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Central California

Spotlight: Santa Barbara

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Bougainvillea twining across red-tiled rooftops, birdsong mingling with the ocean breeze, islands and whale spouts on the horizon—Santa Barbara’s charms tempt at every turn. Perfect getaways don’t get much more perfect.

Take it from the movie stars who sneak away to Santa Barbara all the time—or just straight up move here. Oprah, Brad, Ellen and other first-name’s-enough A-listers have estates here, many tucked away in the coastal enclave of Montecito. Why not? There’s that legendary Old World beauty that befits the city’s nickname, “The American Riviera.”

But Santa Barbara has a new energy, too—leafy streets lined with designer boutiques, a buzz-worthy food and wine scene, and a waterfront teeming with sailboats, kayaks, and stand-up paddle-boarders. Come and experience Mediterranean-style magic along the Central Coast.

 

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Blake Bronstad

California Questionnaire: John Cox

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California Questionnaire: John Cox
The celebrated Central Coast chef talks about living on a houseboat and his favourite road trips

John Cox’s introduction to the California restaurant scene was a bit unorthodox. After graduating from culinary school on the East Coast, the New Mexico native secured an internship at Sierra Mar, the acclaimed restaurant at the breathtaking Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. During his first three years at Sierra Mar, Cox worked his way up to chef de cuisine and along the way he developed an appreciation for California’s micro-climates as well the Golden State’s majestic beauty. It’s not surprising, then, that Cox is praised for his aesthetic sensibilities, crafting food that is simultaneously pleasing to the eye and the palate. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer even went so far as to call Cox the “Dominque Crenn of the Central Coast.”

The celebrated chef now runs two Central Coast restaurants—Cultura Comida y Bebida in Carmel-by-the-Sea and The Bear and the Star in Los Olivos—and he shared some of his Golden State favourites with us via the California Questionnaire.

Where do you live?  I’m lucky (and crazy) enough to live aboard a boat in the Santa Barbara harbor.

Why there? For me, Santa Barbara exists on a perfect equilibrium between Northern and Southern California. We have palm trees and long sandy beaches, but we also have steep forested mountains and redwood groves. There is usually a hint of morning fog that soon gives way to perfect California sunshine. My wife and I thought it would be fun to live on a boat as a temporary housing transition. After two years in the Santa Barbara harbour I can honestly say there is no place we would rather live. We can walk to downtown, watch the Fourth of July fireworks from our deck, and are surrounded by lovely neighbours.

Who or what is your greatest California love?  The Pacific Coast. Some people may wonder why I would be willing to have two restaurant concepts so far apart from each other—The Bear and Star in Los Olivos and Cultura in Carmel-by-the-Sea—but the 3-4 hour “commute,” either along the Big Sur Coast or through the Salinas Valley, is something I really enjoy. It’s just over 241 kilometres, but the two locations couldn't be more different or exceptional in their own ways. Whether my route takes me through the vineyards of Santa Ynez and Paso Robles or the coastal communities of Cambria and San Simeon, there are always beautiful views and something new to experience.

What is the biggest misperception about Californians? For every stereotype of Californians, there is a counterbalance. As a Texas/New Mexico transplant, I don’t worry too much about misperceptions because part of appreciating a culture is discovering how you were wrong about it and being pleasantly surprised.

What is the stereotype that most holds true? California is one of the most diverse and multi-cultural states and generally Californians are inclusive and nondiscriminatory.

What’s your favourite Golden State splurge?  A whole local box crab or spiny lobster grilled over charcoal on the Big Green Egg on my boat.

Time for a road trip—where do you go? It’s tempting to say Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and Cambria but since that’s a normal drive for me, it can hardly be considered a road trip. Instead, I would drive up 395, a lonely desert highway that runs between Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I would then go over Tioga Pass into Yosemite and then return along the Merced River back toward the coast.

If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would that be? Eat a purple sea urchin freshly pulled from the Pacific. This is partly because they are delicious but mostly because right now there is a major concern about their exploding population and their ravenous appetites. These urchin have little commercial value and can wipe out entire stretches of kelp forest, creating an “urchin barren,” or area that has been completely “deforested.” I figure if I can decree anything, it might as well have a positive environmental impact.

Best California Song?  To understand my answer, you first have to know that I moved to California in 2000, and as it happened a couple of the band members from Red Hot Chili Peppers lived in Big Sur, where I lived and worked at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar. The band was known to throw impromptu community concerts and occasionally dine at my restaurant. For that reason, Californication, despite its questionable lyrics, is the first song that comes to mind.

