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A weekend escape to Santa Barbara is still a wonder despite the fires and floods

A weekend escape to Santa Barbara is still a wonder despite the fires and floods
Bob Craig, below left, gives a tour through the Cactus Garden in Lotusland. A look at different areas of the Hotel Californian in Santa Barbara, which is also pet friendly. (Jim Edwards)

Full disclosure: I've been in love with Santa Barbara for years. Its miles of golden sand and endless ocean views, combined with an awesome food-and-wine vibe, always jolts it to the top of my list when I think about planning a weekender. But after a winter filled with horrific fires, followed by the deadliest floods in California in decades, I was anxious about returning. What would I find? A new resort has vastly improved the look of downtown Santa Barbara where it meets the Pacific. And many of the tourist sites I feared had been irreparably damaged look great and are doing business as usual. The tab: A friend and I splurged at the luxe Hotel Californian, where the rate was $382 a night. Food and wine tacked on $224.

THE BED

Hotel Californian opened in the fall, just in time to take in displaced Montecito residents after the fires and floods. Some stayed as long as a month. The 121-room hotel is an oh-so-Santa-Barbara kind of place, with beautiful facades and decor, cushy rooms, sweeping views and fine restaurants under the direction of Alexander la Motte, formerly of Napa Valley's French Laundry. There are four buildings, one on the site of the original Hotel Californian, which was destroyed in a 1925 earthquake. City fathers are happy because the six-year hotel project eliminated a onetime gravel pit and cleaned up lower State Street where it intersects with the waterfront. It's an excellent location, at the edge of the city's trendy Funk Zone and across the street from Stearns Wharf, where we walked with Piper the Princess Pup (the hotel is dog friendly), watched a cruise ship anchored off-shore, ate fish-and-chips and enjoyed bright blue skies and soaring seabirds.

THE MEAL

We had plenty to choose from, with delish hotel restaurants, Stearns Wharf cafes across the street and the fun-and-funky Funk Zone wineries and restaurants a short walk away. But we went a bit afield to check out Coast Village Road, the business district in Montecito. The last time I saw it was on TV; clips showed mud and flood waters. Another pleasant surprise: Restaurants were packed. We stopped at one of my longtime faves, Los Arroyos, a low-key Mexican restaurant where you often run into Montecito celebs. (My last encounter was with Kevin Costner.)

THE FIND

Another fear I had was that Montecito's Lotusland, considered among the best gardens in the world, was damaged in the flooding. Although some paths had been washed out and the gardens filled with debris, they’re now as beautiful as ever. The 37-acre property, founded by Ganna Walska, a Polish opera singer and socialite, was developed over nearly 50 years and features a spectacular collection of exotic plants. You have to plan for this one: Reservations are required.

THE LESSON LEARNED

Six months after the flood, it's business as usual on Coast Village Road and at Lotusland, but if you wander off the main roads into some residential areas, the deadly force of the water and mud is still evident, along with cleanup work. Santa Barbara County suffered mightily last winter, but it's a resilient community.

Hotel Californian, 36 State St., Santa Barbara; (805) 882-010. Rooms from $450. Wheelchair-accessible.

Los Arroyos, 1280 Coast Village Road, Montecito; (805) 969-9059. Home-style entrees from $11.25.

Lotusland, Cold Springs Road, Montecito; (805) 969-9990. $48 for adults, $24 for children 3-17.

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