Pristine prerogatives make Santa Barbara the epitome of California dreaming

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Four hours on a whale-watching boat had produced lovely views of the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara on the California coast but no whales.

"It's very rare that we see nothing -- maybe once a year," swore Hal Altman, the volunteer naturalist on board the Condor Express catamaran.

Whales were guaranteed, so they stamped my ticket for a free return cruise and I stomped off. Hah, I thought. Probably not a single whale anywhere around.

The newspaper delivered to my hotel room the next day told a different story. A 30-foot whale had breached in those same waters and came down hard on a 27-foot private boat that, obviously, had ventured too close. The whale then whacked one passenger with its tail, breaking his ribs. The whale took off, leaving pieces of whale skin and a few barnacles on the battered boat. The guy ended up in the hospital.

So, there are whales -- and dolphins and sea lions and other ocean dwellers -- in the fertile waters off Santa Barbara. And a lot more richness on land.

For my money, Santa Barbara is the quintessential town for California dreaming. Nestled on the beach with the Santa Ynez Mountains forming a protective barrier around it, Santa Barbara has perfect weather, gorgeous adobe-and-tile buildings reflecting its Spanish heritage and a legacy of zoning laws so strict that strip malls, multistory condos and view-hogging trophy mansions need not apply.

The result is a town that has not gone sprawl-happy during the past three decades, has reasonable traffic even down the trendy shopping area along State Street and has property values so high that the least desirable dwellings still start at seven figures.

Altman, for example, is a TV ad writer who decided upon retirement to flee the icy streets of New York City for the sunny skies of Santa Barbara. He's been here more than a year and is still looking.

"I'm renting," he said. "You drive in the "poor' neighborhoods and see a little, two-bedroom house, kitchen needs updating -- a million dollars. Add a view, it's $2 million. "

That's no problem for the occasional tourist; I had four days for a visit and was glad to be traveling solo. I had spent many summers visiting Santa Barbara when friends lived in the college community of Isla Vista as on-again, off-again students. The area has two schools, City College and the University of California-Santa Barbara, which provide a steady supply of young people to keep Santa Barbara from having a retirement-community feel.

Returning to a favorite spot after too many years of absence often is a sorrowful experience, because inevitable growth has stolen much of the charm. Not so with Santa Barbara. The small airport still looked like a hacienda. Walkers, joggers, in-line skaters and cyclists still flowed happily on the recreational path that lined the wide expanse of beach. The wharf had added some new attractions, but who can complain about a wine bar with a deck looking out over the harbor?

The five-story Hotel Andalucia in the historic downtown was new, but built to look like it was old as the hills. Spanish tile, wrought-iron accents, blooming flowers and a rooftop pool and hot tub that offered views of the ocean, islands and mountains made it fit right in on the self-proclaimed American Riviera.

Back at the boat, Matt, the captain of the Condor Express, was as disappointed as we were that our whale-watching lacked whales. "Well, we missed 'em," he said. "Come back in July and August -- this is the best place to view the giant blue whales. You'll see 30 to 50 whales at a time. "

I fingered the stamped "whale check" ticket in my pocket. Now there was a legitimate excuse for a return trip.

"I brought a helmet, if you want to try kayak surfing. "

The speaker was Michael Cohen, who takes folks kayaking, surfing, mountain biking, rock climbing and wine sampling as owner of the Santa Barbara Adventure Co. I began to explain to Cohen that my idea of kayaking was floating down a lazy river with a beer in one hand and binoculars in the other, but then we were off, paddling blue touring kayaks by the luxury yachts moored in the harbor.

Once beyond the sea wall, the ocean got more interesting, with swells spilling chilly water onto my lap. "You don't get seasick, do you?" yelled Cohen.

I caught up with Cohen as he rested against a bobbing buoy. He was chatting, and I was breathing heavily, when three dolphins came rolling in straight toward us. One passed directly beneath me, and I waited for it to playfully spill me into the water.

We rendezvoused across the harbor at a mile marker that was a sunning spot for California sea lions, with the adults hogging all the space while juveniles floated nearby in the water.

"There are 28 species of dolphins and whales in the Santa Barbara Channel," Cohen said as we lunched on a sand spit. "We see, typically, common and bottle-nosed dolphins. That was a pod of seven or eight juveniles and females we saw. "

Cohen describes the natural history and marine biology on his guided adventures. His five-hour ocean kayaking experience travels some three miles down the coast for a beach lunch, followed by a van ride back to the start.

"As long as people are willing to get wet and have fun, we'd love to have them," Cohen said.

On a clear day, you can see misty mountains 20 miles out in the Santa Barbara Channel. Those are the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park. The largest is Santa Cruz Island, now uninhabited but once the home of thousands of Chumash Indians. Legend says the Chumash hiked over a rainbow to the mainland, where Spanish Franciscans showed up in 1786 to convert them.

That story is told in art, artifacts and architecture at Mission Santa Barbara, where 4,000 Chumash are buried in the cemetery, and the adjacent Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which has the largest collection of the beautiful baskets for which the tribe was known.

The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is just up Mis sion Canyon Road, and has a nice walk along a creek, through a grove of giant redwoods. Take the scenic loop drive around Santa Barbara, through the posh residential area of Montecito, and the landscaping of the gated mansions is a botanic garden of its own.

The Ty Warner Sea Center is a new attraction on Stearns Wharf and has tanks full of sea creatures such as a two-spot octopus, eccentric sand dollars, sunflower stars and sea cucumbers, which you can pick up to examine. Some visiting teens were grossed out by the newest exhibit, a pregnant dolphin that died of natural causes and has been "plasticized" with its insides, including the fetus, on view.