How would your California dream day unfold? I would wake up early, have an espresso, and drive up toward Lake Cachuma into wine country.  My next stop would be the Parker Home Ranch, where Katie Parker McDonald and Rocky McDonald would have horses saddled up and ready to tour the upper pastures. We would check in on the herd of Wagyu cattle, ride through vineyards, peek into the mushroom cave and root cellar, check along the stream for any foraging, walk through the garden and orchard, and check on the chickens, ducks, turkey, and quail.  For lunch I would have one of our ranch-raised Wagyu burgers paired with a splash of Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah from the vineyards we just rode through. I would head back home in time for dinner, picking up some fish from our neighbourhood market to prepare on the boat with my wife (who is also a chef). While dinner is cooking, we would relax on the back deck of our boat, sipping some beer from Third Window Brewing Company and watching the sunset.

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Courtesy of Cara Robbins/Municipal Winemakers

Unique Santa Barbara Tasting Rooms

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Unique Santa Barbara Tasting Rooms
Taste the breadth of Santa Barbara County wines without ever leaving the city limits

An astounding 200-plus wineries populate the mere 9,813-square kilometres of Santa Barbara County. What makes this area so suitable for viticulture? The West Coast’s only mountain range that runs east to west has created a natural wonder: six distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) right in Santa Barbara County. In fact, there are so many wonderful reds, whites, and bubblies that mapping your wine tour can feel a bit daunting. Thankfully, there are numerous exceptional tasting rooms right in Santa Barbara proper. Leave the car at home and try these unique urban vino experiences without leaving the city.

The Valley Project

A great introduction to area wine, this popular room offers guests an educational tour of the region’s six AVAs with a whimsical schoolhouse vibe. See soil samples from each appellation, while admiring the beautifully informative chalkboard mural.

Area 51

You don’t need security clearance to visit this Cold War–style spot. Crack open the “top secret file” to find a list of the winery’s tasty blends that feature on-brand names like Collusion, Close Encounter, and Conspiracy Red.

Riverbench

Sparkle-lovers, this one’s for you. Riverbench’s estate, located in nearby Santa Maria, is one of the only wineries in the area that specialises in bubblies. The chic Funk Zone tasting room also sells bottles covered in glitter for you to take home.

Au Bon Climat

Long before Santa Barbara’s downtown tasting rooms became trendy, Au Bon Climat was pouring its Old World–style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Located near the Presidio in the historic El Paseo section, locals love ABC for its cosy-yet-upscale feel and frequent deliveries of complimentary cheese plates. 

Deep Sea Tasting Room

Serving luscious Pinot Noirs and offering up some serious Jacques Cousteau vibes, Deep Sea is as close to an offshore tasting as you can get on dry land. This Stearns Wharf spot offers sweeping views of the Pacific from its giant glass windows and breezy outdoor deck.

Municipal Winemakers

This lively spot in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is known for its bright-tasting vinos and clever decor. Enjoy flights from its original label in a creative spot featuring a cheeky filing cabinet wall, a chandelier made of bottles, and even a wine fountain. Refills, anyone?  

Sanguis

Get the VIP treatment at this appointment-only spot. Sanguis provides an intimate experience paired with exceptional wines. Owner Matthias Pippig, who hails from L.A.’s popular La Brea Bakery, crafts everything himself, from the labels’ artwork to the balanced Syrahs.

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Chuck Place/Alamy

Santa Barbara Dining

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Santa Barbara Dining
White tablecloths on State Street

When it comes to food, Santa Barbara means business. This romantic Central Coast city is home to more than 400 restaurants, offering visitors the chance to experience very sort of regional flavour. The area’s laidback luxury style means that you can enjoy world-class dishes without the pomp and circumstance. (Read: Leave that tie at home). Thanks to plenty of rich farmland, the ocean’s fresh bounty, and exceptional wines growing on the surrounding hills, Santa Barbara offers incredible ingredients for its noteworthy restaurants.

Consider first Bouchon Santa Barbara (the product of celebrated restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven), where the motto is “as fresh and local as possible.” It’s a mantra you can see on the menu, highlighting fresh catch of the day from right off the coast, as well as produce and artisanal foods from local farms and food purveyors. Wine pairings featuring local vintages are highly recommended. The Palace Grill is another great choice for upscale dining; multiple presidents have enjoyed meals here.

