Travel: California, USA

View of Santa Barbara from the pier. Picture: Thinkstock
View of Santa Barbara from the pier. Picture: Thinkstock
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SANTA Barbara’s artisan Funk Zone is just one exciting corner of a city that offers a feast for lovers of fine food and drink, writes Lisa Marks

The Funk Zone might sound like a 1980s jazz band but this revitalised corner of Santa Barbara, California, hits many high notes. At a wine-tasting event held as part of the city’s Epicure SB Festival, the Food Network’s Iron Chef, Cat Cora waxed lyrical about the wonders of this vibrant “American Riviera”.

Sipping on Notary Public wine at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective (one of those too-cool-for-school spaces that’s all exposed brick and industrial hipster aesthetic), Cat enthused about the Funk Zone, an artisan landmark which barely existed three years ago: “These amazing venues have set the tone for the rest of the city. Everyone here is very inventive and passionate about food and drink. The Funk Zone has become one of my favourite hang-outs, along with the farmers’ markets, the beaches, State Street and the sushi restaurants…”

Yep, Santa Barbara has so much to offer it’s hard for even the locals to pick a favourite corner, although in three short days I made it my quest to try to find mine.

First you have to get there. Flying into Los Angeles International Airport is always an overwhelming experience, even for the seasoned traveller, but thanks to a quiet pit stop in Virgin Atlantic’s divine clubhouse lounge at Heathrow, and a spacious Premium Economy seat, my journey was exceptionally comfortable. I managed to sleep for more than three hours, which was a small miracle.

I’d hired a car to drive the two and a half hours to Santa Barbara. My eco-friendly boutique Hotel Indigo was situated next to the Amtrak station, which meant I could also have taken a direct train from downtown LA.

Amtrak locos look like regular trains but on steroids – they are heaving two-storey metal beasts. I thought the resulting noise would be irritating but I barely heard a thing from outside, apart from the Eagles fan who set up his drumkit on the pavement. Every day he’d have a crowd dancing around him. Santa Barbara gets you like that.

The Hotel Indigo is charming, with a constant supply of salt water taffy sweets in reception, and is populated by helpful staff who smile and mean it. The building is filled with colourful local art and located near the charming Stearns Wharf.

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The location meant I could scout the area without having to drive anywhere; and with all the enticing Epicure SB wine trails to explore, that was a definite plus. The hotel was five minutes from the Funk Zone in one direction, five to the ocean in the other, and State Street, the commercial heart of the town, was a mere ten-minute stroll away.

The rooms pack a punch and are accentuated by large, bright murals and compact en suite bathrooms. Some have patios, which means you can enjoy the heat or hide from it, which was useful as the city was experiencing off-the-scale 95C-plus temperatures (SB generally hovers in the high 70s).

Throughout Epicure SB they hold afternoon cheese and wine tastings in the lobby and the Blue Tavern cafe attached to the hotel serves up delicious California cuisine with a Peruvian twist. Their tres leches cake and homemade ice-cream was sublime, as were their blushing mimosas.

For shoppers, State Street is the place to head to if you’re looking to fill your luggage with treats. All the big high street names are there, as are plenty of lively bars, restaurants and hang-outs. For a regular American diner experience I’d recommend Joe’s Cafe, which opened its doors in 1928. Giant stacks of fries and cheeseburgers are served Hollywood-movie style with sodas and straws.

There’s nothing wrong with the tasty basics but, on a recommendation from Visit Santa Barbara (their tourist board), I also enjoyed a night savouring the sublime Epicure SB tasting menu at Olio Crudo, an Italian raw food bar. This was lucky, because the night I ate there, the city suffered a major power cut. Tony Bennett, who was due to sing at the historic Granada Theatre that night, was forced to cancel his show and hundreds of iPhone flashlights flickered as people made their way around town.

I tried almost every mini cocktail on the menu (they didn’t need to be cooked), their own delicious recipe bread (already baked) and many exquisite raw “crudo” dishes, including a divine buffalo tartare and a salmon carpaccio, all by candlelight. It was a magical fairytale feast and typical of the high standard of cuisine in this part of California.

In three days it was impossible to explore all of Epicure SB, but during October the city hosts Happy Hour tours, an urban wine trail, an avocado festival, champagne and lobster nights, art and wine evenings, cookery classes, a beer festival and food-themed boat trips. Anything, in fact, that includes eating, drinking and looking at cool, creative stuff.

On day two, after a hearty breakfast of baked eggs, muffins and coffee at the Lark cafe in the Funk Zone, I set out for a trolley bus tour around the city. All I had to do was sit and look. I had no idea that billionaire Ty Warner, who created the Beanie Baby toys, owned so much of Santa Barbara, or that the town had so many beautiful vast sandy beaches.

We drove past Oprah Winfrey’s residence (I waved) and Charlie Chaplin’s retreat (I waved again) before stopping at the Old Mission, which dates back to 1786 (here the Franciscan monks would teach the Indians agriculture). The scenery was delightful but the heat was so draining there was only one thing for it: a dip in the ocean. At one point a friendly seal swam thrillingly close by and, yes, I waved at him too.

Santa Barbara moves at a slower pace than LA. It’s the perfect pit stop if you’re planning a trip up the 101 Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco or just wish to enjoy a lazy, long weekend. The movie Sideways brought international attention to this part of the world but it’s so much more than merlot.

So my favourite corner? Well, like Cat Cora, I realised early on that it was impossible to pick just one. Sitting by candlelight at the Olio Crudo Bar, the manager, who was concerned that the lack of electricity was spoiling my evening, said: “We just want your experience here to be memorable and enjoyable.”

He didn’t have anything to worry about. Three days in Santa Barbara was a joyous epicurean adventure and, best of all, there’s still so much to explore next time.

• Virgin Atlantic flies twice daily to Los Angeles from London Heathrow. Economy fares start at £548.76 return. For more information call 0844 2092770 or visit www.virgin-atlantic.com. Hotel Indigo: www.indigosantabarbara.com. Rooms for two start at around £140 a night.