“Don’t even think about the beach!” That’s the counterintuitive advice I foist on every visitor to the idyllic, Mediterranean-style resort town where I’ve been officially based for 50 years.
The water’s cold, the sand is speckled with tar, and the harbor—or pelican-haunted Stearns Wharf—is much more colorful. What gives our town distinction is everything you don’t expect—the thickly wooded canyons around Schofield Park, a serene Our Lady of Mount Carmel church amid the gated mansions of Montecito, the abundant vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley barely an hour away.
So turn your back on the sea and ramble along the pathways of the Botanic Garden. Follow that up with a drink at sunset at the recently restored El Encanto Hotel, which daydreams over the white walls and red roofs below.
Santa Barbara is a place that keeps its treasures out of view. You need resourcefulness to catch the sushi at Arigato, a tiny place so fashionable it doesn’t accept reservations, or the meditative spaces of Alice Keck Park, a short walk from the Museum of Art downtown. And you need enterprise to seek out a visiting lecturer or performer at our University of California campus, home to five Nobel laureates.
Of late, inevitably, our somewhat sleepy town of surfers and bohemians has been rather taken over by Hollywood, about a hundred miles to the south. Valet parking suddenly appeared outside overpriced restaurants, and our quaint, two-lane stretch of freeway was unhelpfully widened.
Oprah Winfrey took a place in ritzy Montecito, not far from Jeff Bridges and Kenny Loggins. Some of us worry that our town will soon disappear within the ravenous maw of L.A.
But for now our modest pleasures are still intact: the family-run taqueria La Super-Rica, which the late Julia Child pronounced one of her favorite restaurants in the country (though its owners still didn’t raise their prices); the contemplative views at the Sarada Convent, a Vedanta temple run by some (American) Hindu nuns; the cozy Upham Hotel near downtown, where Aldous Huxley used to stay.
If you still want the beach, Carpinteria and Ventura, 15 and 30 minutes to the south, offer exactly the relatively unvisited sands you may have dreamed of in Santa Barbara. But my city is about discretion, and ignoring pretty faces for the depths that lie within.
Pico Iyer is an award-winning essayist and novelist whose most recent book is The Man Within My Head. Iyer also collaborated with photographer Macduff Everton on an ode to Santa Barbara, The Santa Barbara Book.