Once frequented by Julia Child, La Super Rica Taqueria serves straightforward Mexican food in a bright little shop. Thanks to its cheffy reputation, a line starts forming right when the restaurant opens, with locals and tourists alike waiting for their taste the Especial. Just down the street sits one outpost of the family-owned local chain, Los Agaves. Try traditional Oaxacan there in a casual setting, or go upscale with the family’s sister eatery, Santo Mezcal, where you can sample the famous chile relleno in a hearty burrito.

A relative upstart of a neighborhood, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is packed with shops, tasting rooms, galleries, and restaurants. One of the best, The Lark, celebrates the Central Coast with New American–style inside of a stunningly beautiful converted fish market. For a less expensive but doughier affair, head to the neighbouring Lucky Penny. Under the same restaurant group as The Lark, Lucky Penny slings charred-crust pizza out of its wood-fired oven and pours craft coffee morning, noon, and night.

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Laura Flippen

State Street

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State Street
Follow winding walkways to shops, fountains, and food

In Santa Barbara, State Street is synonymous with shopping, and if you don’t want to be tempted, you’d better put on blinders before you walk. If you’re ready to dive in and enjoy, start at State Street’s upper end, with luxury retailers such as Tiffany & Co. at La Cumbre Plaza. Next up, La Arcada; it’s twisting walkways with fountains and flowerpots allow plenty of time to gaze into boutique windows and think, “Oh, I really need that…”

Grab an espresso at local favourite The French Press to keep you going then continue south to the babbling fountains and lush landscaping at Paseo Nuevo shopping centre, home to more than 50 stores. Continue to Victoria Court, with an alluring mix of independent shops and top restaurants. Once you’re ready to call it quits, settle in at Blue Tavern (California cuisine with a Peruvian twist), Olio (perfect wood-fired pizza in a rustic chic setting), or Bouchon (classy to the max).

SPECIAL FEATURE
Where to release your inner fashionista

Shopping is an art form in California. Whether you're in search of the perfect cocktail dress or an authentic Mexican piñata, you'll find it here. Want to sample fresh produce? Try our farmers...

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South Coast Plaza
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Kodiak Greenwood

East Beach & Stearns Wharf

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East Beach & Stearns Wharf
Stroll along Santa Barbara’s historic waterfront

Besides being Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark, Stearns Wharf brings new meaning to fresh seafood—fishermen drop off their daily catches at the harbour just down the road—and ordering a round of authentic fish-and-chips is a must. Take in the view at the pier from the historic wharf, which was built in 1872, before letting the kids visit the many shops to pick out favourite trinkets and souvenirs.

Join the locals and rent bikes to pedal along the famous beachfront, or pose for selfies in front the iconic dolphin statue at the base of the pier. This is also a great place to try standup paddleboarding, with rentals available from various companies, including Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which also offers guided kayak trips. East Beach is perfect for families—the sand is soft and inviting, and the surf is gentle. It’s also the spot to come if you’re into art; local artists show and sell there works here on Sundays.

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Laura Flippen

Funk Zone

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Funk Zone
Get edgy in this oh-so-hot spot for tasting rooms and food

Tucked between U.S. 101 and East Beach, a narrow band of warehouses has become an enclave of urban wine-tasting rooms, artist’s studios, surfboard-makers, and bohemian-cool restaurants like The Lark.

Start your sampling at AVA Santa Barbara Vintners with its dozen or so house wines, each made with grapes from a different corner of Santa Barbara County. Continue to sip your way east toward the beach, finishing with a pale pink rose from Municipal Winemakers, then stroll a block to the sand to dabble your toes in the surf. When you want to take a break from sipping and swirling, check out the Funk Zone’s galleries and studios, as well as its ever-changing murals on Mason Street, part of an ongoing project by AMASS (Artists Making A Street Scene). End in true California style, watching the sunset from the tip of 701-metre-long Stearns Wharf, a wooden gem dating back to 1872. From here, it’s just you, the swirling gulls, the barking sea lions, and the twinkling lights of town against the soaring coastal mountains.

