The California We Love: Santa Barbara And Vicinity

A ranch, horses and vittles

Santa Barbara's Secret Hideaway
Not far from Mission Santa Barbara, the El Encanto Hotel and Garden Villas is one of Santa Barbara's most jealously guarded secrets. It doesn't have the notoriety of the Miramar (recently bought by hotelier Ian Schrager) or the old name of the Biltmore. What it does have is a glorious site high in the hills and a lush ten-acre garden tended by a full-time crew. To get a feel for the place, just sit on the restaurant terrace and gaze out over Santa Barbara and the ocean. Don't let the dated look of the main lobby and dining room put you off. The cottages scattered over the grounds are both romantic and comfortable.

After an unpromising start around the tennis court, the thick stands of trees and immaculate gardens slope peacefully through the El Encanto's 83 bungalows. There are two distinct, separated types: Spanish Colonial in the eastern garden and California Craftsman around the lily pond. The Craftsman bungalows are interesting but need to be opened up; the Colonials have more substance. Furnishings are comfortably countrified. However, renovation is needed quickly in the 40-year-old bathrooms. Many rooms have fireplaces, kitchenettes, louvered windows, and all the comforts, including bedside reading and coffee machines. Highly recommended are 322, a house all its own with pillared porch ($469), 311 with sloping beams and a big bedroom ($349), and 302 with a long balcony window, presidio fireplace, and an intimate dining room with windows onto the lawn ($469).

Well up with the times is the hotel's chef Mark Kropczynski. His menu has splendidly assertive dishes, and the wine list is packed with fine Santa Barbara County and Central Coast wines.

Though the hotel feels very secluded, it is only a ten-minute drive down to State Street, the city's center, and its many diversions. $229-$1,450. 1900 Lasuen Rd., Santa Barbara, CA 93103; 800-346-7039, 805-687-5000; fax 805-687-3903.

Favorite Lunch Spot
Try Ca'Dario, a storefront Italian restaurant with a sensational selection of appetizers (the vegetarian crostone is tops) and pasta, plus a very good wine list. Lunch, $55. 37 E. Victoria St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805-884-9419.

French Fare
Citronelle o, Michel Richard's outpost of his Citrus restaurant in L.A., is first-rate. The salmon, studded with chives and tarragon, was vibrant. The porcupine shrimp, so-called because it is breaded with shredded phyllo dough, is such good finger food that it should be available at a takeout window. And although the grilled yellowfin tuna was a bit overdone, the saffron broth just begged to be soaked up with bread. The only miss was the lime meringue tart surrounded by a basil citrus sauce, which the waiter agreed was a stretch.

The dining room overlooks the Pacific Ocean, but the location, the third floor of the Santa Barbara Inn, could not be more unprepossessing. $100. 901 E. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, CA 93103; 805- 963-0111.

The Simpson House Inn is the only AAA Five Diamond bed-and-breakfast in America. Its romantic Hayloft Room is a sun-dappled retreat located in the inn's restored Old Barn, by far the best room here (the Carriage and Weathervane rooms are second and third choices respectively). The Garden Cottages are hidden away behind the inn, an 1870s estate surrounded by an eight-foot-high palisade of hedge. Rooms in the Main House are period pieces, done in a mixed-Victorian style. They're perfectly fine, but the frilly lampshades, the swirling patterned wallpaper, and the hand-crocheted bedspreads are a little too much historical realism. The Garden Cottages, on the other hand, have an English-country guesthouse feel (each opens onto a private courtyard). Main House: $195-$395; Garden Cottages and Old Barn: $400-$500. Rates include breakfast. 121 E. Arrellaga St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 800-676-1280, 805-963-7067;

A Hollywood Dude's Ranch
Once a plaything of actor Ronald Colman, the San Ysidro Ranch (a member of Relais & Châteaux) is tucked in the Montecito foothills. Its 20 cottages are done in a pleasant California ranch style. There are six two-bedroom suites and a gradation of nonstandard cottages. They all have enclosed decks; some of which feature Jacuzzis. Bathrooms are good and slick—one-bedroom cottages and up have whirlpool tubs—and layouts are generous, if not always clever.

For the most seclusion, stay at either end of the central road. Though the buildings in the southern section are near the approach drive, there is so little traffic you're rarely bothered. Of the best views, Magnolia Cottages ($450) have the most sea and the cozy Outlook Cottages ($450) have lush lawn and foliage.

