When my wife took a job working for a Santa Barbara hotel, she arrived at the worst possible time—rainy season. Although she was able to live at the hotel for the first few weeks, she had to find more permanent housing nearby and wound up renting a room in Montecito, where just as she was moving in, an avalanche of mud and boulders swept down a creek through town, wiping out dozens of homes, killing some 20 people, and leaving many more homeless or with condemned houses. The mudslide even shut down the 101 freeway for a week, meaning she had to commute home to Long Beach on the Amtrak Surfliner.
After moving to a Montecito cottage outside the evacuation zone, things settled down a bit. When our son got a week off for spring break vacation, I headed up with him, our dog Buddy and a carful of kitchen appliances. The “cottage” turned out to be half the size of a standard two-car garage but had a nifty garden full of sundials and birdbaths. An owl family inhabited a nest at the top of a eucalyptus tree, and at night, the baby owls would hiss frantically as their mother swooped above our heads, hunting for rabbits in the overgrown field next door. Add a bottle of wine, and you’re glamping.
Besides gawking at the aftermath of the mudslide, there isn’t much to do in Montecito, which is mostly composed of massive hillside estates owned by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. One significant exception is Ganna Walska Lotusland (805-969-9990; www.lotusland.org), a sprawling collection of botanical gardens located at the former home of a wealthy Polish émigré. Still, the small town has a certain charm. There’s a fantastic market that boasts an incredible collection of gourmet food items, including several varieties of Himalayan salt. More important, Pierre LaFond Market and Deli (516 San Ysidro Rd., Ste. 1, Montecito) serves up hot coffee and breakfast sandwiches and burritos—it even carries The New York Times. Located next door (and at the same address) is the Montecito Wine Bistro, which is elegant yet kid-friendly and serves fantastic pasta dishes, stone-fired pizzas and wine-friendly entrées.
In Santa Barbara, our big discovery was Arigato Sushi (1225 State St., Santa Barbara; www.arigatosb.com). Located in the heart of downtown across the street from the landmark Granada Theatre, where we joined a full house of nostalgic old folks to witness the Beatles tribute musical Let It Be, Arigato accepts no reservations and opens at 5:30 p.m., so those in the know show up promptly at 5 to stand in line. If there’s a better sushi restaurant than Arigato, it’s somewhere in Japan and I haven’t been there yet, but the food was as exquisite as the service was fast and efficient. You can’t go wrong with any of the rolls, but whatever you choose, do not miss an opportunity to eat the Sunnyside Up Scallops appetizer.
During our week in Santa Barbara, we took an impromptu tour of the historic county courthouse, which features several well-preserved murals and also brought our son to the popular East Beach Batting Cages (226 S. Milpas St., Santa Barbara, 805-962-6666), where you can dine on exquisite tacos while your child swings a bat. We also did a fun wine tasting at the Fess Parker Wine Tasting Room (633 E. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, 805-564-4333) within the newly remodeled Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront resort (where, full disclosure, my wife happens to work). It’s a great way to get acquainted with the various vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley, many of which are just a 45-minute drive inland—except here you can take your glass of wine outside to the beach.
If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to check out MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation (125 State St., Santa Barbara, 805-770-5000; www.moxi.org). Less a museum than a high-tech playground, it features three stories of interactive exhibits, including a fun game in which you put your head up against a device and move a ball back and forth across a table with the power of your own concentration.
Besides the wine-tasting rooms in nearby Los Olivos, a great day trip from Santa Barbara is taking an hourlong horseback ride at the Circle Bar B Stables (1800 Refugio Rd., Goleta, 805-968-3901; www.circlebarbstables.com), located deep inside Refugio Canyon, about 20 miles north of town. Your guide will take you up the canyon into the hills, offering fantastic ocean views and an up-close experience of the local fauna and flora. There’s also a lodge with an inviting restaurant, bar and swimming pool. Pro tip: Save the drink for after the ride, and then spend the night rather than navigate the windy road back down to the beach, okay, cowboy?
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).