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BY TOM BLAIR
Hit the rails for a trip to yesteryear
WHEN YOU’RE on the windward side of middle age, any opportunity to go back in time is welcome. And I’d been looking forward to my weekend getaway to Santa Barbara for 10 years. That’s how long it had been since the last visit. Nothing much has changed. And that’s good.
The adventure begins the moment the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner pulls out of San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot. Backs out, actually. The locomotive faces south for the entire northward trip. It establishes the theme for the next three days.
Trains, the uninitiated will discover, do not always pass through the best neighborhoods. En route to my destination, I’m convinced certain things will be forever frozen in time: There will always be trailer parks next to railroad tracks; people will always wave at passing trains; and a locomotive can still outrun a 1968 VW bus—although the 200-mile journey still takes us nearly six hours.
Having abandoned my car for the trek north, I’ve decided to forgo all four-wheel transportation during my stay. It’s just over a mile from the station to the Simpson House Inn—a fairly brisk walk, even with wheeled luggage in tow. And the inn ties beautifully into the retro theme. The Main House, built in 1874, offers seven guestrooms; The Old Barn (1878) has four rooms; four cottages of more recent vintage round out the estate. Park the tension outside; this is the perfect place to let your shoulders drop.
The historical value of the Simpson House cannot be overlooked. But don’t let its age fool you; you won’t be roughing it. The inn was recently crowned with its ninth consecutive AAA Five Diamond award, one of just 15 properties in California and the only bed-andbreakfast in all of North America to be so honored. And its king- and queen-size beds, CD and DVD players, Internet access and in-room whirlpool baths (in the cottages) coexist peacefully with the rustic façade and wood-burning fireplaces.
The fresh-baked cookies that pop up with military efficiency throughout the day in the dining room and sunroom make me glad I’ve decided to walk and bike Santa Barbara. The inn, nestled into the heart of the city, provides bikes —and the balloon-tire cruiser provides a serious workout, even on the moderately sloping downtown streets.
The Simpson House is just two blocks from State Street, within easy walking distance of the Museum of Art, the historic Arlington Theater (Garrison Keillor is headlining this weekend), the Old Mission and Rose Gardens and most of the better restaurants. It’s a quick bike ride to the foothills for hiking or horseback riding, to Summerland village for antique shopping, and to the beaches.
Santa Barbara’s ties to the past are part historical, part by more-recent design. Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo gave Santa Barbara its name during his 16th-century voyage up the California coast. Two hundred years later, Franciscan monks arrived to establish three of their 21 California missions in what is now Santa Barbara County. After a 1925 earthquake, city fathers declared that all downtown architecture must echo the Spanish theme. White plaster buildings with red-tile roofs abound. A current urban renewal project is under way to rebrick all of the sidewalks on State Street, the main drag.
Despite the determined campaign to maintain the town’s historical façade, not everything here is retro. The University of California, Santa Barbara is just minutes up the coast highway at Goleta. And at midafternoon on a Friday, State Street is owned by backpack-bearing twentysomethings and teenagers on skateboards (despite a liberal sprinkling of “NO SKATEBOARDING” signs).
“Santa Barbara does have a rush hour,” explains the ConVis Bureau’s Shannon Brooks. “That’s when the locals are running, biking, skateboarding and surfing all at once.” The young people challenge my bike for precious turf—and provide a fine excuse to retreat to a patio table at Aldo’s for pasta and people-watching.
When it comes to dining, the natives refer to themselves as “locavores.” Most of their food is grown, caught or produced within a 100-mile radius. And with fresh fish from the wharf, fruits and vegetables from regional boutique farms and local wines in abundance, dining in Santa Barbara is a relative bargain. Aldo’s offers six different pastas (I opt for fettuccine with shrimp and scallops) and a salad (Caesar) for just $10.95.
The young people are not here by accident. State Street is basically an urban mall, with all the familiar favorites, including Nordstrom, Macys and Crate & Barrel. The main thoroughfare is also popular with Santa Barbara’s considerable homeless population, a group that’s generally as laid-back as the rest of the populace—although they still provide serious competition for their own piece of turf. When I stop at a bench to adjust my bike chain, a street squatter loudly makes it clear I’m trespassing. Good time for a ride to the waterfront.
Santa Barbara’s Fisherman’s Wharf is no theme park re-creation; this is a working wharf. And it’s a study in local commerce. On Saturdays, from 7 a.m. to around noon, fishermen set up a market here to sell their catch, and it’s getting late. By 11, only three stands remain, and lobster is down to $13 a pound.
Paul Teall and his 12-year-old son, Parker, work this stand every weekend. They’ve been operating here since Parker was 4. Local fish is $4 a pound. Next door, Mike and Sam are selling whole crabs for $2 a pound. Their neighbor is undercutting them at $1.50 a pound. And I’m getting hungry again.
Back to State Street and more time warp. Inside the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, I find Rodin and Monet. Outside, a gaggle of youngsters is finding fascination with a group of eight aging protesters. Straight out of the ’60s and shaggy-haired, they’re wearing Vietnamera peace symbols, carrying protest signs and singing “All we are saying is ‘Give peace a chance.’ ” Only these protesters appear to be in their 60s, their long hair thinner and grayer and their enthusiasm waning.
The youngsters soon lose interest, and I’m riding my bike back to the Simpson House, where I have a date with the whirlpool bath. I think I’ll take a cab to the train station tomorrow.