Canyons 1-10 ($375-$575), Tangerine ($575), and Oranges East ($1,200) and West ($575) are fine if you have kids; they are close to a good pool, the play area, and the gardens. Opening up the center area for the family has meant some units look out onto this "town square." That said, Sycamore 1 and 2 ($450) are the most dramatic single rooms with a great sense of space, a fourposter bed center stage, and one outlook onto the creek. The most evocative suite is the stone-fronted Kennedy ($1,750), with two bedrooms en suite balanced perfectly either side of the high-beamed sitting room. Most remote and aloof is Lilac 2 ($875) in a steep cul-de-sac with a big dressing room, glass shower, and whirlpool bath. Clunker of the ranch is Creek ($675) next to the Stonehouse Restaurant's kitchen. $375-$3,750. 900 San Ysidro Lane, Santa Barbara, CA 93108; 800-368-6788, 805-969-5046;

For The Love Of Bread
One convex white awning and three tables on the sidewalk, Paris style, suggest something special, but even more cause for comment at Aficionado European Bakery is the fast and heavy traffic going in and out.

Inside there are some woody baskets, shelves, and display cases for danishes; but as with all real bakeries, neat and chipper decor takes a far backseat to the baking of great bread. The heart of Aficionado's is for all to see, a great messy Italian steel bread oven tended by a lad with a big paddle right behind the counter.

Miguel Bermudez and John Chamberlain worked for a corporation in Switzerland, but since both had a passion for Europe and its culinary traditions, they split away and founded Aficionado in Santa Barbara, with the hopes of attracting the town's sophisticated and well-heeled inhabitants. The name is pure whimsy. The product is bread: heavy German Roggenbrot, herbed Provençale fougasse, Italian brioche, French sourdough, Tuscan breadsticks, and Mediterranean flatbread. 10 E. Carrillo St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101;805-963-8404; fax 805-525-9818;

Right off the main street in town is a sweet little Italian restaurant called Olio e Limone—oil and lemon. Alberto Morello, who cooked at the former Celestino in Beverly Hills and Prego in Irvine, is in the kitchen. His wife, Elaine, runs the front of the house, greeting guests with an ardent "buona sera." Cozy (and just a bit loud), it feels like a neighborhood trattoria in one of the smaller cities in Italy. Morello is Sicilian, so he includes dishes influenced from the south, such as malloreddus (a Sardinian pasta) in a hearty sausage ragout, or an eggplant soufflé from Sicily. Needless to say, drink Italian. Dinner only, $70. 17 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805-899-2699.

Wine Country Cuisine
Bouchon Santa Barbara is the restaurant that's won the hearts of Central Coast winemakers with its encyclopedic list and its attention to regional California cuisine. Over 50 Central Coast wines can be ordered by the glass—and the glasses are Riedel crystal. Bouchon is that rare thing, both a local hangout and a destination restaurant for wine lovers. The food takes advantage of all the vibrant produce grown in the area with dishes like Ojai escargot-stuffed colossal garlic head with locally foraged watercress or grilled local bluefin tuna with potato purée niçoise. The cooking is personal, yet never exaggerated. Dinner only, $80. 9 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805-730-1160;

There Is Nothing Like A Dane
The town of Solvang, on Highway 246 three miles east of the Buellton junction on the 101, may be a tad self-conscious in its Danishness with its windmill, wood fronts, and density of pastry shops and restaurants. But it is full of Danish-Americans, and it even has an annual folk festival that attracts Danes from all over the world.

Something else genuine about Solvang is a Danish classic, rundstykker. These savory hard rolls are often served with cheese and cold cuts. The best places in town for the little winners are Olsen's Danish Village Bakery $ at 1529 Mission Dr. and The Solvang Bakery on Alisal. They're on the left before the golf course.

No Horsing Around
After a day of wine tasting around Santa Ynez and whimsy, why not take home a horse? Five miles north of Solvang on Alamo Pintado Road is the Quicksilver Ranch, which breeds miniature horses.

Not ponies or dwarfs, miniatures have been in existence since the 1600s and were used for everything from ore-cart pulling to royal pets. Fully grown, they are a maximum of 34 inches high from the base of their mane to the ground. Quicksilver's 20 acres are home to dozens of them, from pocket stallions smaller than a Great Dane to 20-inch foals you could just about fit in a breadbox. They can live for 25 to 30 years.

Probably because they have little choice in the matter, they are charmingly tempered, utterly tolerant of children, and easily kept in the back garden. (Note: Your yard must be zoned for livestock.) Quicksilver has them for sale starting at $2,500 for a colt and $4,000 for a filly. The ranch arranges for local horse-box transport—between $100 and $700 depending on where in the U.S.

For food, they'll need about four to five pounds of hay per day and your back lawn between meals. Wake up with one at the foot of the bed and it'll make a change from pink elephants. 1 1555 Alamo Pintado Rd., Solvang, CA 93463; 805-686-4002;

Central Coast Dining
Brothers sounds like such a tourist trap, but it's a small miracle set in the bottom of a Victorian bed-and-breakfast on a quiet Solvang street. Jeff and Matt Nichols, brothers and chef-proprietors, have an allegiance to top-flight ingredients and the best that the Central Coast has to offer. The menu is small, but everything is cooked with care: roasted rack of lamb with fig-Gorgonzola sauce, grilled half chicken with mashed potatoes and lemon thyme sauce, or, in season, grilled wild Washington king salmon with vegetable rice and spicy tomato cilantro salsa. Dinner only (Wednesday through Sunday), $60. $ 409 First St., Solvang, CA 93463; 805-688-9934.

