1. Where to Stay
Bacara Resort & Spa’s clusters of low-rise villas (from $450) are so private that an A-list celebrity (Jude Law, Oprah) could be right next door and you won’t even know it. Despite its star magnetism, the five-year-old resort feels delightfully pre–Access Hollywood, with croquet mallets clacking on the Oval Lawn (book a game two weeks before you go for a personal attendant, champagne, and hors d’oeuvre). Salads rule at the all-organic Spa Café, which features produce picked daily at the hotel’s private ranch, located five minutes away.
If Bacara recalls Old Hollywood, the beachfront Four Seasons Resort, the Biltmore Santa Barbara (from $550) really was a Tinseltown stomping ground in the fifties. (Rock Hudson’s short-lived 1955 marriage to his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates, took place in cottage No. 5.) Now you might just run into Britney Spears in the spa, where the super-customized Hands of Healing treatment includes a pre-massage conference with your therapist.
Jack and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned at San Ysidro Ranch (from $639), and its cottages, scattered among 40 acres of lush gardens dotted with lemon trees, still exude a quiet, old-money ambience.
A less presidential (yet still charming) option is the Cheshire Cat (from $189), a Victorian bed-and-breakfast ringed by rose bushes and filled with English antiques, fireplaces, and in-room hot tubs—perfect for a long soak after a day hike in the Santa Ynez foothills.
2. Where to Eat
In this sandal-wearing town, Sevilla’s orange- and gold-hued interior counts as opulent. Despite a boxy stucco exterior, the Spanish restaurant’s urban attitude comes through in its inventive tapas (the tuna seviche with passion fruit and avocado is especially good) and its darkly intimate, and very busy, bar.
You can’t make a reservation at the popular Arigato Sushi (1225 State St.; 805-965-6074), but the unexpected—and surprisingly delicious—combinations make it worth the wait. Don’t expect leisurely service; this place likes to turn tables fast.
Ask for a table on the patio at Elements, so you can gaze on Santa Barbara’s lovely 1929 Spanish-Moorish courthouse, right across the street. The panko-crusted halibut is perfect for a diet-conscious spa weekend, and the list of Sideways-caliber local wines is long.
The vegetarian-friendly SpiritLand Bistro specializes in organic global fare, with a tangy Thai coconut yellow curry sharing the bill with Italian vegetable risotto.
New on the scene is the crowd-drawing Fresco at the Beach, which replaced a much pricier restaurant in the Santa Barbara Inn. The grilled prawns with Tuscan beans served over warm arugula is spa-healthy dining at its finest. Prices are good, the view even better: It’s one of the only restaurants in town directly overlooking the ocean.
3. What to Do
Beyond the indulgences found in luxury hotels, small day spas (less intimidating prices) abound in the arty Gutierrez Street neighborhood, just off lower State Street. Visit Avia Spa for a so-called Buddha-ful treatment (includes hot-stone massage, mud wrap, facial, and pedicure), or if you’re a guy, a Zen for Men package. Nearby Le Rêve provides a range of reasonably priced treatments (one-hour massages run $85). Yoga Soup offers classes from Anusara Yoga to Vinyasa Flow for a suggested donation of $14.
4. Insider’s Tip
Butterfly Beach in neighboring Montecito is the most west-facing beach along the area’s predominantly south-facing coastline, which makes it the prettiest spot to catch a flaming Pacific sunset. The narrow strand of sand fronts low cliffs for part of its length, then uses the gated homes of the seriously rich as its backdrop. Rent bikes or rollerblades at Wheel Fun Rentals (23 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; 805-966-2282) and peddle or skate the six miles to Butterfly. At low tide, walk less than a mile along the water’s edge to busier East Beach and join a pickup volleyball game.
5. An Oddball Day
On Full Moon Friday (held every month except February), go kayaking with Captain Jack’s Tours (888-810-8687). The friendly outfit was founded by Mark Hicks, who launched his company after losing an eye in a battle with cancer (his friends took to calling him Captain Jack the One-Eyed Pirate). After a quick lesson on land, Hicks and his staff will guide you toward the open sea to glide in the company of sea lions, harbor seals, and pelicans. Reward yourself for all that paddling by grabbing one of the outdoor tables at Brophy Brothers (119 Harbor Way; 805-966-4418) on the pier. Don’t expect haute cuisine—this is a clam-chowder and coleslaw kind of place.
6. Related Links
Check out the Independent for local news, events listings, and art coverage.
If you’re planning a visit for the end of January, get the lowdown on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Surfers spread the word on happenings in—and out—of the local waters at Santa Barbara Surfing.
The quirky Edhat publishes a daily posting, with pictures, about life on the left coast: missing turtles, bizarrely labeled elevator buttons, seabird infestations, etc.