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Santa Barbara: Where California Dreams

By this time i've given up the santa ynez valley for Montecito, in the foothills east of Santa Barbara. Until a century ago, Montecito was an unassuming country village. Then industrialists and meat-packers from back East—Armours and Fleischmanns and du Ponts—began to line its winding lanes with sumptuous gardens and villas, transforming it into an American Riviera. There are two extraordinary hotels: by the shore, the Four Seasons Biltmore, which is sprawling and public; and in the mountains, the San Ysidro Ranch, which is small and secluded.

After driving up a series of narrow lanes walled in by oleander hedges and punctuated by massive stone gateposts, I find myself at the San Ysidro, which bears little resemblance to the Alisal or to any other ranch known to man. Once it was a rancho like all the others, but it was turned into a resort in 1893. By the thirties it had become a hideaway for Hollywood stars—Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx, Gloria Swanson—and a favorite of traveling Brits like Somerset Maugham. It's easy to see why.

With 21 cottages scattered among hundreds of acres of lawns and gardens high above the Pacific, the San Ysidro feels languorous and luxe. The rooms, some cozy, some grand, are sumptuous in an understated way, with private terraces, Frette linens, a stack of firewood by the door, even your name posted outside—or not, if you prefer. "This used to be the spot for assignations," observes a Hollywood honcho who lives nearby. "But now you have to go to Big Sur to get away from the paparazzi."

That's because Montecito is practically a Hollywood suburb. Director Ivan Reitman just built a mansion amid the formal gardens of the old Armour estate; Michael Douglas, Steve Martin, Jeff Bridges, and Robert Zemeckis all have houses in the area. Many film people live here year-round, especially those who don't want their children in a school where other kids are writing screenplays and reciting the weekend grosses. How long until Montecito's schools are just as bad is anyone's guess.

Still, on a Saturday morning with the sun glinting off the ocean, there's no better place to brunch than the Biltmore's seaside patio. The hotel is fabulous in a castles-in-Spain way, a 1920's fantasia of towers and arches and exotic gardens by the sea. Though its recent renovation wasn't totally successful—the main dining room is stuffy, and the guest rooms are furnished in hotel-issue French provincial—it nonetheless feels as grand as a Cecil B. DeMille stage set. And the patio, looking out over velvety green lawns to the Pacific and the rugged Channel Islands, offers the best oceanfront dining in Santa Barbara.

That afternoon I head for the Easton Gallery, which shows landscapes by local painters who've formed an eco-alliance known as the Oak Group. The idea of the Oak Group—contemporary artists who not only perpetuate the 19th-century plein air tradition but pledge half their sales to protect the land they paint—is Santa Barbara to the core: radical, romantic, conservative in the deepest sense. Here is Santa Barbara in its pristine state—la tierra adorada, "the adored land," rendered lovingly in paint.

Later that day I learn that the University of California has granted me permission to visit the Sedgwick Ranch, a vast tract whose disputatious past and uncertain future make it a microcosm of the battles the Oak Group is waging. Carved from a Mexican land grant near Los Olivos, the ranch is where Edie Sedgwick, the Warhol superstar, grew up. "California! That was the ideal world—it was Arcadia," her sister Alice recalled in Edie, the biography by Jean Stein, with George Plimpton. "Eternal sunlight, endless blue sky, just seamless harmony and perfection." Not that much harmony—"Duke" Sedgwick, the girls' father, was a swaggering brute, and his drive for perfection helped propel one of Edie's brothers to hang himself, another to drive his motorbike into a bus, and Edie herself to overdose at 28. The truth is that the Sedgwicks' California was a place of wild extremes—of glorious sun and fires that blackened the sky, of laughter and violence, of pageantry and torment. Which is how it's always been, back to the days of Salomon Pico and his necklace.

Duke left the ranch to the university, but his wife broke the will, giving the university 5,200 acres while keeping the 800-acre heart of the property for their surviving children. After much bickering, the university agreed to buy out the Sedgwicks for $2.7 million, most of which has finally been raised. As I drive from Los Olivos on a road lined with five- and 10-acre ranchettes sporting incongruously grandiose haciendas, I begin to sense what the fuss is about. Then the houses disappear and the road turns rutted. Seven or eight people in plaid shirts are standing by a rustic gate—ecology postdocs waiting for Mark Reynolds and Virginia Boucher, the biologists who manage the ranch. Then Mark and Virginia pull up.

Clinging to the side of a narrow canyon, we drive around a steep hill and enter an utterly private world—a valley studded with oaks whose limbs reach imperiously across the land. Here was Duke's domain, a fiefdom embracing all you can see. In the middle is the ranch house, a board-and-batten structure shaded by huge oleanders and feathery pepper trees, and flanked by a half-ruined tennis court and an abandoned pool. Even in the sunlight you can sense the ghosts—the ladylike mother, the innocent girls, Duke riding up into the hills in full hidalgo regalia to scatter the ashes of his sons. "It doesn't take much to realize that the Santa Ynez Valley will be rapidly altered in the next century," Mark is saying. "This could be the last remnant."

After dinner I drive up to Mattei's Tavern, a onetime stagecoach stop set amid palm trees and rose gardens and cottages where the likes of John Barrymore used to hole up. It's big with the Hollywood crowd all over again: four white limousines are idling outside and a boisterous crowd is spilling out of the tavern, 15 or 20 Jerry Maguire types lighting cigars. I open the car door and step outside. The stars are dazzling, the Milky Way lighting the sky with a glittering trail. One by one the limos pull out for Los Angeles. I feel lucky to stay behind, in a place where fantasy is an idyll, not an industry, and all the more fragile for it.

Santa Barbara's Wine Country Like Napa 20 years ago, the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys are fresh, untrammeled, and full of promise. Some of their best wineries—Cambria Winery & Vineyard, Qupé Wine Cellars, Au Bon Climat—have no visitor facilities, but you can get a sense of the place by following the Santa Ynez River or driving Foxen Canyon Road from Los Olivos to Santa Maria.

  • At Sanford Winery (7250 Santa Rosa Rd., Buellton; 805/688-3300, open 11-4 daily), the tasting room is an ancient, tin-roofed barn lined with old wine books. Complex Chardonnays, ranging from crisp to massive, are legendary; Pinot Noirs are also highly regarded.
  • Stone cellars and a lavender-scented courtyard overlooking the river give Sunstone Vineyards & Winery (125 Refugio Rd., Santa Ynez; 805/688-9463, open 10-4 daily) a Provençal air-—and with assertive Syrahs and fruity Merlots, who's complaining?
  • At Foxen Vineyard (7200 Foxen Canyon Rd., Santa Maria; 805/937-4251; open weekends only, 12-4), Benjamin Foxen's great-great-grandson and a partner make outstanding Pinot Noirs.
  • Rancho Sisquoc Winery (6600 Foxen Canyon Rd., Santa Maria; 805/ 934-4332, open 10-4 daily), has a beautiful picnic area with a spectacular country view.


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