Dean Clough

April 21, 2021

Portico Darwin: Montecito/Santa Barbara Travel Guide

While there is plenty to be said for Santa Barbara proper, we really have come to prefer staying in a town just a few miles south, Montecito.  Benignly notorious for its hands-off approach towards the rich and/or famous, Montecito offers the ultimate combo of weather, mountains, trees/greenery, city, beach and ocean.  If someone said "Show me classic California", I don't know how the heck you don't start here.   

Your first decision is where to stay.  Well, the Montecito outpost of go-to chain Four Seasons, The Biltmore, is closed because of the virus.  The other posh spot in Montecito, The Rosewood Miramar Beach, while impeccably oriented and as fine as one would expect, charges literally a pound of flesh:  standard rooms start at $1,500 and standard beachfront rooms at $4,500.  You read that correctly.  Even some rich people I know won't stand for that kind of abuse.

Rather, pick a nice Airbnb, preferably within walking distance to both a fine beach and the wonderful high street.  Like our pick, The Palm Cottage.  Yes, it's near the 101 so there's some noise.  Get over it, because the  location can't be beat - it's equidistant walking to both dreamy Miramar Beach and the celeb-friendly  downtown.  And it's only ~ $300/night for a wonderfully equipped cottage.  

We had 3 nights here.   Here are some tips for your next trip.  
  • Although there are certainly cultural activities here in the area, we live in San Francisco and love to travel to major cities, so we skip the museums, theater, etc.  That may seem arrogant or foolish to you, so here's Santa Barbara's official calendar of events.
  • Likewise, hiking or biking.   In SF, we are lucky to live next to The Presidio, so we like to get our daily exercise here via sunrise walks on Miramar beach, vs. exploring the endless hiking trails in Santa Barbara County and the surrounding area.  But like culture, the hiking and biking is clearly here in spades if that's your thing.  
  • OMFG, enough already - shopping, too.  We don't typically go shopping on vacation here, so you're on your own there, too.
  • Instead, we like to do a mix of foothill and mountain "adventures", mixed with plenty of beach time and choice eating and drinking in town.
  • For the former, that means two things:  Cold Spring Tavern and wine tasting
    • Just a short 20 minutes away, Cold Spring Tavern is literally the definition of Textbook - it's an old stagecoach stop that's served travelers for years, and has been run by the same family since 1941.  Just try not to enjoy yourself here - but that could happen if you don't call (no online booking as of this writing) and make a reservation in advance.  Consider early lunch on a weekday vs. mid-day over a busy summer weekend.  This place easily can reach Yogi Berra "No one goes there any more because it's too crowded" levels.
    • Here's a list of the wineries I've compiled.  On this trip we visited Rideau, Barbieri & Kempe, and  Brewer & Clifton, the first being a proper vineyard/winery, the latter two tasting rooms in downtown Los Olivos.  All 3 were great, and Rideau is gorgeous.  Many thanks to the proud wine cellar owners Louise Lederhosen and Byron Browne for introducing us to Rideau.  Note:  I could easily see finding an Airbnb in Los Olivos for a couple of nights - by our count, there were at least 15 tasting rooms, across perhaps 3 blocks.  The two we visited were serving their own world-class wines, and I bet at least some of the others are equally as good. 
  • For the latter - eating and drinking (we medal in this regularly, at home and abroad).  In no particular order and with pitiful amounts of detail (a.k.a. "Google it").  But Montecito is so small, all but two of my listings are within a couple of blocks of one another.   And remember this:  Montecito is home to a LOT of rich and occasionally famous, too, people.  They like to go out like us.  But they won't stand for tourist yahoos, bad food or bad service.  So with some minor and noted exceptions, expect, at a minimum, Killer levels.  I take "Killer" seriously, but as I consider it, each place we visited was at least that.
    • For breakfast (read:  pastries), we've been to Jeanine's, Honor Market, and Renaud's.   All Killer, except at Renaud's yesterday they were terribly shorthanded.  Still one of the best almond croissant I've had outside of Paris.  And it's so my my my, but we do like to ride the Palm Cottage's beach cruiser bikes into town for this.
    • Los Arroyos for fun Mexican.  Killer.
    • Honor Bar for insane al fresco people watching and cocktailing.  Also light meals.  Killer.
    • Tre Lune for high-quality Italian.  Textbook. 
    • Ca' Dario, also for high-end Italian.  We only had dessert and port here - which was Killer, as was the al fresco scene, but the service was Bogus.  But note it's good enough for Conan O'Brien.
    • Sushi Bar | Montecito for guess what.  Diamond Certified.  We had a prix fixe omakase experience that was a top 20 dining memory for us.
  • Outside of my precious Montecito, here are a couple things for you to try in Santa Barbara:
    • Take a stroll on the beach at Santa Barbara and then wrap at Brophy's in the harbor, for a Textbook seafood house experience.  Chamber of Commerce views - in fact this place belies the cliche' the better the view, the shittier the restaurant.
    • And last, La Super-Rica Taqueria for again, guess what.  Textbook and also legendary in the area.  Go early or expect lines. 

That's it.  I hope you find this information helpful - I'd love to hear about your own Santa Barbara experiences.  Just reply to this and I'll update this Guide to include your suggestions.

About Dean Clough