Tuesday, July 9, 2019 - by Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
We had not visited Santa Barbara in a couple of decades, the city renowned for its perfect weather, arts community, wineries, and celebrity residents on the California coast a couple of hours north of Los Angeles. We had been working so hard on various projects we had not had a vacation in a couple of years, so decided it would be the ideal place to refresh in June 2019. We stayed at the recently redesigned Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort, which has a beautiful location overlooking the ocean and deserves its AAA Four Diamond rating, with an unusually helpful and friendly staff even for a top hotel (reservations 800/879-2929 https://www.hiltonsantabarbarabeachfrontresort.com/).
We checked Tripadvisor for reviews to decide our priorities, consulted the AAA tour guide, and browsed www.visitsantabarbaraca.com.
There was a lot of competition for our time because while we often will breeze through the highlights of a destination, some objects of our desire in this case seemed to justify a formal tour. We don’t waste time on the conventional travel story itinerary, which is preoccupied with wining, dining, and shopping that can be done anywhere, while our interest is in experiencing the things that make a place unique.
The one thing we were sure we would not want to visit wasLotusland www.lotusland.org. It seemed to be a garden devoted to desert plants and having lived in the Southwest most of our lives, the last thing we wanted to do in a coastal paradise was spend more time than we already had looking at cactus. While we are inspired by wild nature, a garden sounded boringly tame and tended. But the Visit Santa Barbara people pointed out that it had been rated the best garden in the entire world by the likes of Gardenista and Better Homes and Gardens.
Both of us entered feeling more obligated than thrilled to be there, but thanks to our guide, Craig Morgan, and the garden itself, we gradually became awed. The cacti themselves were really fascinating, as it turned out: the amazingly different types of the 300 in the garden (a sixth of all species) , some tiny and others gargantuan, bending themselves in weird shapes to cling to a wall or to get around their neighbors, and bursting with flowers. We learned how cactus conserves water ingeniously (the spines are modified leaves that reduce air flow close to the stem, where water is stored, and provide shade, while cacti do not follow the normal process of photosynthesis , taking in carbon dioxide and letting water escape at the same time, instead delaying the release of water until night). A mature saguaro can absorb up to 200 gallons of water from a single rainstorm.
But Lotusland is not at all about desert flora. Its two dozen specialty areas in 37 acres range from a pond with lotuses and lilies and a garden with plants that attract insects that reduce the need for pesticides to topiary fantasy animals and a garden of cycads, a family so ancient its cones were eaten by dinosaurs. Three of these are so rare that there are only five more left in the world, all in private hands, none in the wild.
Madame Ganna Walska, the third owner, created most of what is there today. A Polish opera singer who fled France in the wake of the Nazis and married five times, bought it in 1941 with her last husband, a yoga teacher. They named it Tibetanland, hoping to turn it into a monastery before they divorced in 1946. Then she turned her attention to collecting rare and beautiful plants. We were blown away by the result, so be sure to make reservations far in advance of any visit.
We focused the rest of the trip on our interests in art, architecture, and history. There is an enormous variety of other things to see and do there, including 220 regional wineries (the area was featured in the movie “Sideways”), restaurants of every kind, the artsy Funk Zone, theater, kayaking, and specialty museums such as the MOXI for kids of all ages interest in science.
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a functioning court that was built in the Spanish Colonia Revival style in 1929, a distinctive landmark with its four-faced clock tower, from which you can take in a panoramic view of the city. Surrounding it are gardens, while inside are murals about the history of the region. To fully appreciate it, take the one-hour guided tour.
Old Mission Santa Barbara, known as the Queen of the Missions out of the 21 built by the Spanish in California, had its first incarnation in the 1790s. After the secular Mexican revolutionary government stripped the missions of their support, the buildings deteriorated and closed and other missions sent their records for storage in Santa Barbara, which was more self-sufficient with the assistance of the large Chumash population (which had been there for 13,000 years). It is the only mission where mass has been said daily since its founding. President Abraham Lincoln returned the mission to the Franciscans and it remains an active friary today. An earthquake had destroyed the third version of the building in 1835 and the current and grandest was completed in 1870. We took the hour-plus tour with the entertaining and informative docent Frank Randall, who told us it is the only one constructed of sandstone, according to a design from the Roman architect Vitruvius from 27 B.C., and features two identical Moorish bell towers. He pointed out examples of native artisanship, including world-class baskets in the museum and carvings inside the beautiful chapel, which is the only one among the missions with two altars and a crypt beneath the floor.
The Art of History
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has been undergoing earthquake-related renovation and only a couple of floors were open, where you can see some of its impressive collection of 27,000 works spanning 5,000 years, especially notable for its classical antiquities, Asian art, and American and European artworks of the 19thand 20thcenturies, including many paintings by Claude Monet.
Just down the street from the Museum of Art were some unexpected specialty shops that were fun to visit, including Fuzion Glass Gallery of handmade glass art and Tienda Ho, with its exotic clothing from Southeast Asia and the striking way its mannequins model them.
The Santa Barbara Historical Museum had a fun collection of exhibits on the region’s past 500 years, including highlights from Old Spanish Days fiestas, photos of a 1916 seaplane made by the company then known as Lougheed, Mad Tea Party Dolls designed by a local artist, and an elaborate Tong shrine in front of which new members of a local Chinese secret society had to swear an oath to overthrow the last emperor.
The Karpeles Manuscript Library was the second biggest surprise of the trip. Founded by Santa Barbara scientist and real estate investor David Karpeles, it is the world’s largest repository of privately owned, historically important documents, with branches in a dozen other cities. Each has rotating and permanent exhibits of not only manuscripts, but other rare objects. When we were there, one was the page from the Gutenberg Bible with the shema, the prayer that serves as part of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services and begins, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” There was the world’s first known peace treaty from 2,400 B.C., Fidel Castro’s high school yearbook, dinosaur eggs from 70-80 million years ago, Verdi’s handwritten sheet music for the opera “Aida,” and the Raytheon navigation computer for the Apollo 11 lunar landing. A staggering range of other items that can be found at his libraries includes the Emancipation Proclamation, documents by Galileo and Mark Twain, and the Confederate Constitution. It is Lotusland for history buffs.
Santa Barbara beckons you.