Montecito: Upscale Escape in Southern California

Fires, flooding and mudslides haven’t dimmed this jewel of Southern California on the American Riviera.

Story and Photos by Jim Thompson

(To download PDF of published story, click here: Montecito


Few places embody the Southern California lifestyle more than the Southern California seaside community of Montecito. Just north of sprawling Los Angeles, nestled between sun-drenched beaches and the Santa Ynez mountains, its Mediterranean climate, chic vibe, luxury accommodations, elegant dining establishments and celebrity connections make it the perfect destination for a relaxing getaway anytime of the year.

Ironically, despite all it has to offer, Montecito has remained largely under the radar as a major tourist destination and usually takes a back seat to adjacent Santa Barbara. The devastation of recent fires and deadly mudslides in the area damaged parts of Montecito and further diminished its tourism appeal.

Now, after months of work and reconstruction, Montecito has recovered and is retaking a prime spot for those seeking a romantic, relaxing, upscale escape.

In the 1920s and 1930s, film stars like Greta Garbo, Rudolf Valentino, Errol Flynn and Lana Turner, along with international movers and shakers made Montecito their place for vacations and secret romantic getaways.

Later, John and Jackie Kennedy chose Montecito for their honeymoon. In the 1960s, Bing Crosby and Clark Gable relaxed in the sun and Sinatra and the Rat Pack prowled the local watering holes in the 1970s. Today, attracted by the glorious beaches, the mountains and secluded settings, celebs like Jeff Bridges, Oprah Winfrey and Julia Louis-Dryfus not only call Montecito home, but can be seen shopping and dining with locals on Coast Village Road.

Don’t let the illusion of exclusivity fool you. The Montecito has a mellow, inviting vibe enhanced by a sunny, natural setting that has been compared with areas in Tuscany and the South of France. Gentle ocean breezes combined with the protection of the surrounding mountains brings mild temperatures and sunny days throughout most of the Fall.

Famous Landmark

To get to know Montecito, you must start with its most famous landmark, the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel. Truly, if Montecito is the embodiment of the southern California lifestyle, then the Biltmore is its crowning jewel.

Ironically, just one year before the Biltmore opened its doors in 1927, the area was hit with another massive mudslide that (according to the Santa Barbara Independent) roared “like violent thunder … as if a heavy freight train were passing by.”

The Reginald Johnson designed Biltmore hotel opened to great fanfare and success, only to fall on hard times when the stock market fell, triggering the Great Depression. In the coming years, it was re-discovered by the Hollywood crowd and soon became “the” place to be seen. During WWII, the Biltmore was a redistribution center for soldiers returning from overseas. The G.I.’s paid an average of $2.41 a day for a room, meals, laundry and top Hollywood entertainment.

Like Montecito itself, the hotel “has steadily grown in popularity and stature over the years,” said Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara General Manager Karen Earp. Built on 22-acres of spectacular beach-front property, after more than 90 years, the Spanish Colonial revival hotel remains an architectural jewel and a symbol of timeless luxury. “It has been a stunning journey,” added Earp.

In 1937, the Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club (a private-membership club that is also open to hotel guests) was built overlooking sparkling Butterfly Beach. From the beginning, the modern lines and furnishing were in contrast to the traditional Spanish-Colonial architecture of the hotel.

Local lore says then owner, Robert Odell, felt unwelcomed at some of the area’s exclusive clubs, so he decided to build his own. His cantankerous nature was further demonstrated when — following a disagreement with the Olympic Commissioner – he designed the pool to be larger than a official Olympic pool (50 meters+one foot), so it could never be used for regulated events.

Dogs Welcome

The Coral Casino features a sweeping view of beautiful Butterfly Beach, which got its name from the time when — drawn by warm weather — throngs of butterflies would invade the beach in the Fall and Winter. While there are no hibernating butterflies on the beach today, your dog is welcome. In fact, most places in Montecito and adjacent Santa Barbara are pet friendly. Dogs are permitted on-leash at Butterfly Beach, Shoreline Park and Chase Palm Park and welcome to roam free at Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro Beach), which is just a 15 minute drive up the Coast.

Throughout the area open-air patios and dining facilities welcome your four-legged friends, There are plenty of wide-open spaces for walks and hiking, while many hotels accept pets and offer pet-pampering packages. “We not only accept pets, we welcome them and even offer a pet massage via our fitness center,” said Earp. There are also a number of grooming salons and locations in the area that will board your dog for the day or overnight.

While in the area, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Lotusland, one of the often overlooked treasures of Montecito. Set on 37-acres, this botanical wonderland is considered by horticulturists to be one of the greatest gardens in the world. Once owned by opera singer and socialite, Ganna Walska, its unique gardens form a living canvas that reflects her vision and love for nature. Its 25 different gardens (including Japanese, Cactus, Water and Topiary Gardens), are part of a horticultural fantasy featuring rare cycads, euphorbias, a palm collection, ferns, lotuses and water lilies.

For a glimpse of Montecito as it was in 1920s and 1930s, take a look at Casa del Herrero. This architectural landmark is another example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Sprawling over 11 acres, it is know not only for the grand manor house, but also its meandering Moorish-style gardens and collection of Spanish art objects that date from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Whether you decide to take an active approach like hiking the many mountains and trails, surfing or swimming at the beach or prefer a more laid back relaxing-in-the-sun vacation, Montecito is the place to get out and enjoy nature or a leisurely lunch at an outdoor restaurant. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself rubbing elbows with a celebrity or two.

