Santa Barbara Perfection; Climate, Wine, Beach among the Delights

Article excerpt


SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - "Welcome to the American Riviera," said our host, Jean Paul de Craemer as he gestured at the setting for a very Californian al fresco lunch of white asparagus, snapper and white wine set elegantly on the rooftop of the Andalucia Hotel. It was not much of an exaggeration. California seems to produce everything, and have everything.

From the Andalucia's roof - where the swimming pool sparkles in the noonday sun and the potted lemon trees rustle in the breeze - the red tiled roofs and whitewashed villas of Santa Barbara, spilling down the hills to the ocean 10 blocks south of the hotel, do, indeed, resemble the famed Mediterranean coast.

Like the real Riviera, as Mr. de Craemer, the food and beverage director of the hotel, says, Santa Barbara is blessed with a benevolent climate, beaches, a backdrop of rocky hills, plenty of good restaurants and lots of little shops selling beautiful and expensive items of clothing, gifts and local products in the paseos or pedestrian alleys lined with shops woven through the city center. Like the European Riviera, Santa Barbara has some very good local wines produced in the more than a hundred vineyards in the county.

This is where some movies are made, and many of the Hollywood glitterati live in the surrounding hills, but it was not always so. This was not always a serene coastal town 100 miles north of Los Angeles. When the Spanish arrived more than four centuries ago, the Chumash Indians, known for their exquisite basketwork, had been here first. They were living on the Southern California coast as hunters and gatherers. Agriculture was introduced by the Franciscan friars. Chumash religious practices included the creation of elaborate polychrome rock art in remote caves and rock outcroppings.

Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo claimed the region for Spain in 1542, but the town was not named until 1602 when Sebastian Viscaino sailed a small fleet into the channel, between what are now the Channel Islands and the coast of California, seeking shelter from a severe storm. The storm abated on Dec. 4, St. Barbara's feast day, and the ships were saved. A friar onboard named the spot where the crew came ashore in honor of the saint.

The area was not settled by Europeans until 1782 when a royal presidio, or fort, was established; the Santa Barbara Mission was founded four years later by the Franciscan friars as part of the 21 mission system in California, each one day's journey apart, from San Diego to Sonoma.

The Spanish ruled until 1822 when California became Mexican territory. In 1846, Col. John C. Fremont claimed the region for the United States. With statehood in 1850, the town's Mexican style was replaced by Eastern Anglo influences.

The Santa Barbara Mission was the 10th of the California missions. The original building was an unpretentious adobe, enlarged in later years to resemble a Mexican country church of the early 19th century. Today, the mission is part museum and part church with a lovely garden between the two. It contains three sculptures carved by a mission Indian.

The motion picture industry began in Santa Barbara in 1910 when American Film Co. opened Flying A Studios in the center of town. Flying A was the largest studio of its kind in the world at that time, and ultimately produced more than 1,000 films until it closed a decade later and the movies and the stars moved south to create the tinsel town the world knows as Hollywood.

Santa Barbara was badly damaged in a 1925 earthquake. Pearl Chase, chairwoman of the plans and planting commission, offered to pay for architectural services if houses were built in the Moorish style. The idea caught on, and today Santa Barbara continues to be a graceful mix of Spanish, Mediterranean and Moorish, a lovely town where the average price of a two-bedroom house is $1 million. …