California: Spanish lullaby

By Megan Singleton

Driving from Los Angeles up the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara on the wrong side of the road, the rear view mirror to the right and the seatbelt pinning me into the Dodge Grand Caravan driver's seat just seemed so wrong.

This vehicle, of bus-like proportions, accommodates four people in theatre-style seats and enough room in the back for a family to stow away, let alone plenty of shopping bags.

But first I must inch out of Enterprise Car Rental at LAX. It helps that I have a GPS perched on the dashboard and that my friend is sitting next to me following the sultry robotic woman's every command on a map the size of a dining table.

We have a two-hour drive north ahead of us on the picturesque Highway 101. The GPS weaves us between the coastal road with its majestic ocean views, and further inland, where we catch glimpses of the devastating fires from last year, before descending to sea level - where Santa Barbara sprawls in front of us.

This, I can conclude, is one of the prettiest cities I've visited in the United States, and I've been to the Land of the Free about 50 times. Known as the American Riviera, it has palm trees that sway along the wide road running parallel with an even wider beach carpeted with sand that disappears into the distance.

Although we are on the west coast, Santa Barbara faces south, thanks to this piece of America that juts out into the ocean. Sheltered from much of the Pacific Ocean breeze and with temperatures that are gorgeous year-round, it sits snuggled in front of a low mountain range which is hugged by the awesome Santa Ynez mountains - home to valleys of vineyards. Posh houses under threat of destruction are dotted up the hillside and the famous Spanish Mission, founded by the Spanish Franciscans on the Feast of Saint Barbara in 1786, looks across the bay.

The original, unpretentious adobe building was built more than 200 years ago primarily to Christianise the local Chumash Indians, who were spread from nearby Malibu to San Luis Obispo. It was added to over the years before being destroyed by an earthquake in 1812. The present building was dedicated in 1820 and the adjoining friary has been added to (and subtracted from, courtesy of more earthquakes) ever since.

The arrival of the Franciscan monks introduced agriculture and irrigation to the local Indians who were primarily hunters, gatherers and fishermen. Soon the fields were full of wheat, barley, corn, beans and peas. Orange and olive trees were also planted and the first grapevines cultivated. These days vineyards stretch in an 80km radius and many were featured in the movie Sideways.

Each June the Santa Barbara Wine Festival is in full swing where you can sample wines and tasty morsels from local restaurants.

But State St is where you'll find the main shopping and eating area and where buildings are not allowed to be more than five stories high. Santa Barbara's town planners have been strict about architecture and design and consequently all the shop fronts have beautiful Spanish-style facades.

Tucked off State St is Paseo Nuevo, an outdoor mall decorated with hanging baskets bursting with colour. It is full of nooks housing cafes and more than 50 shops to keep me amused.

Although the climate is dry here, there is no shortage of vibrant colour in the gardens. Drought-tolerant planting is not just about cactus and olive trees. The streets are alive with flowering shrubs and splashes of bougainvillea, ice plants, zinnia and other species that only my mother would know.

Three hundred days a year are blue-sky days here, so we headed down to sail in Channel Harbour. At the Santa Barbara Sailing Centre we met Captain Barry who, it turns out, spent time in Auckland working at the Whitbread - a long time ago.

He eased the 50-foot Catalina out of her berth and for the next two hours, with barely enough breeze to fill the headsail, we spent a glorious afternoon lying on the deck watching seals and dolphins playing. The mighty blue whale - the biggest mammal that ever lived (and still lives) - can also be seen here, but alas not today.

Beyond the shoreline, Santa Barbara's adobe houses with their red-tiled roofs climb up the mountain range that keeps the city protected from the inland heat and causes a foggy marine layer to hover most mornings.

And right now, while the smoke has cleared in the city, the latest round of fires has caused major damage to the magnificent Botanic Garden and some of the mountain canyons remain closed to trampers for a few more days.

Megan Singleton flew courtesy of Air New Zealand to Los Angeles. Megan is a freelance travel writer who recently won a US Travel Association Travel Writers Award for best story for her Las Vegas feature which ran in Detours in November.

- Herald on Sunday

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