This weeklong itinerary encompasses the best of Santa Barbara County, both the city’s downtown and the thriving wine country northwest of it. For those who can’t decide whether they want a beach vacation, a big-city trip, a gastronomic excursion or a wine-country getaway, the circuit detailed below contains a little of each.
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After landing in Los Angeles, drive two hours northwest to Santa Barbara along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1), which skirts the gorgeous coastline. The stretches through Malibu and past Point Mugu State Park make it especially challenging to keep your eyes on the road.
Just 20 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, in the leafy foothills of Montecito, the cottage-style San Ysidro Ranch is an exquisite hideaway and a longtime member favorite. (The resort was temporarily closed in early 2018 due to extensive damage caused by mudslides but has since reopened.) If you are in search of a tranquil setting in a remote location, consider booking this property.
On the other hand, for a well-appointed hotel in the heart of downtown, opt for the Simpson House Inn. This charming bed-and-breakfast set within maintained English-style gardens has just 15 guest accommodations. Though it lacks on-site amenities such as a gym and a swimming pool, guest passes to a nearby athletic club are offered for a nominal fee.
Santa Barbara has a first-rate roster of museums and attractions. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum covers a range of topics, including marine mammal conservation, the native Chumash population and the preservation of history and ecological diversity in the Channel Islands. Afterward, visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara, which should be on every itinerary; we recommend booking a private tour led by one of its Franciscan friars.
For lunch, try Jane restaurant on the main drag of State Street. This family-owned and -operated restaurant attracts a clientele of younger families. The high-caliber, contemporary bistro fare is approachable yet refined.
In the afternoon, visit a lesser-known highlight: the El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park. Located two blocks east of State Street in the heart of downtown, this site preserves the last of the four military garrisons founded in Alta California by the Spanish.
Lazy days in Santa Barbara can be spent lounging on one of the area’s beaches. Though Butterfly Beach is the most famous, we prefer the quieter Mesa Lane beach, which is popular with surfers and locals alike. It is accessed via a long stairway between private homes. Set beside the Santa Barbara Harbor, Leadbetter Beach is the easiest to get to. It is quite touristy but still a good place to relax after lunch at our favorite waterside dining establishment, Brophy Bros. Seafood Restaurant & Clam Bar. This family-owned restaurant, open since 1986, serves the best clam chowder in town, and its catch-of-the-day special is not to be missed.
In the morning, you may wish to try a treatment at Salt Cave Santa Barbara, a little-known gem in the heart of the city. Billed as one of the largest underground Himalayan salt caves in North America, this spa encompasses two salt caves made of 200-million-year-old stacked pink Himalayan salt blocks, with crushed pink salt crystals covering the floor. Though most visitors go for the yoga and sound-healing classes, book one of its more-unique treatments. Therapists employ heated salt stones, scented oils, salt scrubs and long gliding strokes, leaving you both relaxed and revived.
This afternoon, wander through the Funk Zone, a vibrant arts neighborhood just north of Stearns Wharf. There are also a number of excellent boutiques. We recommend the Blue Door for a diverse array of vintage and modern gift ideas. The repurposed furniture is one of a kind, and the contemporary art is outstanding. We also recommend the Shopkeepers, a store filled with eclectic offerings that are as unexpected as they are eye-catching.
To rest your feet, try “tropically inspired” Test Pilot, a great spot for creative Tiki-style cocktails. The bar’s signature cocktail, a blend of rum, clove, citrus and bitters topped with an absinthe foam, is exceptionally refreshing. The Zombie, a rum cocktail mixed with cinnamon, grapefruit, anise, lime and clove, is simultaneously tangy and sweet. If you prefer beer or wine, opt for Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. or Oreana Winery, respectively. The Funk Zone also contains some of our favorite restaurants, including the Lark, a farm-to-table establishment named after Southern Pacific’s overnight train that ran between Los Angeles and Oakland up until 1968, as well as the upscale Spanish restaurant Loquita. (See our full list of Santa Barbara restaurant recommendations.)
An hour’s drive from downtown Santa Barbara, the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, a sophisticated property of 73 suites and studios, is set on a 10,000-acre private estate near Solvang in the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley. After check-in, enjoy a leisurely lunch and then relax beside the pool. Later head to the spa to try the exceptional Cowboy Cure treatment, which combines an exfoliation session, a mud wrap and a Swedish massage.
In the evening, enjoy a complimentary wine tasting offered by a local vintner. Later, have dinner in the elegant Ranch Room — men over 16 are required to wear jackets — where the California cuisine is exceptional.
Get up early and take a guided horseback ride to a historic camp, where a hearty country breakfast is served.
In the afternoon, make a fly-fishing excursion to the ranch’s 100-acre spring-fed lake.
The wine country comprises both rural estates in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, plus urban wineries in cities such as Solvang, Buellton and Lompoc. Microclimates are ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Our favorite way to taste is to choose an initial winery and then have its staff suggest our next destination, based on our obvious preferences. However, be sure not to miss Pence Vineyards & Winery, on the western edge of Santa Barbara County. The 200-acre estate not only comprises 40 acres of vineyards, but also raises Angus cattle and includes an equestrian facility, olive groves and an organic vegetable farm. The setting is idyllic, and the staff is friendly and helpful.
At lunchtime, have a picnic on the inviting redwood deck encircled by oaks at Rusack. Afterward, visit Melville Winery and Sunstone Vineyards & Winery, both of which we strongly recommend. (See our full list of tasting room recommendations.)
After a morning relaxing at Alisal, drive back down to Los Angeles (about three hours) to catch an afternoon flight from LAX.
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