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Given its relatively conservative, quietly affluent reputation, it's surprising that Santa Barbara has a sizeable gay community. Best known in the UK because of the 80's daytime tv series, this is actually a blissful place to live or visit no matter what your sexual orientation. The integrity of the architecture and landscaping is a consistent strength. Gracious sandy beaches fringe the city's southerly coastline, and rugged mountains form a northerly backdrop. Year-round, the climate is extraordinarily conducive to happiness - 320 days of sunshine, low humidity, and cool breezes. Best of all you can fly from the UK with just one stop at either LA or San Francisco.

The overall gay presence in Santa Barbara has boomed, particularly in recent years and as is often the case in idyllic lands, the old guard here claims that Santa Barbara has become increasingly "discovered" and less appealing. While this may be true to a degree, the city still looks green, clean, and quite striking without feeling tourist-ridden or over-developed.

No visitor to Santa Barbara passes through without spending time along the waterfront, particularly around Stearns Wharf, which has numerous shops and restaurants. A paved bike trail (also good for blading) runs along the shoreline, passing close by the Andree Clark Bird Refuge - a lagoon that's a popular ground for more than 220 varieties of bird - and the Santa Barbara Zoological Garden.

State Street is the city's main commercial drag. It's narrow, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, and lined with a great variety of shops and restaurants. Take note of the city's small but reasonably impressive Santa Barbara Museum of Art, whose highlights include French Impressionist, German Expressionist, and regional American works, plus numerous antiquities.

Nestled just at the base of the Santa Ynez Foothills, the Santa Barbara Mission has one of the most dramatic exteriors of any in California. You can walk through the church and amid the lush grounds, which include a colorful rose garden.

It's a five-minute drive north to the fine Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and still a couple miles north to the jewel of the city's plethora of gardens and parks, the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden. Several miles of trails traverse this 60-acre tract of exquisite landscaping.  
 The Santa Barbara Botanical Garden
Everybody who visits Santa Barbara seems to talk about the glorious shopping and dining. Santa Barbarans, on the other hand, talk more about the outdoors. There is much to see and do in the omnipresent mountains and rivers. Hiking, surfing, and kayaking are extremely popular pastimes, and the region has famously picturesque and tidy beaches. Just about any stretch of sand in the area is lively and fun, but the most popular spot for gays is Padaro Beach. People often think that California's better wines are produced only in Sonoma and Napa counties; in fact, Santa Barbara County's considerable wine industry is growing in volume and respect every year. Top vintners include Gainey, Sanford, and Santa Barbara's own Santa Barbara Winery. The majority of them (there are more than 30) are northwest of Santa Barbara, around the towns of Santa Ynez and Solvang. For a map and information on specific wineries and their hours, contact the Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association.

And after all that wine-tasting, it's entirely appropriate to sample some of Santa Barbara's exceptional cuisine. Consider starting off with a visit to the Wine Cask, a rarefied dining room set across a shaded courtyard from the esteemed Wine Cask Store. Inside, diners sample fine pinot noirs and grigios alongside stellar regional American fare like roasted Iowa pork chop with succotash and a crispy apple-risotto croquette. Nearby Downey's is a small, softly lit, art-filled eatery where contemporary American food is the daily offering. A typically enticing entree is king salmon with fresh chanterelles, leeks, and potatoes in a thyme broth. Arigato Sushi serves super-fresh and creative sushi. The restaurant occupies an airy and attractive space on State Street.

In the back of the shopping center inland in ritzy Montecito, Pane e Vino is a great little Northern Italian trattoria, either for a meal or a snack while out sightseeing. An immensely popular spot for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, with a light menu and a cheerful arboured terrace, Paradise Cafe serves omelettes, soups, salads, and creative sandwiches. The simply named Roy is one of the city's great bargains, offering an inexpensive three-course prix-fixe of modern Californian and Italian dishes. Sojourner Cafe, the city's lesbian (and to a lesser extent gay male) central, has great natural foods, rich desserts, and fine coffees - but come here to mingle and meet locals as much as to munch on great food.