I went to Santa Barbara Harbor to have a look at the whale-battered boat and found instead the Maritime Museum, which told the history of the area's seafaring industries. My favorite display was a hands-on "virtual fishing" demonstration, in which I hooked a marlin and tried to land it.

"Better luck next time," said the video.

Upstairs from the museum was the Endless Summer bar and restaurant, which had surfboards hanging from the ceiling, surfing movies on the television and a view of the action in the harbor from the deck.

State Street was blocked off for a farmers market, where vendors peddled fruits, flowers and vegetables. The street is sort of a mix between Rodeo Drive and Haight Ashbury, with women in designer clothes searching the boutiques and college students searching through the Hawaiian shirts in the vintage clothing shops.

Joe's Cafe, with its wonderful neon sign, is still the place to go. And there's a multiple choice of other bars and restaurants. Cafe Nirvana, which serves fusion Indian food, was next to Galanga, a Thai restaurant, which was next to Taiko, a sushi bar, which was next to the James Joyce, an Irish pub. The seared tuna at Restaurant Nu was fabulous.

One other thing hasn't changed in SB. The town has more than its share of homeless people, who sun on the benches of State Street or stroll with their shopping carts down the beachside recreational trail. But then, if you had to spend the winter on the streets, where would you rather be -- Detroit, Chicago, Fargo, or Santa Barbara?

I heard the butterflies before I saw them. Actually, I heard a field trip of kindergartners screaming, "Butterflies, butterflies, butterflies!" as the kids beat me to the prime viewing spot at the Coronado Butterfly Preserve.

The 9.3-acre preserve is amid suburbia in Goleta, to the west of downtown Santa Barbara. You park on the street and follow the dirt path into a ravine filled with tall eucalyptus trees, with a boardwalk over a boggy area at the bottom. Eucalyptus trees bloom in the winter, and monarch butterflies gather here to feed.

A rope barrier keeps visitors out of the main Ellwood Butterfly Grove, which is marked with small signs that identify it as "one of the largest monarch sites in the United States. Monarchs arrive in the fall and stay until spring. They need the shelter of these trees to survive the winter. "

I joined the kids, who had calmed down and were eating their snacks. Butterflies flitted through the canopy above, or gathered together on the drooping branches, making them look like orange icicles. Occasionally, the wind or some other disturbance would cause an orange explosion.

Mary Carroll, a botanist, told the children what they were seeing: "When they cluster together, it's just like us huddling together for warmth. Before Europeans came and changed the landscape, there used to be more eucalyptus groves. There's some debate whether this is a recent phenomena in California. "

The kids took off, leaving me alone with hundreds of thousands of butterflies.

In the silence, the surreal setting was magical.

TRAVEL TIPS: SANTA BARBARA HIGHLIGHTS

Solvang Gardens Lodge: At 293 Alisal Road in Solvang, the boutique-style lodge has 24 rooms, most with stone fireplaces, marble bathrooms and antique furnishings. A beautiful garden and new spa cottage are out back. From $119 to $229 for a suite. Call 1-805-688-4404 or visit www.solvanggardens.com.

Hotel Andalucia: At 31 W. Carrillo St. in the downtown historic district of Santa Barbara. A luxury hotel with a fine restaurant. From $350 to $1,200 for the Andalucia Suite. Call 1-805-884-0300 or visit www.andaluciasb.com.

Santa Barbara Adventure Co.: Kayak trips are $85 to $105 per person. A mountain bike and kayaking combo is $150. Surfing lessons are $105, and guided rock climbing is $115. Wine country tours are available by van and bicycle. At 805-898-0671 and www.sbadventureco.com.

Condor Express Whale Watching: Trips run year-round and are guaranteed, or you get a "whale check. " A half-day cruise to Santa Cruz Island is $75 for adults and $40 for children. A 2.5-hour cruise along the coast is $35 and $18. Call 888-779-4253 or visit www.condorcruises.com.

Cloud Climbers Wine and Mountain Jeep Tours: The wine-tasting tour is $99, the mountain tour is $69. Call 805-965-6654 or visit www.ccjeeps.com. Guide Lee Tomkow has a history of Santa Barbara winemaking at www.sbwinemakers.com.

Sideways: Visit the Sideways Wine Club is at www.sidewayswineclub.com. The Vintners' Association is at 800-218-0881 and www.sbcountywines.com. A map is available showing the Sideways route through the county.

Hitching Post II: The "world's best BBQ steaks" is not false advertising, and the grilled artichoke, seasoned with "Magic Dust," is a wonderful appetizer. The address is 406 East Highway 246 in Buellton, www.hitchingpost2.com.

Coronado Butterfly Preserve: Call 805-966-4520 or visit www.sblandtrust.org/coronado.html.

Channel Islands National Park: Visitors may swim, snorkel, hike, camp and kayak on and around the islands. The islands are home to more than 2,000 species of animals and plants, 145 of which are found nowhere else. Call 805-658-5730 or visit www.nps.gov/chis. There is a visitors center in Santa Barbara.

For more information: For wine packages, accommodations and visitor information, call the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau at 800-676-1266 or visit www.santabarbaraca.com. Inside the Santa Ynez Valley magazine is available at 805-688-1414 and www.insidesyv.com. A free map is available for a "red tile tour" of the historic buildings in Santa Barbara.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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