Santa Barbara holds a special place in my heart and when I heard about the Car Free Santa Barbara program, I jumped at the opportunity to check it out. The premise is that if you get yourself to Santa Barbara, you won’t need a car. I’m here to tell you that’s true. We boarded the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner in Oceanside on a Monday morning for the roughly five-hour trip to Santa Barbara. We opted for Business Class and it really is the way to go. A couple of hours into our journey, Carolyn came by with a selection of snacks and our choice of beverage from water to juice, soda or wine. We chose the wine and soaked in the coastal scenery as the miles disappeared. We kept commenting on what a joy it was not to be behind the wheel and stuck in traffic. The time flew by and before we knew it we had arrived at our destination.
The Santa Barbara station is on the coast right at the entrance to downtown. In less than ten minutes on foot, we had arrived at the Hotel Santa Barbara. A massive earthquake rattled Santa Barbara in 1926, leveling many buildings. The Hotel Santa Barbara was built the following year, using reinforced concrete and other construction methods ahead of their time. In its heyday notable guests included Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. A local family, the Jacks, purchased the hotel in 1975 and ran it as a residential hotel. In 1996 the Jacks’ youngest son convinced his parents to upgrade the property into a boutique hotel. They took his advice and invested $4 million into the property. The hotel is beautiful and cozy with art deco touches throughout and photos from the past on the walls courtesy of the historical society. We slept on a Simmons Felicity pillow-top mattress and it may well have been the most comfortable bed I have ever slept on.
As far as going car free is concerned, it really couldn’t be easier. On our first evening we walked less than a block to the Palace Grill for dinner. Within a one block radius we probably had 20 other dining options. The Palace Grill has been a downtown Santa Barbara fixture for more than 25 years, serving a wide array of food choices, but with a focus on Creole and Cajun. We started with a Cajun martini, marinated with jalapeño and served with cherry peppers in a Mason jar. We loved the oysters Palace, with green onions, mushrooms and crawfish in a jalapeño beurre blanc sauce. We shared the seafood gumbo for the entrée and ended the evening with their Louisiana bread pudding soufflé. We both look forward to a return visit to the Palace.
The next morning we strolled a few blocks through downtown before hopping on the Santa Barbara Trolley Company trolley tour. For $22 the trolley takes you to a dozen stops, including the zoo, the Harbor and Maritime Museum and the Old Mission. Our driver, Chuck, was a wealth of knowledge and had a keen sense of humor. We got to see a lot of town during the two-hour tour and I recommend it highly. We got off where we started on State Street and strolled to the Sandbar for a very tasty burrito and a refreshing margarita.
Downtown Santa Barbara has two wine tasting areas; the Urban Wine Trail and the Funk Zone. Both were within easy walking distance and we opted for the Funk Zone. Giessenger Winery and Kalyra are right next to each other and that’s where we started. Both are quaint with an ample selection of wines to sample. Kalyra was opened in 2007 by a pair of brothers from Australia. We walked a few blocks to Riverbench where Matthew poured us some excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. My companion enjoyed their crisp sparkling wine. Next we stopped at The Valley Project, and marveled at the elaborate chalk artistry depicting Santa Barbara wine country. We wrapped up our wine tasting with a stop at Kunin Wines, where owner/winemaker Seth poured us some of his delicious wines.
When we got back to State Street, the Tuesday night Farmers Market was in full swing. Several blocks are closed to vehicular traffic so pedestrians can wander from booth to booth, sampling the wide array of produce, nuts, oils and more. We took home some pistachios which we are still relishing. For dinner I picked up a pizza at Patxis’ Pizza and we munched on it while we relaxed in our room.
One full day is not nearly enough time to discover and savor downtown Santa Barbara. There’s so much to see and do, car free. I can’t wait to return. Roundtrip Amtrak Fares are $59 from Oceanside for Business Class and if you go through the Car Free Santa Barbara website you’ll get a 20% discount. The website also offers dozens of discounts on dining and activities.
Tom Plant launched WINEormous in 2009 and is a member of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association. Based in Temecula, California, he offers intimate winery tours for no more than seven people. Tour details and pricing are available at www.temecula-tours.com. Call now to book your Temecula Winery Tour at (951) 907-9701. Ask about special discounts.