Nestled nicely between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains is the 101 Freeway, known primarily for its scenic route along the California coastline.
It's dark, about midnight to be exact. The darkness blankets the sea's rippling waves and little puffy clouds that dot the sky like little gray cotton balls between the stars. They're low enough for me to see them flowing backwards as I drive onward to the famous town of Santa Barbara, California.
I use the word famous because many Hollywood stars come here for a getaway. I once saw Frazier drive by me in a purple Prowler. He was wearing sunglasses and what was left of his hair blew in the convertible's wind. It's only about an hour or so drive to Los Angeles, so it's a good place to star gaze.
Most of the buildings here are Spanish-style, about three stories tall. The architecture echoes the adobes built by the Spanish settlers in the early 19th century, and the gingerbread structures built here during the Victorian era. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do here, all that matters is that I'm away from home, somewhere beautiful. I hang a right onto State Street.
It's quiet now, but I imagine the hustle and bustle of wealthy vacationers buying up a storm in the gentle breeze of daybreak. I'm excited but tired, so I make a quick turn onto Cota Street, and into the parking lot of the famous Hotel Santa Barbara.
Apparently, in 1925 there was a huge earthquake that leveled the town and the then called Santa Barbara Hotel. The owner constructed a new hotel, the Saint Barbara, to specifications far exceeding those required at that time. The entire building - including all floors and stairways - was constructed of reinforced concrete tied together by hundreds of steel beams. Boasting exterior walls over a foot thick and a foundation more than five feet wide, the entire structure was built on rollers to allow for movement in the event of an earthquake, a unique innovation in those days. It also was redesigned with soundproof windows so that its guests could get a good night sleep despite the insane partygoers lurking outside.
The Saint Barbara, as it was renamed, soon became the getaway for many of Hollywood's brightest stars. Clark Gable and Carol Lombard were frequent guests, and eyewitnesses claim Leo Carrillo rode his horse around the lobby on several occasions. The Saint Barbara was not always quite a saint though. Local legend has it that liquor was always available in the hotel during Prohibition, and that for years, a "secret" gaming room flourished somewhere near the lobby.
Entering the side door from the parking lot, I'm greeted by the sweet scent of pine from the holiday Christmas party hosted that night. My bag dug into my shoulders and I anxiously approached the check-in counter. A dark haired, lanky looking man with a vibrant energy greets me. He seemed a little too happy to be there considering he was just starting his graveyard shift. Perhaps it was the tropical flamenco music that had him amped. Either that or he drank the entire pot of complimentary coffee.
There was this elevator, you know the kind; the type where you have to pull open the door and slide back a retractable metal guard. It was old, and I hoped that this ride wouldn't make my recurrent dream of falling in an elevator a reality. It only had three walls, so as you went up you could see the wall moving downward in front of you. I always imagined it was everything else that was moving and not me.
I found my room, caught a quick glance of the display of wine and See's candy on the coffee table, the exceptionally clean oak furniture giving the room that musky scent, hopped on the bed and fell asleep.
One of the main reasons the Hotel Santa Barbara attracts so many visitors is its location. It's right in the heart of downtown. You can take a twenty-five cent shuttle down to Sterns Wharf to enjoy the ocean breeze, wine tasting, and all sorts of specialty shops. Walk only a few minutes from the hotel and you might find yourself intimately sharing a glance at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Walk a few blocks more and you'll be at the city's zoo, right across from the historic mission.
There are approximately 75 reconditioned rooms that offer Queen, King, Deluxe Queen, Double Queen and Junior Suite rooms. Each room has individually controlled heat and air conditioning - not that you would use it considering the weather outside is usually beautiful. But if for some reason you are feeling like a couch potato and just can't seem to get yourself up and out into the beckoning town, you could sit back, flip on the tube and watch some HBO compliments of the house.
Other amenities offered complimentary are hair dryers, signature toiletries, iron and ironing board, in-room coffee makers and coffee, bottled water and telephones with data ports for personal voice mail. Handicapped rooms are available as well.
Many of the guests that stay at the Hotel Santa Barbara are on business. Appropriately, the Hotel Santa Barbara provides valet parking and a complimentary continental breakfast in the Mediterranean-style lobby. (There is no restaurant on the premises.) And for those guests that are secret agents, they also have safety deposit boxes and same day laundry / dry cleaning services. The 480 square foot conference rooms boast a corporate feel. Rentals for overhead projectors, flipcharts, white boards and TV/VCRs are available as well as excellent catering recommendations - some of which include Woody's BBQ, Savoir Faire and Pierre Lafond.
The Hotel Santa Barbara has many services to make even the most frequent hotel visitor satisfied, but what really sets them apart from the rest is the friendly service. All too often you find yourself in a hotel where you have to go out of your way just to check out, or to find out some small bit of information on the town you're staying in. The staff of the Hotel Santa Barbara makes themselves out to be more like friends than they do employees. I warmed up to my first day on the town with some of the staff near the check-in counter. I hadn't planned on it, but somehow my question of which would be a good place for lunch turned into a full-out interactive discussion on the tourist opportunities the city had to offer. I started wondering if the Santa Barbara Tourism Board knew they had competitors. Armed with more than enough town history and an itinerary of relaxation, I set out to fully discover the town, and if I had enough time, I'd venture down a few blocks to one of the beaches.
