There are many ways to go on vacation. Each one suits a person’s soul, budget and time constraints.
Trips to Europe to see cathedrals and art, cruising the Greek Islands, staying put at a lush resort in Fiji, climbing the Alps, the list is endless.
Over the last 10 years or so, since empty nest-hood and semi retirement, we’ve taken to renting homes in one place and learning the ins and outs as if we’ve moved there. Our kids visit and we are a family in a home again, having traded traditional home life for our Boston condo years ago. Spending time in one place suits my purpose of feeling as if I have lived in many places. We’ve done this in Breckenridge, Colorado (4 yrs), and Delray Beach, FL (4 years) and this year we added a new place to our temporary digs: Santa Barbara, California. Santa Barbara is known as The American Riviera thanks to its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, cliffside beaches, mountain ranges, a world-renowned food and wine scene, stunning natural beauty and near-perfect weather. That sounded to us like a trip to Europe while staying in the USA. Our Colorado son said, “Sounds like another rich white flight” (which in part it is), but fortunately we were there long enough to see what lies beneath.
After careful investigation on Air B&B, and enlisting a local to confirm our choice, we rented a hilltop beach home in Summerland, CA, a tiny town just a few miles outside of Santa Barbara, next door to Montecito, the home of Harry and Meghan, Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah, to namedrop a few. Movie stars, billionaires and above average looking people live in Montecito for the beauty and exclusivity but also for the lack of paparazzi. It is very private here. Homes in Montecito are gated, surrounded by lush 12 foot hedges and exotic landscaping. The variety of cacti, succulents, native and imported trees, stone walls and European architecture take you away to Mexico, Southern France, or Southern Spain.
Spending a month here in Santa Barbara you begin to understand how different parts of your own country can be, beyond the surface visuals. The history in California has nothing to do with New England’s history. They don’t have the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, Slavery nor do they culturally invoke the mother country England. All street signs in Santa Barbara, surrounding town names, registered landmarks, the major part of its history is based on Spain, Mexico and the Chumash Native Americans who lived here in this region over 10,000 years ago. Add to that the 21 Spanish Missions built from 1769-1834 that extend along the California coast (then Alta California) and the Gold Rush of 1848.
Agriculture is quite different here than back east: local trees grow avocados, oranges (like the tree in our yard), lemons, limes while the farmers market down the road brings in fresh farm foods all year long. The state of California is one of the biggest fruit and nut producers in the country. Technicolor views include the Pacific Ocean, Channel Islands, Santa Ynez Mountains, ocean cliffs, hillside flowers, spectacular sunrises, sunsets and barring extreme weather disasters every 5 years or so every day is sunny and dry. The color gray is not present, or if it appears, it’s short lived. The well heeled dress comfortably in designer jeans, faux fur vests, fine cashmere, handsome scarves, leather boots and cowboy hats, a lot like Aspen, Colorado without the overcoats.
I walk or slow jog this hilly neighborhood (my husband bike rides these punishing hills) smelling sweet jasmine and roses while keeping an eye to the desert landscape (coral flowering aloe, 5 foot tall fox tail agaves) erstwhile analyzing the social culture around me. It took me but a few days to realize everyone has a dog, a fence and specific to this small town no one talks or waves to anyone around them. Privacy is paramount, but this 2 square mile neighborhood of Summerland is its own anomaly, more like an outermost beach town at the edge of Cape Cod. It was once an off shore oil town (first in the world) in the late 1800’s and then a hippy town established by a spiritualist. That hippy vibe remains judging by 60s retro rides and recycled art installations in driveways, though many homes have been renovated or newly built. Homes or garages are rented on Air B&B sites, so the community is fragmented. The Amtrak Coast Starlight train running from LA to Seattle blows its horn every 4 hours or so and the California US 101 Freeway connects this town to all the towns up and down the California coast from LA to Washington State. In Summerland the secluded dog friendly beach is the main attraction, alongside some world class home and antique stores.
Santa Barbara proper right next door is thriving with young working people joining retirees and tourists in new wine and beer gardens in the Funk Zone, bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, galleries, offices and shops in distinct named neighborhoods each with its own feel. No longer a place for what locals used to call “newlyweds and nearly deads”, the city has sidewalks and bike paths where people of all ages dog walk, push carriages and bike ride throughout the day. Beach life thrives with casual seafood spots on the water, volleyball, surfing, boat tours, sailing clubs and a marina where 1/3 of the boats are lived in as homes. The homeless population is present but small, especially compared to Santa Monica. The Latino population (mostly Mexicans) in Santa Barbara is around 32%, though they are slowly pushing the diverse Latino population out further from outrageously high priced Santa Barbara.
I attribute my deeper knowledge of the vegetation and bird identification to a few great apps. Best bird id app: The Cornell Lab’s Merlin, best garden id app: Garden Answers.
Like a cup of tea, steeping too short a time gives you a weak experience, you have to steep the bag just the right amount of time to get the full effect of a place. Though it seems some days a month is too long to spend here, once we’ve covered the museums, neighborhoods, stores, beaches, hikes, road trips to Solvang and Ojai, restaurants, coffee shops.…it turns out to be the perfect amount of time. It’s enough time to enjoy the offerings, do a deeper dive but not long enough to see the chinks in the armor. It’s also long enough to consider how the life lived here will inform life when I return home. What will I take back to Boston to make Boston less gray and more like what I love about Santa Barbara, even in winter? Those answers are still being formed, but I have a few ideas.
Boston is more about history than any other American city: 500 years of it and always in your face. Boston is about medicine, education and scientific innovation not fine weather and epic views all year long. Boston is about your friends and family. More indoors than outdoors. More about watching sports than doing sports. It takes a lot more work to enjoy Boston than many places with its uncooperative weather. Some of the work involves forcing yourself to go outside no matter the conditions. They say in New England, “No such thing as a bad day, just bad clothing”. When I return home I’m making a promise to get outside every day, even if I have to dress to go skiing. I will commit to do the things I’m eager to do when I travel: go to theater, walk into new stores, find live music, be as curious as I am on vacation. I’m back one day and already in the North End I’ve joined the library finally, spent time in a gorgeous cathedral (though I’m Jewish), read Paul Revere’s statue plaque and had an espresso at Cafe Dello Sport.
Born and raised 65 years in New England, the community I know and that knows me means I’m not moving to far away California, no matter how insanely beautiful and alluring the Santa Barbara area is.
Embracing the harsh cold Boston gray is a challenge for sure, but it’s one I’m better prepared for after a month in a warm colorful world. Besides, today is 50 degrees with full sun and it’s Valentine’s Day.