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Santa Barbara Mission

Santa Barbara Mission

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Santa Barbara Mission
Lovely Gardens, Art & Architecture

Established by Spanish Franciscans in 1786 and nicknamed Queen of the Missions, Old Mission Santa Barbara perches above the town, fronted by a glorious swath of lawn that practically screams “Picnic.” No wonder plein-air painters prop their easels out front, capturing the elegant mission towers. Take time to stroll through the mission’s lovely gardens, including a collection of plants important to native Chumash Indians, and visit the historic cemetery. But do it quietly: this is still a practicing mission, with Franciscan friars in residence.

If you want to learn more about the mission, consider taking a guided tour to learn more about the mission’s art and architecture. Another tour lets you visit the Huerta Historic Garden, which contains plantings that mimic those of the Mission era (1769-1834). Plants here were gathered from those found at other mission sites, then cloned, grafted, or planted from cuttings and seeds.

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Laura Flippen

Santa Barbara's Luxury Resorts

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Santa Barbara's Luxury Resorts
A host of travel magazine-worthy resorts and spas line this stretch of the Central Coast

In the mood for some perfect pampering in a breathtaking setting? Santa Barbara makes sure you’ve got plenty of ways to make sure you’re happily spoiled. Lodgings here specialize in laid-back luxury, with settings ranging from hilltop areas, to secret bungalows, to edge-of-the-sea dazzlers.

Consider Belmond El Encanto, with terraced gardens and sweeping views of the Pacific. Perched in the hills above town, it feels like a private enclave that doesn’t draw attention or flash—just pure relaxation and sigh-worthy settings. Pull on a fluffy robe from the closet of your classic bungalow to dip into the pool or get a treatment at the onsite spa.

Natural beauty meets classic luxury and romance at San Ysidro Ranch, nestled in the Montecito foothills. This stunning retreat has a storied past sprinkled with celebrities: Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier exchanged vows here and it made a perfect honeymoon retreat for then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his beautiful bride Jackie.

At the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, it’s ultimate five-star service a seashell toss from the ocean. This luxury lodging feels the most like a see-and-be-seen destination—albeit in one where arriving for brunch in a chauffeured Bentley seems oh so normal. The waterfront property has onsite tennis courts and provides access to nearby golf courses. Guests can also use the Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club, across the street at secluded Butterfly Beach. 

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Chuck Place/Alamy

Santa Barbara Dining

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Santa Barbara Dining
White tablecloths on State Street

When it comes to food, Santa Barbara means business. This romantic Central Coast city is home to more than 400 restaurants, offering visitors the chance to experience very sort of regional flavour. The area’s laidback luxury style means that you can enjoy world-class dishes without the pomp and circumstance. (Read: Leave that tie at home). Thanks to plenty of rich farmland, the ocean’s fresh bounty, and exceptional wines growing on the surrounding hills, Santa Barbara offers incredible ingredients for its noteworthy restaurants.

Consider first Bouchon Santa Barbara (the product of celebrated restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven), where the motto is “as fresh and local as possible.” It’s a mantra you can see on the menu, highlighting fresh catch of the day from right off the coast, as well as produce and artisanal foods from local farms and food purveyors. Wine pairings featuring local vintages are highly recommended. The Palace Grill is another great choice for upscale dining; multiple presidents have enjoyed meals here.

Once frequented by Julia Child, La Super Rica Taqueria serves straightforward Mexican food in a bright little shop. Thanks to its cheffy reputation, a line starts forming right when the restaurant opens, with locals and tourists alike waiting for their taste the Especial. Just down the street sits one outpost of the family-owned local chain, Los Agaves. Try traditional Oaxacan there in a casual setting, or go upscale with the family’s sister eatery, Santo Mezcal, where you can sample the famous chile relleno in a hearty burrito.

A relative upstart of a neighborhood, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is packed with shops, tasting rooms, galleries, and restaurants. One of the best, The Lark, celebrates the Central Coast with New American–style inside of a stunningly beautiful converted fish market. For a less expensive but doughier affair, head to the neighbouring Lucky Penny. Under the same restaurant group as The Lark, Lucky Penny slings charred-crust pizza out of its wood-fired oven and pours craft coffee morning, noon, and night.

