Santa Barbara

Right on the coast, in the middle of one of California’s most verdant wine regions, Santa Barbara has a reputation for being where the state’s elderly rich go to golf, yacht and generally idle away their golden years.


Right on the coast, in the middle of one of California’s most verdant wine regions, Santa Barbara has a reputation for being where the state’s elderly rich go to golf, yacht and generally idle away their golden years.

How quickly though our sceptical sneers turn to wide-eyed delight; the place is beautiful, and as close to that stereotypical vision of California as you can get. Carefree, tanned folk stroll up and down the broad, palm tree-lined beachfront boulevard, with green-carpeted hills rearing up into the heat-hazed distance.

We dump our bags and head out, keen to visit as many of the wineries as possible on the local Urban Wine Trail. Our first stop is Municipal Wines; set just back from the ocean, it’s a shack filled with reclaimed seating, old filing cabinets and some of the best local independent wines you will ever experience.

Running the shop is Mel, whose wine knowledge is matched by her easy Californian charm. After taking us through a selection of glasses, she scribbles a list of other local spots for us to try on the back of a napkin, with recommendations for other wine bars, cocktails, breweries and a couple of options for dinner.

On one such recommendation, we head along to Milk and Honey tapas and cocktail bar, where we enjoy a couple of great cocktails selected by the friendly barman. My coffee-based creation is particularly enjoyable, and is prepared with an appropriate level of theatrical flourish.

Several drinks in now, we decide walking around Santa Barbara would be a little … pedestrian, and that the best way to blend in with the locals would be to rent a bicycle from a little shop we’d passed earlier. A tandem bicycle, as it turns out.

Riding on the back of a tandem, hurtling downhill past SUVs that could crush us without even noticing, while trying to scream Google Maps directions to my friend and esteemed colleague Fraser up front is an experience I am not soon likely to forget.

Somehow though, after several false turns (ever tried to pull a u-turn on a tandem? Don’t) we reached our destination: Pure Order brewing company. Relieved, I dismount gracefully, lean the tandem against a tree, trip over the kerb and promptly break the third toe on my sandaled left foot. It is time for a proper drink.

Pure Order is definitely one of the most compact breweries I’ve ever visited, with brewhouse and taproom occupying what is basically an ordinary double-bay garage, with a bit of shaded seating out in the yard. The brew kit, fermenters and even cold storage are so close together that in places we find ourselves sucking in the gut to squeeze between.

It has a great atmosphere though, and is packed with locals laughing chatting and drinking beer after cold beer in the palm-dappled afternoon sunshine. Having walked the tandem back to the rental shop, it was time to explore a part of town that everyone so far had recommended to us: the Funk Zone.

Despite having the least promising name in the world, this part of town really is the place to be in Santa Barbara after dark, and after more cocktails we decide to jump into The Lark restaurant for a bite to eat.

Despite being one of Santa Barbara’s most hotly-tipped restaurants, The Lark doesn’t stand on ceremony. Most of the seating is at long communal tables and, California being California, it isn’t long before we’re chatting with the couple opposite, who had lived in Santa Barbara for 20 years, running their own business as environmental impact consultants for marijuana farms.

The food is fresh, healthy and excellent, particularly when washed down with local wine. My toe by this point has turned a livid shade of puce and is at a noticeably weird angle, but fortified by wine, beer and cocktails we decide to press on to the town’s bustling downtown area.

With a somewhat less self-conscious bar scene, American classics such as Miller, Coors and PBR are the order of the day here, or extremely generous spirit measures over a tonne of ice. It’s certainly a different experience to the beachfront, but still very enjoyable, and we take advantage of the license to dance like idiots into the small hours.

I awake with an aching foot and a dim memory of Fraser borrowing a busker’s trumpet on the way back to the hotel – a version of events he still vehemently denies. Fortunately we have a little time to recover over a huge breakfast before hitting the road once again.

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