speaking of things Spanish, Santa Barbara is also the home of the 10th in the historic chain of California missions founded by the 18th-century Spanish Franciscans, who were met here by the Chumash Indians.
On a visit, you may also want to see the city from the perspective of a bicycle, whether you’re riding along the beachfront or if you’re going a bit further afield.
On the subject of bikes, Santa Barbara will host part of the big Amgen bicycle tour of California, including a Stage 4 finish on May 15 and a Stage 5 start on May 16.
This year, from August 30 to September 6, State Street will also reflect Santa Barbara’s Jewish side, when the local Jewish federation flies 125 federation flags along this iconic street from downtown to the waterfront.
The federation, housed in the modern Bronfman Family Jewish Community Center building at 524 Chapala Street, is encouraging members of the town’s 5,000-6,000 Jewish households, which include several hundred Israelis, to sponsor a flag in memory of a loved one or a special occasion.
“So it brings a little bit of recognition and visibility, not only to the Jewish community members who are affiliated or unaffiliated, but certainly to the broader general community,” says Michael S. Rassler, executive director of the federation Rassler describes Santa Barbara as “very, very rich in culture, in ethnicities, in its own unique traditions. There is a tremendous amount of collaboration among and between not only the Jewish community agencies, but also between the Jewish and general community.”
Among the federation’s activities is “Portraits of Survival,” a major permanent exhibit highlighting the personal stories of 28 local Holocaust survivors.
Another exhibit at the federation, “Upstanders: Courage in the Face of Evil,” is the story of individuals who helped save Jews during the Holocaust.
Rassler believes that “a lot of the education we’re doing [about the Holocaust] really resonates with the Latino, and in particular, the at-risk Latino community, which have also had experiences of displacement, language issues, job and employment issues, discrimination.”
Santa Barbara has a number of synagogues, including the Orthodox Chabad and the “storefront” Young Israel, and two Reform synagogues, the large Congregation B’nai B’rith and the Community Shul of Montecito and Santa Barbara.
The Community Shul, which does not have a permanent building, meets on the beach, in the park, and in members’ homes.
Santa Barbara has an infectious smalltown flavor, and every time I’m here, I get the feeling that everyone seems to know everyone else.
As the Rassler says, it’s “an incredibly warm and engaging, ‘haimishe’ community.”
An example of just how engaging it can be is reflected in the Building Bridges 1998 program, a series of talks, films and performances which were sponsored by 39 civic organizations.
One of the individuals who played an important role in this program was Walter Kohn, the UCSB Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.
For this event, the affable Kohn helped bring together a Jewish klezmer band and mariachi musicians – without a doubt one of the most obvious “bridge-building” scenarios one could ever imagine.
As Kohn recalled with some laughter, the event occurred practically on the same day that he received the Nobel Prize, when he found himself carrying Nobel documents in one arm and placards announcing the klezmer-mariachi event in the other.
A specialist in condensed matter physics, Kohn is a native of Austria who fled the Nazis on the last kindertransport to England, recalling that he got out by the skin of his teeth just three weeks before the outbreak of the war. His sister left before him.
Before joining UCSB, Kohn spent 19 years at the University of California at San Diego, where he helped develop the physics department as well as the Judaic studies program.
In connection with his professional work, Kohn established “significant contacts” with Israeli universities, including the Hebrew University, where he was a visiting professor.
On weekends, things can get rather crowded on Highway 101 leading to Santa Barbara, as visitors from Los Angeles head up this way to soak up the easygoing lifestyle.
Of course, Santa Barbara has attracted visitors from Los Angeles for a very long time.
Long before there were freeways, when the trip up here took longer than it does by today’s standards, the beachside community was such an attractive destination that the car trip was an adventure well worth taking.
Back in 1928, Charlie Chaplin built the Montecito Inn, which is located on Coast Village Road two blocks from the ocean.
The inn, says operations manager Jim Copus, was a place where Chaplin could host his “rich and famous” Hollywood friends, who would motor up, spend some time together and then continue on to Hearst Castle in San Simeon to party.
Canvas displays of Chaplin movie posters are seen in the lobby of the inn, whose front façade is pretty much the way it looked in 1928, Copus notes.
Another interesting personality who left an imprint on Santa Barbara was Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish opera singer who developed Lotusland.
Open to the public since 1993, Lotusland is an amazing, 15-hectare (37-acre) botanical garden filled with exotic plants that reflect Walska’s daring, imaginative touch.
One of the fascinating sites at Lotusland is the butterfly garden, whose specific plants are known to attract butterflies.
“All of our gardens are open, rather than covered or enclosed,” says Laurie Marx of Lotusland. “So it is not an experience like a butterfly pavilion that some natural history museums have created.” Lotusland is located in the foothills above Santa Barbara, about a 10-15-minute drive to the beach.
Like so much to see and do here, it’s one of the often unexpected joys of an encounter with this very special beachside destination.