A spectacle of nature that cannot be explained, a harmony with the whole that envelops everything, mind and heart. Who knows how many adventures the Chumash lived here, an indigenous people who inhabited this land for hundreds of years when everything was unspoiled and the wilderness reigned undisturbed. In these days, in which travel is possible only with the mind, I have decided to take a dip in the past to tell you, with deep emotion, a small beautiful pearl of California that I have known and lived: Santa Barbara. A land, a place that has overturned many of my perspectives, expanding them and awakening in me a freedom and a perception of life never experienced before. To reconfirm that the wonder that arouses us to discover scenarios, cultures, lived around us is as powerful as the inner change that derives from them.
Rebuilt entirely after the devastating earthquake of 1925, what in the States is called the “American Riviera” is a succession of idyllic beaches, red-tiled roofs, white stucco buildings, for a Spanish architecture and style of rare beauty. This California city, which has about 90,000 inhabitants, is a place that once discovered you will never forget: natural beauties that open your heart, bright beaches kissed by the sun, international art exhibitions, markets with countless proposals of local products, organic wines exceptional of the nearby valleys, romantic, folk and hippy atmospheres, yoga centers, surfing, colorful fishing boats that crowd the port … Santa Barbara with its healthy lifestyle, offers a range of unique, magical emotions, in a perfect fusion between culture and nature, between past, present and future.
Dream beaches and nature
While we drive along an internal road parallel to the center, tall and sinuous palm trees overlook us. It seems to have been catapulted into a prehistoric era, nature is so immense here. Once we reach a promontory overlooking the downtown area of the city, we descend to East Beach, the largest and best equipped. Groups of young people playing beach volleyball, parks on the edges crowded with children and snack bars make the wild atmosphere vanish and bring us back to the urban reality, which is also the custodian of moments full of pleasure. Taking a little tan on this spacious beach while watching the seagulls in flight, savoring the ocean breeze, is an ecstasy of the senses. On Sunday afternoon, artists set up stalls with their works along the sidewalk that runs along the cycle path. This is just one of the many appointments with art, a sign that creativity, free expression of oneself, here in Santa Barbara, are an inseparable part of the very identity of the city. This beach is overlooked by the characteristic Stearns Wharf: a rough wooden pier, lined with shops full of souvenirs and kiosks serving delicious seafood. It is the oldest pier in operation on the West Coast today and its charm speaks for itself. Just a few minutes drive from East Beach, proceeding along the Cabrillo Bulevard, you can reach the nearby Montecito, a district of Santa Barbara County, renowned for refinement and luxury. The area is embraced by a strip of beach, the elegant and beautiful Butterfly Beach. With Tam, my dear friend of Vietnamese origins and expert of the place, we venture along a path that directly connects the road to the beach. Flowers of a thousand colors, intoxicating scents accompany our journey. This beach, although narrow, offers dreamy ocean sunsets and lots of tranquility. For the most dynamic days, however, the Leadbetter Beach, west of the main port, is ideal for swimming and for surfing and windsurfing both in summer and in winter. In addition, the exploration of the sea caves by kayak is not to be missed. From the port of Goleta Beach they can be rented all year round, while the less experienced can take advantage of organized excursions. This sport is also ideal for visiting the Channel Islands, also known as the Santa Barbara Islands, 8 beautiful islands off the coast.
Back to the origins
The time has come to immerse yourself in the history of this place and fully experience its indigenous and Spanish imprint. How can we not start if not from the “Queen of the Missions”? On Laguna Street, a few minutes’ walk from central State Street, stands this stone church, dating back to 1820. The Mission of Santa Barbara boasts an imposing Doric façade, a tribute to an ancient Roman chapel. Inside you can admire some interesting works by the Chumash themselves, the native indigenous people that the Spaniards tried to convert to Catholicism by building this building. Another institution of the city is the County Courthouse: in summer its vast garden hosts a beautiful film festival of outdoor films. Watching Fred Astaire dance with Ginger Rogers to the notes of Heaven in the cult film Top Hat, you can see entire families and groups of friends enjoying the cool evening for a romantic and fun picnic under the stars. In winter, thanks to the mild climate present all year round, the Courthouse garden can also be used for a pleasant reading break on the lawn or for a short siesta from tourist tours. It is also a must to visit this historic building inside: frescoed ceilings, wrought iron chandeliers and tiles adorn the spaces; on the second floor you can admire a suggestive room decorated with wall paintings depicting the Spanish colonial history. At the top, the clock tower, El Mirador is perfect for contemplating the panorama that unfolds between the city, the ocean and the mountains. Here a heartbeat of joy is immediate in front of this panorama, the freedom to breathe deeply so much beauty. To continue the cultural exploration of the city, the First Thursday is not to be missed. In fact, on the first Thursday of the month, the art galleries in State Street and its surroundings open their doors to the public to inaugurate new exhibitions, including artists, wine tastings and live music, all for free. Another art, the most beautiful there is and that is not lacking here, is nature. So let’s try to immerse ourselves in the botanical garden of the city: 16 hectares dedicated to the indigenous flora of California. Over 8 km of paths wind their way through cacti, sequoias and wild flowers; crossing an old dam originally built by the Chumash I return to that wild and timeless dimension of which I feel the call so much.
Made in the USA
Since the exterior is a reflection of our interiority, once the spirit has been enriched with these cultural splendors, an appointment with shopping made in the USA is inevitable. American stylists and designers offer truly delicious clothes, home furnishings, handcrafted jewelry and for the most part aimed at promoting a sustainable supply chain. The most loved boutique in Santa Barbara is Wendy Foster on State Street. Among floral scarves, jeans, costume jewelery, folk dresses and romantic shirts, you can find delicate scents never seen elsewhere: powdery, floral essences with gritty notes. Candles are also interesting for their unique fragrances. Another gem from Wendy is John Was’s line with his folk and sophisticated style that so much matches the Spanish atmosphere of the city. All brands made locally in respect of sustainability, a sign of the green soul that characterizes California, home to great pacifist and cultural movements that have changed the history of the world. A shop full of handmade items, even for the home, really nice, is Plum Goods. Ideal for gifts, it is full of works made by emerging artists such as Peter Horjus, designer famous for his vintage illustrations also published in The New York Times. To stop and recover from shopping, there are two inevitable stops in downtown: the organic market on Tuesday afternoon and the typical bars of the area. Avocado and eggplant, figs and fennel, honey, persimmon and the particular cirimoia, tart apple, with its white and creamy pulp, all locally produced, delight the eyes and palate. If, on the other hand, you want to stay for a longer period without wandering around, a fresh salad is perfect, full of healthy and tasty ingredients in one of the characteristic places of the area. Here the healthy and vegan style can be felt everywhere. To end the day, before sunset, those who love the discipline of yoga can indulge in a lesson at the Santa Barbara Yoga Center. Yoga sessions of all kinds in bright and spacious studios to align mind and body. The highly qualified teachers will be able to take care of you with incredible professionalism and kindness. Given the running-in done for years, I set out for a solo yoga session. Full of riches in the soul, I greet the Sun which is about to disappear on the horizon. I dedicate the practice to these moments of pure and simple happiness and I give thanks. With a smile in my heart I enjoy an evening with my friends sipping the good wine that these lands of extraordinary beauty have given us.