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The American Riviera

Santa Barbara is so nice that it actually makes Southern California worth visiting.

by Paul Gerald

Consider Southern California. It's either the dreamland of America, with beautiful weather and people and million-dollar homes overlooking white, sandy beaches, or it's a nightmare of freeway shootings, gang wars, wildfires, earthquakes, and Rick Dees. It is, in other words, loaded with lots of good stuff and lots of bad stuff. But one thing is certain: They've got only the good stuff in Santa Barbara.

It's 95 miles north of L.A., which is just about the right distance, and has 200,000 people, which is just about the right size. So let's take a quick tour of "S.B.," as the locals call it. Bear in mind, as you read this, that the average wintertime high temperature is 72 degrees. In summer it goes all the way up to 82. What's the weather like in Memphis as you're reading this?

Beaches: Dozens of them. Some have snack bars, picnic areas, volleyball nets, bike paths, and lifeguards. Others have outstanding fishing, surfing, and windsurfing. Some are just plain ol' sandy and quiet, and since S.B. has rules against building on the beach, you can always walk along it without hitting private property.

Mountains: Go hiking or mountain biking to a waterfall, meadow, or mountaintop in the 4,500-foot Santa Ynez mountains, which drop right into town. There are also three outfits that offer horseback trips. Ronald Reagan himself had a ranch in the area, where he used to pose for cowboy pictures; Michael Jackson owns the place now.

Wineries: There are 30 of them, with nearly 10,000 acres of vineyards, from downtown S.B. to way up in the mountains, and most are open for visits year-round. Sample the chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, Riesling, and others.

Architecture: The "Santa Barbara look" is basically Spanish Colonial/Mediterranean with a strong dose of historic adobe. Cream-colored plaster walls, red tile roofs, arched doorways, and beautiful courtyards are everywhere. Since a massive earthquake in 1925, the city has severely limited architectural forays beyond this look, and no building in town is allowed to be taller than the 1786 Santa Barbara Mission. The result is that the whole place has a downright regal feel to it.

Parks: It figures that a part of the world known for kicking back would have parks all over the place, from little gardens to ponds to mountain meadows. Alameda Park has more than 70 species of trees, Keck Park is renowned as a botanical center, and Chase Palm Park is the very picture of good Southern California: a long stretch of green shoreline park with tall palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze. There are also, right in town, a bird refuge, a zoo, a thousand-rose garden near the Mission, and Shoreline Park, with a spectacular view of the ocean and wooden steps leading to an isolated beach.

Whale watching: This goes on more or less year-round. From mid-December through the end of April, nearly 25,000 California Gray Whales pass through. The rest of the year, the main attraction is humpbacks they of breaching fame. In the summer you might even catch blue whales, the biggest critters on Earth.

Sports and recreation: This is where life in S.B. begins to get out of control. I lived there for about six months in 1992, during which time I saw, heard about, or participated in hiking, mountain biking, hang gliding, sea kayaking, golf, tennis, volleyball, surfing, windsurfing, polo, hot-air ballooning, rock climbing, fishing (off the pier, beach, or boat), roller skating, scuba diving, Frisbee golf, and, yes, lawn bowling. Any wonder I couldn't make a living there?

State Street: Another reason it was tough to make a living in S.B. A dozen blocks of State Street have more clubs, restaurants, and shops than all of Madison Avenue and Beale Street put together, and it's all in the "Santa Barbara look," complete with palm trees, red tile, and even a free bus line. Be sure to visit the bar in the Californian Hotel, where a cartoonist, paid entirely in beer, decorated every square inch of walls and ceilings. (The West Coast answer to the P&H Cafe.)

Stearns Wharf: The oldest operating wharf on the West Coast, Stearns has a fresh seafood market, restaurants from fancy to fish-and-chips, tourist stuff, fishing spots, and a smog-free view of ocean and mountains.

Channel Islands National Park: 250,000 acres, half of which are underwater, the other half on five islands. Only one of those islands has roads; the others are just for boating, hiking, beach exploration, camping, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The park has 2,000 terrestrial plants and animals, 145 of which are unique to the islands.

Santa Barbara is also a good base for exploring the rest of the southern half of the Golden State. The Big Sur and Monterey are just up the coast, L.A. is less than two hours away, and Yosemite is just a few hours out. Amtrak runs though S.B. between L.A. and San Francisco (332 miles north), and American Eagle, Skywest-The-Delta Connection, United Airlines/United Express, and US Air Express all fly into town. The best way to go is probably to fly into Los Angeles and rent a car.

In the end, the best picture of life in Santa Barbara comes from my brief tenure as a resident there. More times than I can relate, I went for a hike in the mountains in the morning, biked to the farmers' market for fresh ingredients to make guacamole for lunch, spent the afternoon pursuing some sort of outdoor activity, then went for a walk along the beach at sunset before going out for the night. If it hadn't been such a fun place to live in, I probably could have held down a job or two, and I'd still be there today.