While the bright lights of Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley-cool of San Francisco often grab the headlines, sleepier Santa Barbara is the one spot in California that’s truly synonymous with luxury and understated elegance. A short hour-and-a-half drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from LA, this part of the American Riviera – or ‘the Cotswolds of California’, as it’s also known – is where southern California’s most glamorous come to get away from it all. This is, after all, where Harry and Meghan now call home – living in an £11million mansion in the wealthy enclave of Montecito – counting Katy Perry, Gwyneth Paltrow and close friend Oprah Winfrey as their neighbours. Here’s everything you need to know about the royal-approved city.
WHERE TO STAY
San Ysidro Ranch
Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is known for its natural beauty, and nowhere is this more on apparent than at San Ysidro Ranch, which is famed for being one of the most beautiful and romantic hotels in the world. Set in the foothills of the mountains in the smart neighbourhood of Montecito and made up of a cluster of cottages dotted around 550 acres of lush gardens, the hotel has serious pedigree – this is where John and Jackie Kennedy came for their honeymoon (there’s even a cottage named after them, with a terrace that offers spellbinding views over the Pacific), while Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh and Sir Winston Churchill were also regulars. As well as an outdoor pool flanked by citrus trees and an excellent spa, there’s also a destination restaurant, the Stonehouse, where the Duke of Sussex has been known to dine.
Palihouse Santa Barbara
If you like to be in the heart of the action, book a room at Palihouse Santa Barbara, the quirky hotel chain’s latest Californian outpost. Recently opened in the city’s Historic Presidio neighbourhood, the hotel is a fantastic example of Santa Barbara’s Spanish Revival architecture, with the building’s terracotta roof, wooden balconies and Mediterranean-style courtyard given a stylish new update. Inside, the décor calls to mind Wes Anderson in the best possible way, with candyfloss pink bathrooms, floral wallpaper and mismatched vintage furniture. Sit down with a cocktail by the fountain in the peaceful garden café as you plot your next move – State Street, which is home to many of Santa Barbara’s best shops, bars and restaurants, is just around the corner.
WHAT TO SEE
Buy a ticket for the quaint Santa Barbara Trolley (it’s the best way to see the sights in the city) and wind up through the hills until you reach the Old Mission. Known as the ‘Queen of the Missions’, the 18th-century building is famed for its pastel pink colonnades and domes. Today it is still home to a community of Franciscan friars, as well as 12 acres of manicured gardens. Afterwards, hop back on the Trolley and make your way over to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, which offers another prime example of the city’s Spanish influences, with its hand-painted murals, patterned tiles and wrought-iron chandeliers.
Take to the water
Santa Barbara boasts one of the most pristine coastlines in southern California, with the golden sandy beaches to prove it – few things can beat lolling on Butterfly Beach, which is a firm favourite with the locals for its excellent surfing. This tranquil part of the Pacific is best experienced from the water itself, though – sign up for one of the Sailing Center’s popular Double Dolphin catamaran tours to watch a dramatic Californian sunset from the ocean. While you’re there, keep an eye out for pods of dolphins, whales and sea lions, who frolic in these waters.
WHERE TO EAT
Sushi by Scratch Restaurants
With excellent fresh seafood on its doorstep as well as Californian-grown fruit and veg and local wineries, Santa Barbara is spoilt for choice when it comes to great food and drink. Current hot favourite is the intimate 10-seat Sushi by Scratch Restaurants in Montecito, which was recently awarded a Michelin star – the first restaurant in the Santa Barbara South Coast to be given the honour. It’s a date-night favourite for Harry and Meghan, who have come for the 17-course omakase tasting menu.
If you’re in town itself, The Lark is the place to go, particularly if you can manage to nab a table in its pretty, fire-pit strewn outdoor courtyard (popular with both locals and tourists alike, it can get booked up fast so it’s best to call ahead). The restaurant is famed for its locally sourced menu, which changes regularly and features everything from chargrilled brussels sprouts with medjool dates and roasted beets with Ventura strawberries to West Coast oysters and Morro Bay black cod.
WHAT TO DO
Get a dose of culture
Being so close to Tinseltown, it’s no surprise that the city enjoys its own cinematic associations – often called the ‘original Hollywood’, Santa Barbara was home to California’s first major movie studio, the American Film Manufacturing Co. Every March sees them play host to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which this year welcomed the likes of Nicole Kidman, Kristen Stewart and Javier Bardem to the red carpet. The city’s renowned Santa Barbara Museum of Art has also recently undergone a major $50million renovation, with a host of new, never-before-exhibited pieces added to its already stellar permanent collection.
Go royal-spotting at the polo
There are few polo grounds in the world that can claim to be quite as picturesque a setting as the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club, dramatically silhouetted against the Santa Ynez Mountains. It’s no wonder the Duke of Cambridge was so keen to take a turn around the field here, and Harry is expected to follow suit, with reports that he’s set to play alongside his friend, the Argentinian multimillionaire polo professional and Ralph Lauren model Nacho Figueras, when the season begins in May. The club is the place to be on a summer Sunday, when locals turn out in their finest hats to drink champagne and cheer on their favourite players in the fiercely competitive matches.