Magazine article Sunset

Paradise in a Tough Corner

Magazine article Sunset

Paradise in a Tough Corner

Article excerpt

A mysterious pier and the promise of a late-winter storm are the lures south of Santa Barbara

La Conchita, "the little shell," seems like a place Joan Didion might invent for one of her novels. It is a stripped-down, slightly washed-out version of a small Southern California beach town, complete with banana trees, territorial surfers, and warm offshore breezes redolent of salt air and crude oil.

U.S. Highway 101 rumbles through town. On one side is a crumbling 300-foot-high cliff, the same one that sloughed 11 tons of mud and buried half a dozen houses two winters ago. Below sits a neighborhood of modest homes, a gas station, and Seaside Banana Garden - an 11-acre farm growing exotic bananas like the Blue Java, whose grayish blue skin and creamy texture remind you of ice cream. That's about it.

On the ocean side about a mile south are beach houses, tidepools, and a quiet, pleasant hotel that lures poets, British expats, and, to borrow from Did. ion, angst-ridden Westside couples opting for a weekend getaway at the beach in lieu of a divorce.

The hotel - the Cliff House Inn - is a family affair. It was purchased in 1975 by the Porter family after Veda Porter had a dream about it. Today the hotel is managed by her son, Sandy, whose Tahitian-born wife, Diana, runs the lunch service at the inn's excellent poolside restaurant, the Shoals. Here, those Westside escapees dine on ginger-braised halibut and fresh mussels while rogue seagulls float in the pool.

About that pool: it's a 60-foot-long, square-cut sapphire edged in white concrete and guarded by an alpha-male palm tree - stout and tattooed with the scars of long-lost leaves - sitting silently where one would expect to see a diving board. …

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