The gay nightlife scene in Santa Barbara has waxed and waned over the past 10 years, with many bars coming and going. The only gay establishment currently in Santa Barbara is Hades. It is exclusively gay and caters to a younger crowd than the old and defunct Gold Coast which closed in 2001 and it's closer to the beach and hotels. The rowdy, collegiate-oriented Zelo is mainstream, the management is quite gay-positive. Most nights draw a young, hip bunch - and they also serve decent American food here. Your second-closest gay-exclusive option is Paddy McDermott's, with a very upbeat and lively gay and lesbian dance crowd - but it's 30 miles down the coast in downtown Ventura. GaySantaBarbara is an all volunteer organisation who produce the annual Pride celebration, and their website has up-to-the minute scene info.

Santa Barbara has some of the fanciest resorts and inns in Southern California, but also a wide array of discount motels - while there are no gay-exclusive properties, a few have a strong "family" following. If you're on a budget, consider Ivanhoe Inn, a funky old Victorian relatively close to downtown; it's not fancy but filled with quirky furnishings and personality. The gardens outside are overrun with greenery and flowers, and the house has sort of a '60s free-love feel about it. Also reasonably priced, the Eagle Inn is an attractive Spanish-style hostelry that's close to the beach. The 18 rooms are decorated individually with a range of antiques and reproductions; all have microwaves, refrigerators.

The city's world-class resort is the Four Seasons Biltmore is one of America's top such establishments. You simply can't beat the setting, on a green slope just steps away from Montecito's shoreline. It's quite gay-friendly, and the restaurant is first-rate.

Often a host of Gay Pride Festival attendees, and the Radisson Hotel Santa Barbara is one of the most distinctive Radissons you'll ever find. Rooms are typical of those in upscale chain hotels, but the public areas of this imposing 1930s Spanish Mediterranean-inspired hotel are quite lavish. Best of all, the beach is right outside the door. Finally, if you're wanting the ultimate splurge, look no further: After many years of building and planning, the ultra-posh Bacara Resort and Spa opened in September 2000 to instant acclaim. This stunning $240 million facility occupies 78 acres that include a 2-mile beach, an acclaimed tennis center, a pair of 18-hole golf courses, and a 42,000-square-foot spa. There are 360 rooms, all with DVD players, high-speed Internet, robes and slippers, and Kiehl's bath amenities. Updated March 2003.

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Andree Clark Bird Refuge (1400 E. Cabrillo Blvd.).
Arigato Sushi (1225 State St., 805-965-6074).
Bacara Resort and Spa (8301 Hollister Ave., 805-968-0100 or 877-422-4245, Website).
Downey's (1305 State St., 805-966-5006).
The Eagle Inn (232 Natoma Ave., 805-965-3586, Website).
Four Seasons Biltmore (1260 Channel Dr., 805-969-2261 or 800-332-3442, Website).
Hades (235 W. Montecito St.,805-962-2754 Website).
GaySantaBarbara.org (Website)
Ivanhoe (1406 Castillo St., 805-963-8832 or 800-428-1787).
Paddy McDermott's (2 W. Main St., Ventura, 805-652-1071).
Mousse Odile (18 E. Cota St., 805-962-5393).
Pacific Pride Foundation (a gay & lesbian resource center; 126 E. Haley St., Suite A-11, 805-963-3636, Website).
Pane e Vino (1482 E. Valley Rd., Montecito 805-969-9274).
Paradise Cafe (702 Anacapa St., 805-962-4416).
Radisson Hotel Santa Barbara (1111 E. Cabrillo Blvd., 805-963-0744 or 800-333-3333, Website).
Roy (7 W. Carillo St., 805-966-5636).
Santa Barbara Botanical Garden (1212 Mission Canyon Rd., 805-682-4726).
Santa Barbara Convention and Visitors Bureau (805-966-9222 or 800-549-5133, Website).
Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association (805-688-0881, Website).
Santa Barbara Mission (2201 Laguna St., 805-682-4713).
Santa Barbara Museum of Art (1130 State St. 805-963-4364).
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (2559 Puesta del Sol Rd., 805-682-4711).
Santa Barbara Zoological Garden (500 Ninos Dr., 805-962-5339).
Sojourner Cafe (134 E. Canon Perdido St., 805-965-7922).
Wine Cask (813 Anacapa St., 805-966-9463).
Zelo (630 State St., 805-966-5792).

Andrew Collins authored Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, the Connecticut Handbook, and six regional gay guides for Fodor's. He can be reached here at OutUK or direct at GayFodors@aol.com.

 

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