IF YOU GO

(Rates in U.S. Dollars)

Fall is one of the best times of the year in Montecito and Santa Barbara. The weather is mild, beaches inviting and the mountain trails open. Details of what to do and where to go can be found at: https://santabarbaraca.com

THINGS TO DO

Hiking – Hiking trails offer diverse climate ranges from the beach to mountains with plenty of options for terrain and scenery. Hike up to Inspiration Point (just north of the Santa Barbara Bowl) or make the short (but rewarding) climb to see the 80-foot tall waterfall at Nojoqui Falls (No joke. It’s pronounced “No Joke-ie” Falls). The more seasoned hiker will want to explore the rugged wilderness along the Cold Springs, San Ysidro, Tunnel and Romero Canyon Trails.

Beaches – With miles of luxurious, sun-drenched, sandy coastline, the beach is the place to be in Montecito and Santa Barbara. Whether you are looking for breakers for surfing or gentle ocean waves, the beaches are spectacular, even in the Fall. Grab a cocktail at the Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara before taking Fido for a long walk along pristine Butterfly Beach. Because the beach faces west, take your time and catch a glorious sunset. Leadbetter Beach (near Santa Barbara Harbor) is great for surfing and bogie boarding. At Arroyo Burro Beach (Hendry’s Beach or “the pit” as locals call it) you can let your dog run free, then give him a bath at the self-serve dog-washing station in the parking lot.

Lotusland (http://www.lotusland.org) – Home to more than 3,000 rare, exotic, unusual and spectacular plants from around the world, it is the life work and legacy of opera singer Madame Ganna Walska. Reservations are required to visit. Guided tours are at 10:00am and 1:30pm Wednesday-Saturday until November 15. Adults: $48, Ages 3-17: $24.

Casa del Herrero (http://www.casadelherrero.com) – Included on the National Register of Historic Places, Casa del Herrero (House of the Blacksmith) is an eclectic blend of Spanish Colonial and country estate with a wonderful Moorish-inspired garden. Tours available only by advance reservation on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Cost: $25 for adults and children 10 and above.

Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival (September 8) – Admission price of $65 plus tax for general admission includes two polo matches, music performances, wine tasting and food parings.

Santa Barbara Harbor & Seafood Festival (October 13) http://harborfestival.org/. Enjoy the abundance of the Santa Barbara Channel with fresh-caught lobster, sea urchin, clam chowder, paella and other local delicacies from the sea. Admission is free for the whole family.

PLACES TO STAY

Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara (https://www.fourseasons.com/santabarbara)
Set on 22-acres of lush gardens this landmark hotel has 207 guest rooms and bungalows, including the newly opened Anacapa Suite. With 2,000 sq. ft. of space, private patio overlooking Butterfly Beach, fire pit and heated plunge pool, it is the ultimate in luxury. Hotel is fully pet friendly. They even offer a special in-room dining menu for Fido. Rooms: $595-$1,045. Suites: $1,000-$9,000

Montecito Inn – (http://www.montecitoinn.com)
Built by silent film greats, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle in 1928, this boutique hotel offers luxury accommodations in the heart of Montecito’s Coast Village Road. Although it sustained heavy damage from the recent mudslides, it is now fully restored and welcoming guests. Sorry, no pets allowed. Rates: $150-$800

Camp Canine (http://www.campcaninesb.com)
With nearly 35 years of experience, Camp Canine really knows how to care for and comfort your dog. Whether you drop off your dog for a few hours of play or for an overnight stay, they offer top dog service. From the doggie swimming pool to a custom spa treatment, your dog will be pampered and happy. Rates: $30 (half day)-$69 (overnight). They will even pick up and deliver.

PLACES TO EAT

Lucky’s Steakhouse (http://www.lucky-steakhouse.com).
Step into the past and old Hollywood glamour as you sip a martini and dine on excellent steaks and seafood or just drop in for a quick burger. Located right on Coast Village Road in the heart of Montecito.

Tydes Restaurant (https://www.fourseasons.com/santabarbara/dining/restaurants/tydes) Even the sweeping oceanfront views from a wraparound patio can’t distract from the excellent food. Located in the Coral Casino across from the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel Santa Barbara, Tydes serves some of the finest seafood in an area know for seafood. Enjoy a cocktail at the Coral Reef Bar, a 28-foot surround aquarium holding a living coral reef.

Cava Restaurant (http://www.cavarestaurant.com)
Serving a mix of Nuevo Latino and Mediterranean cuisine, Cava has been a local favorite for food and cocktails since it opened in 1997 on Coast Village Road.

BILTMORE FUERTE (Biltmore Strong)

Winner of the 2018 “Official Cocktail of Santa Barbara” contest, it celebrates the return of Montecito and the Biltmore following the mudslidestat caused extensive damage to the area in and around Montecito.

INGREDIENTS

2 oz Cutler’s Bourbon
1/2 oz Organic Lemon Juice
3/4 oz Ebby’s Farm strawberry puree
3/4 oz  “Super Bee Rescue” Thomas Wildfire Honey
Honey Comb 
Four Seasons Santa Barbara Lavender Flowers

1. Combine all ingredients in a  cocktail shaker
2. Shake vigorously
3. Pour over ice into a stemless wine glass

Biltmore Fuerte

Author Description

Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson has been on the front line of journalism for over 40 years as a journalist, foreign correspondent, editor, and broadcaster. His credits include work as a correspondent for CBS, ABC, CNN, Mutual Broadcasting, Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters news services. He established the first all-electronic television news gathering organization in the United States and several important internet and web services and sites. Currently, Mr. Thompson is a regular contributor to a number of major newspapers and magazines and is managing editor of Western News Service. He has also authored travel book on Romania, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Shanghai and Turkey. As a travel journalist he has earned several important awards for excellence in journalism.