“I grew up going to Disneyland. There were lots of princesses there. But it is so spectacular and beautiful here, who wouldn’t want to call Santa Barbara their home?

-Brooke Holland, public relations manager for Visit Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is coastal chic, but I also found it to have a chill vibe that cut any presumed pretentiousness. In an area with some of the most expensive average home prices in America, Santa Barbara did not feel like “Beverly Hills north,” as some warned me.

The Red Piano
The Red Piano. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

For two days, I walked up and down the State Street Promenade, watching unicyclists and longboarders roll up and down between the non-chain restaurants, shops, vintage movie houses, Turkish bazar shops, pizza places, and even a tastefully decorated tattoo parlor and an adult bookstore. A bar named the Red Piano had a crimson chandelier and grand piano right out front.

From the ice cream and hot dog stands on the pier (which you can drive on) to the frequent weddings staged organically on the lawn and grounds of the stately cathedral of a courthouse, I was charmed by the relaxing, funky, fresh feel of this coastal enclave.

Where else can you stroll a marina and peruse an art museum in a matter of minutes?

Or find Michelin-starred restaurants beside Mexican margarita joints? Then add the consistency of the mandated Spanish-style architecture, creating such a cultural sense of place.

Two days was not enough. I will be back.

The “Sideways” wine and Michael Patrick Shiels.
The “Sideways” wine and Michael Patrick Shiels. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Work-Life Balance on Display at Scarlett Begonia

I walked into the Scarlett Begonia on Victoria Street on a Tuesday morning in Santa Barbara, California. The charming restaurant was in an old-fashioned home with various rooms divided by white curtains and lit by hanging vintage bulbs.

There was streetside seating, a courtyard patio and a small bar beyond the baked cinnamon rolls, muffins and other treats displayed for sale on a distressed wood antique table next to an iron rack of lemons and oranges. I did not see a soul, and I wondered if Scarlett Begonia was open—until a voice rang out from the bar.

Scarlett Begonia
Scarlett Begonia. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

“Hi!” 

So enthusiastic was the greeting that I presumed it came from a staffer. In fact, it emanated from a woman, her face hidden by her long, blonde-streaked hanging hair while she looked down at her phone, seated at the bar in front of a Bloody Mary.

“Thanks for saying ‘hi’ and being so friendly,” I responded. “That was a nice welcome.”

The woman offered a humble shrug while looking up to reveal her piercing blue eyes and flash a big, bright Goldie Hawn smile.

Then a server came to ask me if I wanted to sit inside or outside. It was at that moment that I made a mortal mistake. When you step into a bar at that hour and another patron bothers to say “hello,” you should perch yourself on a bar stool and have a breakfast beer because you have obviously found a kindred spirit, pardon the pun. Invite yourself to the party!

But instead of conviviality, I chose to chomp Scarlett Begonia’s lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry compote and whipped cream alone in the courtyard.

Barber Shop
The Barber Shop. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Barber Shop Encounter

When I left the restaurant, the bar was empty, so I burned some of the calories consumed by kicking myself for missing the chance to hear her story as I walked toward the shaded shops of Santa Barbara’s State Street Promenade.

I was searching for the art museum when I turned the corner to see an ornate, old-fashioned, striped barber pole above a big glass storefront window. From the sidewalk, as if it were a stage, passersby could see an older man, nearly bald but in the chair, getting a haircut anyway. His hairstylist was the lively lady I had just seen at Scarlett Begonia.

Recognizing me when she looked up, she put the scissors down and once again gave me a sweeping wave and wide smile. I pantomimed back as if I were drinking from a longneck beer bottle, followed by a “thumbs up,” which she returned after laughing and nodding.

Just for that magic moment, in our mutual appreciation for balance in life, we were our own secret society. And I think her personality made Laura the best ambassador Santa Barbara could have.

Profiteroles at Bouchon
Profiteroles at Bouchon. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Celebrity Residents are Ambassadors – As is the Cuisine

Santa Barbara boasts a boatload of other high-profile residents, such as Rob Lowe and Julia Louis Dreyfus, in the scenic, oceanside mountain town known as the “American Riviera.” Brooke Holland, public relations manager for Visit Santa Barbara, joined me to dine over duck, pistachio profiteroles and local petit Syrah at Bouchon, a warm, wine country restaurant for 25 years. I asked her if she ever thought she would live in the same town as the Duke of Sussex.

“I grew up going to Disneyland. There were lots of princesses there,” she laughed. “But it is so spectacular and beautiful here; who wouldn’t want to call Santa Barbara their home? The Montecito area’s boutiques and restaurants in Coast Road Village are a great place to stroll around.”

Courtyard by Marriott Santa Barbara
Courtyard by Marriott Santa Barbara. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Walking and Rolling

Some fly, take the train, or drive to Santa Barbara. Once I arrived, I was able to walk everywhere from my mid-century modern Courtyard by Marriott Hotel, a funky landmark property that is one of the only examples of non-Spanish eye candy architecture.

Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

But to see Montecito, home to Harry, Oprah, Ellen and Gwenyth (they really only need first names), I took the 90-minute, open-air Santa Barbara Trolley Tour. The trolley leaves across the beach from near Stearns Wharf and Pier Santa Barbara and it also took me to the Spanish Franciscan’s 1786 Old Mission Santa Barbara and its graveyard and gardens.

One of the many movie houses
One of the many movie houses. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Walking throughout town, I noticed the fanciful marquees of many charming, golden-era movie houses. The red carpet is walked by stars at the 11-day Santa Barbara International Film Festival each February, headquartered at the Arlington Theater. It neighbors Opal Restaurant and Bar, which caters to the likes of Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio in the celebrity green room.

Opal’s literary dessert
Opal’s literary dessert. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

Opal’s Historical Tie to Celeb Chef Julia Child

Richard Yates, co-owner with Tina Takaya, suggested I taste the flash-fried shredded phyllo-wrapped tiger prawns with a coconut curry dipping sauce. The dish was created by chef Felipe Barajas on the 90th birthday of the original television star chef Julia Child, a local resident. I enjoyed the culinary creation.

“She was a little more understated in person than she was on television. Watching her on TV, we always thought there was some sherry in the dish and some sherry in the chef.” Yates laughed. “But Julia Child took all of the high-falutin’ fear out of cooking to make it fun and something the average person could try.”

Opal also has a desert named for the book “Like Water for Chocolate,” which the author, Laura Esquivel, has been in to enjoy.

The “Sideways” winery tasting area with a view
The “Sideways” winery tasting area with a view. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

See Many of the Sites From the Wine Movie “Sideways”…and a Touch of Salt

I also took the 30-mile scenic drive up to Buellton to visit the Hitching Post II, the restaurant seen in the 2004 cult wine film “Sideways,” where you can have a bottle or glass of the same Highliner pinot noir Miles and Jack quaffed at the bar. The tasting room allows you to sit outside in a panoramic picnic area.

You can visit many of the “Sideways” sites and even stay in the Sideways Hotel, recognizable by its windmill, by checking the list of shooting locales on the Visit Santa Barbara website.

The Salt Cave experience
The Salt Cave experience. Photo by Michael Patrick Shiels

“All this salt and no margarita,” I joked while I dug my feet into the floor of Salt Cave. This State Street spa offers a 45-minute, zero-gravity chair, halotherapy meditation experience breathing in microparticles of the surrounding 60 tons of Jurassic-era Himalayan pink salt crystals.

Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected] Order his book Travel Tattler – Less Than Torrid Tales athttps://amzn.to/3Qm9FjN 

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