SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – As the Pacific offers an occasional puff, a sun-warmed whisper that at once tantalizes and entrances, life goes on – slowly … comfortably … placidly – in this upscale seaside retreat.
In these parts, every blink of the eye produces an image worthy of a postcard. Every deep breath tastes salty and clean and smells of flowers and freshly cut grass. Every day (OK, OK, only 300 a year) is sunny.
And somehow, those factors combine to turn every single person you meet into an honorary member of the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce.
Whether they grew up here or study here or, like the University of Maine women’s basketball team, are just passing through on NCAA basketball business, everyone seems to love it here.
And they all remember their first impression of the place the official town promoters bill as “The American Riviera.”
“The minute I came to this campus, I said, `We don’t have to go anywhere else, I’m coming here,”‘ said Jessica Patton, a University of California-Santa Barbara senior who considered Cal-Berkeley among other opportunities.
“It just pulls you in. The campus is definitely its best advertisement. You come here and you’re like, `This is somewhere I want to be, definitely.”‘
Around here, nobody seems to disagree. In Santa Barbara, even the street people seem different. On Friday, one bedraggled woman walked down State Street, the main drag, hauling belongings and huddled in a jacket despite the warm weather.
“I’m so happy,” she sang, softly, with a sweet smile on her face. “So very happy.”
UMaine senior Jamie Cassidy would agree with that sentiment.
The Black Bears, you see, got to Santa Barbara (UCSB is actually located in neighboring Goleta) on Wednesday. And for Cassidy, who lists water-skiing among her favorite activities, the chance to spend a little time in the sun has been tolerable, as her slightly sunburned nose and glowing face attest.
The Black Bears have spent a couple of days trying to un-hibernate and turn into brown Bears: They’ve broken out the sunscreen and virtually taken over the Holiday Inn pool.
And Cassidy’s first impression?
“What am I doing going to school in Maine?” Cassidy said before pausing, chuckling, and realizing how that would sound. “No. I’m just kidding.
“This is a place I would definitely see myself living,” Cassidy said. “It’s so much fun. It’s beautiful. The weather, you couldn’t ask for more. I could definitely see myself living here.”
On a day when snow stretches winter into March in Maine, and when temps top 75 in Santa Barbara, who couldn’t?
Welcome to Paradise
First off, the people in Santa Barabara don’t call their home county “paradise.” That would be lowbrow, common, and undeniably un-Santa Barbara.
It’s not that people around here put on airs. It’s just that when the local real estate flier boasts more homes in the $5 million range than it does in the $100,000 range, there’s a certain expectation. An average room at Fess Parker’s (yes, that’s the TV Dan’l Boone) DoubleTree Resort will put you back $250 bucks for an eight-hour snooze. If you want to look at the ocean, it’s $500. A suite can be had for $1,000.
They do, however, use the word “beautiful,” around Santa Barbara. A lot.
And somehow, around here, even that doesn’t seem to cut it.
On one side of Santa Barbara, the majestic Santa Ynez mountains rise in a series of rugged spires barely a 10-minute drive from the city of 90,200 located 92 miles north of Los Angeles.
And on the other side, the Pacific Ocean takes care of the rest.
The combination is the California that the TV generation has come to expect when they visit the Golden State. This isn’t L.A. This is … beautiful.
“Santa Barbara is really the epitome of what people imagine California being,” said Patton, the UCSB student. “The sun, the beach, the beautiful people or whatever. Santa Barbara is pretty fitting in that description, I think.”
Among the “beautiful people” who have relocated to Santa Barbara or its upscale neighbors — Montecito and Hope Ranch — are Cheryl Ladd, Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Troy Aikman.
Mainers will find it interesting that locals seem to treat their celebs with the same kind of interest, or lack thereof, that Bangor residents lavish (or don’t) on Stephen King. There are no maps to the homes of the rich and famous around here.
“What’s his name, what’s his name,” said Lisa Felland, the director of concierge at one hotel, searching for an elusive name to drop on a curious visitor, before settling on Bridges as the local star in question.
Felland said Kevin Costner used to have a boat that he moored at Santa Barbara’s marina, and that she’s seen Steve Martin. But that’s business as usual. Stars are here. You’ve just got to know where to look.
A routine jog along Santa Barbara’s paved shore trail can result in a “hey, wasn’t that …” moment.
Felland will say, though, that sometimes even the locals pay a little closer attention to the comings and goings of the Hollywood set.
“You hear rumors. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston came here. There was a rumor that they were going to buy a place,” Felland said.
Even in Santa Barbara, that qualified as news.
While older cities in the Northeast rebuilt and reconfigured during the urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s, in Santa Barbara, they’ve accomplished the same thing in a more tragic way.
In 1925, the city was devastated by an earthquake. The former “Victorian frontier town” had a chance to give itself a makeover. And according to Betty Hendrickson, a docent at historic Santa Barbara Courthouse, the town took full advantage of the opportunity.
“They formed an architectural board of review,” she said, pointing out that the assembled group decided that Santa Barbara would trade in its frontier roots and try to become something special.
The result is a town with a mission – well, the Santa Barbara Mission has actually been here for a long time – make that a town with a plan.
The plan was simple: Buildings in Santa Barbara would be largely of Spanish Andalusian or “country” design.
That, according to Hendrickson, means three things: Red tile roofs, white or pale outside walls and decorative doors are nearly mandated in the city. In fact, in the downtown section, that’s not much of an exaggeration. That’s all you see.
“We have lots of planning commissions,” Hendrickson said. “There are 18 or 20 of them you have to go through (to build). If you want to make it easier (to build) anywhere, build Spanish.”
Residents have, especially downtown. The courthouse, with its famous mural room that traces the history of the community on the walls of a formal meeting room, is a centerpiece of that effort. One visiting architect called the courthouse “one of the major buildings on this planet.”
He probably called it beautiful, too.
Hey, what about the beach?
Though you take a short drive and really believe that you’re deep in the mountains, there’s no ignoring Santa Barbara’s other chief drawing point: Every breath you take, the Pacific’s never far away.
At UC-Santa Barbara, that beach image is embraced. Patton, for one, had the school’s beach (yes, UCSB has its own beach) right outside her dormitory during her freshman year. Down the stairs, out the door, and she was beaching. That’s all it took.
Students take advantage of the weather and a bike-friendly campus that sets up huge cycle-corrals for pedal-parkers in front of many buildings.
The city of Santa Barbara’s downtown section runs perpendicular to the beach, leaving the actual oceanside highway nearly vacant of businesses. Instead, a concrete path traces the shoreline’s undulations and gives residents and tourists a beautiful (what else) way to appreciate the city while getting in a little exercise. Bikers, skaters, joggers and walkers all share the road.
And even when work is the impetus for a trip to this American Riviera, fun never seems very far away.
Just ask the Maine contingent.
Coach Joanne Palombo-McCallie, for one, relished the chance to hit the Santa Barbara pier and sample the local shark-n-chips for dinner on Thursday.
Senior Amy Vachon was happy to sample the local sunscreen and work on her tan, while making sure she kept her captain’s duties in mind while lounging beside her teammates.
“We’re a little red here and there, but nothing too bad,” Vachon reported with a giggle on Friday.
But Cassidy, her fellow captain, had a perfect Santa Barbara response ready. Around here, there’s no such thing as a sunburn, you know.
“This is going to turn into a tan,” Cassidy said, pointing to her glowing nose and cheeks and sharing a sentiment of generations of seaside travelers.
“It will turn,” she said, confidently. “It will turn.”
And when it does? You guessed it. It’ll be beautiful.