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Less than a block away from the hotel, I sit down on a bench when a black man, mid -twenties, approaches me wearing stylish sunglasses and a beanie. He carries a clear plastic container half full with cd-rs, and asks me if I'm into underground hip-hop. I say sure, and the conversation propels into a business deal. I'll put him into contact with some friends of mine in the music industry and he'll let me have a few of his CD's for free. That's what it's all about: gripping the opportunity in the city, making connections and mutually beneficial relationships in a town ripe with ambition.
I wander farther down State St., catching sweet scented aromas from candle shops and occasional glances from vagabonds when I realized something: the people are smarter here. The street performers have a flair, an aura about them like no other in the world. In London and around the UK they rely on humour, laughing onlookers into their wallets as though they've paid for a smile. In Barcelona, it's all about the creativity, being just bizarre enough for you to stop and wonder just why this woman is zipping herself completely inside a suitcase, or how a man painted like a statue can stand in one place for just long enough to make you take a double, even a triple take. And when you turn around and come back for a closer look, they know they've got you, and your money.
But in Santa Barbara there's a peacefulness, and ambiance about them. Out here, pounding away on their bongos decorated in stickers for Green Peace and local bands, swaying their bodies to the rhythm of their silvery instruments, they play for themselves. I'm convinced that if no one else were left in the city, they would remain there, playing their hearts out to balance their spirits, to justify their existence.
After walking nearly a mile and a half, I rested on a concrete stair next to a man playing a flute. His body rolled slowly to the silvery notes echoing in the streets and coming to rest in the ears of passersby. The song changed from a serene twiddling of notes, to a chaotic melody filled with frustration. People occasionally turn their heads as he continues to tell his musical story. A friend once told me that if you go to see an opera, don't worry if you don't know the language. It's powerful enough to get the message across. It's the same for this man; resting his large burly light brown beard on his chest, he told me a story.
The next couple of days I saw the same man playing the same flute. He wore the same clothes but wouldn't ever be in the same spot. No one would. And then there was this woman; god she had an awful voice. She sang and played guitar, occasionally interrupting herself to blow into a harmonica she had strapped in front of her like a gigantic pair of headgear. The beautiful thing is that even though she was probably one of the worst singers I've heard (next to Ja-Rule) she loved what she was doing and people picked up on that.
There were college student jugglers, homeless magicians, even a rich black man that has been playing his guitar on State Street for years. But it wasn't until I walked past a man sleeping sitting up, wearing a Chinese hat painted with Yin-Yangs, green striped pants and an umbrella draped over his shopping cart that I realized this was the most diverse, eclectic and unique group of street performers and residents anywhere. There's a constant refresh of talent, changing of costumes, and it doesn't stop, not until the sun melts below the horizon.
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I've been to Santa Barbara before, but those days consisted primarily of hopping from bar to bar, dancing to local DJs while mingling with fellow students. After all, a large part of this city's night life is run by these adolescent university party-goers who seem to think that drinking each other under the table is one of life's greatest pleasures. I once was at a party near the UCSB campus along Del Playa Street - a three-mile stretch of student housing standing atop an ocean front cliff. That night consisted mainly of walking from party to party, avoiding the burning couches in the streets. That's how it is there, and when it got to be too much, those same crazy students would spill over into the streets of downtown.
Santa Barbara's nightlife is a wild one. There's Wildcat's, the newly restored nightclub after it burned to the ground a couple of years ago. Then there's The James Joyce Bar: an Irish bar with a live web cam seven days a week. Talented musicians are a dime-a-dozen, and the best part is that they stay with the local scene.
I ended up in a strange bar sitting on a musky smelling brown couch next to a man in a top hat and sandals. He tells me he's a writer, and a middle-aged woman approaches a microphone. In a completely unexpected display, she grasps the microphone with one hand belching out the most disgusting opera I've heard next to my own in the shower. It's open mic night at the Coach House, a local bar that nearly went under before an anonymous "crazy" women rescued it with a twenty-five-thousand dollar donation. I was introduced to her as "don't mind that lady, she's crazy," from one of the locals. She danced to the opera, which was quite amusing given that she was wearing a torn black Metallica shirt with frayed edges. I felt saddened by the fact that I was more amused with the talent I saw on the streets.
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Back in the warm glow of the sunlight, I stumbled upon something unusual. I was gone for about 25 minutes, and as I returned to the hotel I found that a large part of the street had been blocked off. Police were pedaling proudly on their two wheeled horses as swarms of people crowded the streets like ants at a picnic. And like a picnic it was; this was the famous Farmer's Market. The dusky sky faded and it became harder to see the beautiful flowers that many of the vendors so pleasantly displayed.
Some other interesting items for sale were honey sticks, which were little plastic straws sealed and filled with pure all natural honey. The Mandarin oranges were also sweet and excellent, splashing a tropical refreshment of juices untouched by any pesticide. Amidst the musk of sweet scented incense were booths and tables selling things such as large sunflowers, organic apple chips, strawberries, corn and artichokes. The street performers' music was a perfect blend of background noise complimenting the overall experience.
Eventually, as I approached another Sunflower booth, I saw a man playing the bagpipe. He played that song - I have no idea what it's called- that everybody recognizes as the Nokia ring tone entitled "Scotland."
Whether you're looking to spend a night drinking on the town, or just moseying around some of the eclectic shops, Santa Barbara is an excellent getaway town. Where else would you find something like the Three-Dog Bakery - A bakery for dogs that sells gourmet dog biscuits dipped in chocolate flavored sweets? Where else would you see street performers get into their cars at the end of the day to drive back to their homes instead of into a box? And ultimately, where else can you find a city so pleasant to visit, they named a magazine after it?
- By Josh Edelson, San Diego Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent.