This Seaside Hamlet Once Had Utopian Appeal

Antique shops, restaurants and bed and breakfast inns are luring people to this quiet coastal village. High-spirited polo matches also contribute.

Railway tracks still pass through and the derricks continue to pump oil.

In 1925, much of Summerland's past was lost to the wrecker's ball when U.S. 101 was relocated there. Other historical buildings were destroyed 40 years ago when the highway was reconstructed as a freeway.

Petroleum was discovered in this seaside town at the turn of the century and an oil boom hit the area.

A landmark restaurant, the Big Yellow House, now occupies the 1884 home of Summerland's founder, H. L. Williams, who had purchased the surrounding land known as Rancho Ortega.

Williams started a camp for spiritualism, advertised in newspapers, and enticed visitors to settle here by offering 25x60-foot lots for $25.

Summerland soon boasted a post office, a library and literary hall, a school, a church, a community recreation building, hotels and a spiritualist hall.

Williams' little utopia was altered forever, however, when petroleum was found beneath the town. After owners of those $25 lots sold out to the oil companies, derricks soon dominated the landscape.

Even Summerland's coast wasn't spared the oil boom, as California's first offshore oil well was drilled here in 1896. Newspapers across the nation wrote about the event, and the Southern Pacific Railroad advertised: "See the oil wells in the sea."

Visitors can view a few photographs from yesteryear and local memorabilia at The Big Yellow House. (It opens at 7:30 a.m. to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.) At The Big Yellow House, specialties include fried chicken and prime rib.

Most of the vintage items in Summerland, however, are recent imports from other places.

They fill the half-a-dozen antique shops that have been established in town since a 10-year moratorium on water permits ended in 1983 and construction of businesses and homes resumed.

The biggest store is the Summerland Antique Collective, 2192 Ortega Hill Road, which opened last year in a modern building with the antiques and collectibles of 25 dealers.

Others are lined up almost in a row along Lillie Avenue--C.B.H. Antiques at No. 2264, Bird on the Bough (which relocated from Montecito) at No. 2272, and Summerhill Antiques and Serendipity Antiques (upstairs), both in a new barn-like building at No. 2280.

Besides browsing for antiques, travelers often drop in here for something to eat. Dress is casual at restaurants, with sun-seeking tourists in shorts and T-shirts often crowding outdoor patios.

At the Nugget, a Western-style bar and grill, out-of-towners will find it easy to talk with the local folks, who are frequent patrons for its soups, salads, sandwiches and steaks. On weekends, breakfast also is served (from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.).

Equally popular for meals is the Summerland Beach Cafe, formerly known as the Omelette Parlor.

Some visitors order take-outs or buy food supplies at the Summerland Market, then drive Evans Avenue under the freeway and over the railroad tracks to picnic at Lookout County Park.

The bluff-top park offers a panorama of the Santa Barbara Channel, including offshore wells and drilling platforms that are a legacy of the oil discovery in Summerland. A path leads down to the beach.

There's a New England look to the two B & Bs that provide Summerland's only overnight accommodations. Newest is the country-charming Inn on Summer Hill, which opened in December.

Interior designer Mabel Shults created the 16-room B&B;, which has nightly rates from $115 to $195, with a 25% discount for extended stays. Make reservations by calling toll-free (800) 999-8999.

Closer to the center of the village is the 5-year-old Summerland Inn, with rates from $55 to $120; two-night minimum stay required on weekends and holidays. Two of the 10 guest rooms are especially for families. For reservations, call (805) 969-5225.

Take the time to drive about two miles east on Lillie Avenue, which becomes Via Real and leads to the polo matches played at the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club.

Players and polo ponies from around the world often compete in the tournaments and exhibitions played on Sundays through Nov. 4. To help the novice, an announcer offers a rundown during the playing of each match.

Games are usually played beginning at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Admission is $5 for grandstand seats. Food and drink are available.

Polo also is played Saturdays and some weekdays throughout summer. For more information, call (805) 684-8667.

Visitors, of course, believe that the town got its name from the temperate year-round climate. However, few people realize that it has to do with the spiritualists who first settled in Summerland. To them, Summerland meant "Seventh Heaven," or the home of departed spirits.

Listening to eerie music and voices emanating from its public seance hall, wary neighbors gave the hillside hamlet another name: Spookville.

And after petroleum was discovered here at the turn of the century, the psychics sold their property for lofty prices and left town.

To reach Summerland, drive north on U.S. 101 from Los Angeles and exit on Evans Avenue just before reaching Montecito/Santa Barbara. It brings you to the main street, Lillie Avenue, and the Big Yellow House, which can be seen from the freeway.

Return to Los Angeles by crossing over the freeway and rejoining U.S. 101 south. Round trip is 182 miles.

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