I knew about Santa Barbara mostly via a film fave of mine, the cult classic, "Sideways." In the Oscar-winning film, there's lots of talk about wine, plenty of wine tasting, and some eating and romance-gone-wrong as well.
Upon my recent visit, I found that of course, Santa Barbara County is home to some incredible wines — but the city and surrounding area has plenty more to offer, especially for outdoor-lovers like me. It's fun to taste wines, but if you're still learning about wine, as I am, that's not the only reason to visit this place.
I visited Santa Barbara the week prior to Thanksgiving, and I'd say the weather was perfect for mid-November, so I thought I got super-lucky. But, according to the data, it's always kind of perfect there: It varies from mid-winter temperature of around 65 (Fahrenheit) December through March, to mid-to-upper 70s the rest of the year. December through March is the "rainy season" there, but there's still only about a 20 percent chance on any given day that it will rain.
One of the wonderful things about Santa Barbara (and there are many) is that it's a very outdoorsy, green-minded place. So during my visit there I enjoyed being outside as much as possible, which was pretty easy to do. I dined al fresco, tasted wines on patios, walked the city to enjoy all the beautifully preserved architecture and gardens, hiked in the mountains, snacked on baked treats in the sunshine, walked the pier as the sun set, and watched the stars from the patio of my hotel — while keeping my feet warm at the open-air fireplaces. In short, I was only inside when I was sleeping or checking out a local shop.
What to do
Hiking in Santa Barbara means it's time to head to the hills, where there are a plethora of trails. The city sits close to the water, so most of the trailheads are located up the mountain from the closer-to-the-water city center. You really get a feel for the landscape of the place when you start next to the beautiful Pacific Ocean.
As you wend your way up into the hills, the slopes get steeper, and homes get larger, until finally you're cruising past houses so large that they're mansions, hidden behind walls and landscaping. You can take a taxi or Lyft to your trailhead (you don't need a car to see most of the city), or do like the locals and take a strenuous uphill climb on a bike.
I checked out the Cold Spring Trail, which reportedly connects to a waterfall spot that sounded lovely — but I never got that far. After walking to the trailhead, while enjoying incredible vistas of the Pacific, I came to a rock-strewn riverbed, bursting with wildflowers.
Apparently the entire side of the mountain had been washed away the previous winter, along with much of the trail. Climate change had claimed another victim, was my first thought, imagining the previous mix of complex plants and trees, some of whose trunks I could see in a pile below.
Now, the river that had caused the flood was, after a long, dry summer and fall, just a sweet trickle now (see video above), but then I realized the landscape was still beautiful, just in a different way.
On one hand, it would have been lovely to hike a more "traditional" trail. On the other, walking up the riverbed, carefully avoiding any new growth, and finding about 10 different glorious species of wildflowers starting over was a much more memorable experience — and I had to admire how nature "cleans up" after a destructive event. I noticed coyote footprints in the newly exposed soil, and I heard plenty of birdsong as evening set in.
The sun setting on the mountain ahead of me added even more color and drama to an already beautiful experience. The hike reminded me of the resilience of the natural world, and how it's important to accept what is, instead of what "should be." As an early moon rose and the sun began setting, I made my way back out, noticing that the human-created parts of the landscape — a collapsed road and trail signage — didn't seem to be recovering as quickly as nature was.
I'm not sorry to have taken this hike, but of course there are plenty of areas where a raging river didn't rip part of the mountainside away. Just check your local maps or the site linked above for information.
Walk the beach
Of course, the beauty of Santa Barbara is that there are mountains and sea in close proximity to each other, so you shouldn't miss a walk on the beach, too. Everything's so close that you can walk on the beach and hike in the mountains in the same morning. The soft sand beach here is incredibly long, so you can make it as long or as short an excursion as you like.
The beach is also a great spot for bird-watching; I saw a plethora of shore birds, including beautiful great heron hanging out in the native succulents near the boardwalk area.
If you're already out on the beach, you might want to walk out onto the historic Santa Barbara Pier for a snack or meal at one of the restaurants there. It's a little touristy, but still fun, and you can't beat the ocean views from the end of the pier.
And of course, wine tasting
Naturally, if you're in Santa Barbara and you have even a passing interest in wine, you should do some wine-tasting. The tasting rooms are numerous and to a venue, I found the employees to be patient and happy to explain the local wine-growing region to someone new to the area. I know enough about wine to understand how geography and geology affects how it tasted — and that's actually a great way to understand the local ecosystem you're in when traveling through a wine-making region.
So don't be embarrassed to ask about where the grapes come from in your wines, and even ask to see a map — pretty much every tasting room will have one, and the tasting-room pourers are always highly educated about where their wine comes from and how the local conditions impact what you're tasting. It's like a free local geography lesson while sipping wine. What could be more fun?
Where to stay
The Hotel Milo Santa Barbara is the ideal place to stay when you're visiting the area; it's directly across from the boardwalk along on the water (very close to the entrance to the Pier), and its updated retro rooms are comfortable but miles away from corporate-feeling. With two pools — both quite private — I swam in a different one each night of my stay. The grounds are beautiful and filled with floral color; There are fire pits on the public patios, too, perfect to relax in front of after wine-tasting — and a great way to meet fellow guests. Who needs TV when you can enjoy a cozy fire, conversation, and the stars twinkling above Santa Barbara's always-clear skies?
The Hotel Milo has a well-implemented sustainability program, and they're serious about it. It's one of the few places I've ever stayed that didn't change my towels when I left them hanging up — which many hotels say they do to save water and energy, but few actually follow through with.
I haven't even gotten into all the delicious food in Santa Barbara, but suffice to say I didn't have one meal that wasn't excellent during my entire stay. Every meal was packed with incredibly fresh, seasonal ingredients, and for a vegetarian, the local mastery of vegetables — even at restaurants the served meat — was seriously impressive. I'll let you discover that for yourself, when you have the chance to visit this seaside slice of California heaven.