Base Camp For Wine Country Touring
Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn & Spa sits right on the main street in the white-picket-fence town of Los Olivos, a great base for touring the Santa Barbara County wine country. The 21 rooms are all oversize, with the Remington Suite being the largest. Upstairs rooms have vaulted ceilings and a bit more atmosphere. There is a small pool and Jacuzzi by the annex across the street from the main building. $180-$350, (higher on weekends). 2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos, CA 93441; 800-446-2455, 805-688-7788; fax 805-688- 1942;

The Italian Pottery Outlet looks like a catchall of ceramic kitsch, but in fact there's a small trove of superb pieces here, on the wall to the right of the cash register. They're by Bartoloni, a top firm in Montelupo in central Italy. Because the company does its own importing, prices are always 30 percent off. 1 19 Helena St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101; 805-564-7655;

Ballad Of The Ballard
The Santa Ynez Valley, 40 minutes from Santa Barbara, is, as yet, unspoiled. Think Napa or Sonoma 30 years ago, before the roads were clogged and wineries hawked tchotchkes with as much enthusiasm as wine. This is beautiful country of rolling hills and big vistas. And if you want to stay at the heart of this picturesque concentration of Santa Barbara Valley vineyards and horse ranches, The Ballard Inn is the place, a well-run two-story country inn on the main street of Ballard. If you look across the inn's rocking-chair veranda to the white picket fence, you'd expect to see a hitching post.

The inn's bedrooms are just the ticket for a cozy little town—each individually decorated with bathrooms that are up to the minute. The inn also includes the Cafe Chardonnay, which, despite the name, offers very decent California wine country cuisine—a decided advantage after a day of cycling through the vineyards, when the thought of a drive to a restaurant is too much to bear. Warmed by a hefty Italian marble fireplace, the restaurant offers food and drink that gives more sophisticated spots in San Francisco and San Diego something to think about. The list of 60 wines is a document of dedication to the products of the Santa Ynez area including Fess Parker, Sunstone, and Brander, vineyards whose wines are hard to come by farther afield. $175-$265, including afternoon wine and hors d'oeuvres and a full breakfast. 2436 Baseline Ave., Ballard, CA 93463; 800-638-2466, 805-688-7770; fax 805-688-9560;

Cowboy Vittles
The Hitching Post II is a cowboy steakhouse featuring Santa Maria-style barbecue—that's steaks cooked over an open grill fired with local red oak—and a stupendous list of Central Coast wines. Owner Frank Ostini—he's the mustached one turning steaks behind the grill in a safari hat—is friends with all the local winemakers. And in fact, he's the one, too, turning out excellent Pinot Noir under the label Hitching Post. What's impressive about this steakhouse is how he has taken the tradition here and tweaked it just enough to make it interesting for both the locals and foodies. No prime, just good-quality steaks perfectly cooked—and about the best fries anywhere. Dinner only, $50. 406 E. Highway 246 (off the 101), Buellton, CA 93427; 805-688-0676;

The Spa Of The Moment
Picture five men, all naked, who have just gotten done smearing Hungarian moor mud all over their bodies and now are lying on ceramic-tile chaises, listening to a relaxation tape and baking like just-glazed pots.

This is the Kuyam, one of the more exotic treatments offered at the two-and-a-half-year-old, $10 million spa at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. The name is a Chumash Indian word meaning "a place to rest together," and Ojai is the only spa in the U.S., according to the inn, that offers it. Once the mud draws out the toxins, you take cold and hot showers—and you feel renewed.

The spa has made the inn at Ojai, once purely a golf resort, into a well-rounded mountain retreat. There is an outdoor swimming pool, a snack bar with a spa menu, and a fitness center (several aerobics classes per day). The resort also has hiking in the nearby Topa Topas.

The resort has 206 rooms. By far the best are those in the Historic Hacienda building, which dates from 1923. The rest are standard issue—nicely done, but not rooms you want to curl up in. (However, a planned soft-goods renovation may change that.)

In the formal restaurant, Maravilla, chef Melody Pate's talents shine. The herb-crusted ahi tuna off the spa menu was fabulous, as was the grouper on smoked yellow tomato and avocado off the regular menu. The wine list is excellent, particularly strong in Pinot Noir from the region. $245-$900; $2,000 for a Spa Penthouse Suite. 905 Country Club Rd., Ojai, CA 93023; 800-422-6524, 805-646-5511;

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.