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Laura Flippen

Farmers’ Markets in Santa Barbara

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Farmers’ Markets in Santa Barbara
It’s all about local at these amazing weekly gatherings

Abundant sunshine, a moderate climate, and a healthy amount of rain make this part of the Central Coast ripe for a year-round cornucopia of fresh produce, much of it grown organically. The locavore and slow food movements are big here, and chefs source food mostly within a 100-mile radius. The area hosts farmers markets every day of the week except Mondays, and while they are all worth a visit, the signature event is that one on Tuesday afternoons, when downtown’s State Street morphs into the ultimate place to be, with food, music, and beautiful people. White-jacketed chefs snap up thick bunches of fresh herbs to use that night on just-caught local sea bass or black cod. Kids say “thank you” to farmers offering samples of juicy peaches, and guitar-strumming folk singers gather clusters of listeners. Really—does it get any more “California” than this?

Can’t make it on Tuesday? Try La Cumbre Plaza (Wednesdays), Carpinteria (Thursdays), Montecito (Fridays), Downtown (Saturdays), and Camino Real Marketplace (Sundays). Consider this your chance to try something new like funky looking cherimoya, nicknamed “custard apple” for its creamy white inner fruit. From avocados and eggplants to figs and fennel, melons and squashes, pears and persimmons, the food—and the people—make for an unforgettable day.

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Laura Flippen

Santa Ynez Wine Country

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Santa Ynez Wine Country
Tour an iconic wine region with fog, sun, and plenty of Pinot

The Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is one of most diverse grape-growing regions in the county. Near the Pacific, fog and cool air rolls in at dusk, ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Thirty miles/ forty-eight kilometres inland at Happy Canyon, it’s sunny and hot—perfect for Bordeaux varieties like Cab Franc and Merlot.

And scenic? How about rolling hills, endless vines, and ancient oaks to the horizon. Between the wines and the views, it’s easy to see why the region became a star in the 2004 surprise hit, Sideways. Take a self-guided tour of the film’s many shoot locations in Buellton, Los Alamos, and Los Olivos—even if you don’t remember the movie, these places are all worth a visit.

Where to go? Why not start at Sunstone Winery. It has a cool wine cave, sustainably grown grapes, and a spectacular limestone chateau available for overnight stays. Another tip: buy a pass from Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association to save on tastings at 15 participating boutique wineries.

If you’re looking for a totally different way to tour the region, sign up for a Cloud Climbers Jeep Tour. Guides take you four-wheeling on mountain roads to various wineries, including picnic lunch.

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Laura Flippen

Santa Barbara Public Market

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Santa Barbara Public Market
Go local, gourmet, and delicious downtown

Here’s a great food find, a classy food hall, where you can sample an array of handcrafted and sustainably made food products highlighting local farms and artisanal ingredients. Find international cheeses at Counter Culture, then end on a sweet note with miniature cupcakes like vanilla cake filled with ollalieberry-lemon mousse at Enjoy Cupcakes.

Part of the Alma del Pueblo mixed-use development in the heart of downtown, the LEED-certified building also features a commissary kitchen that hosts cooking classes and winemaker dinners. Look for freshly baked country loaves at Crazy Good Bread Co., Thai- and Taiwanese-inspired handmade dumplings at Empty Bowl Noodle Bar, and fresh-off-the-boat fish at Santa Monica Seafood.

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Trip 5-7 days 10 stops

Highway One Classic

Take the trip that captures the heart and soul of the Golden State
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Courtesy Bacara Resort & Spa

Bacara Resort & Spa

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Bacara Resort & Spa
Bliss out just west of Santa Barbara

If the idea of ocean waves and a majestic sunset outside your window sounds good, this compound of glistening white villas on a bluff west of Santa Barbara might be your piece of holiday heaven. Situated on 78 acres along the Gaviota Coast, Bacara Resort takes advantage of its oceanfront setting to deliver “we’ll take care of everything” indulgence—ranging from cushy banquettes around fire pits to more than 60 specialised treatments offered at the onsite spa.

Bacara has all the amenities you’d expect at a five-star resort. Wake up in your guest room and have coffee on your private balcony. Stay in one of Bacara’s Signature Suites and shake or stir a martini at your own wet bar, then sink into a plush chair on your private terrace to watch dolphins swim by.

If there’s anything that will tempt you out of your room, it’s great food and wine in a beautiful setting. Options range from flip-flops-are-fine cafés to Ocean House, Bacara’s premier restaurant. The menu, created by Paris-born Executive Chef Vincent Lesage and executed by Chef de Cuisine Johan Denizot, focuses—with outstanding results—on seasonal, locally grown ingredients in intriguing combos: think house-crafted goat ricotta atop smoked lettuce, leek pesto, pistachios, and crunchy fried bread. Seafood gets innovative presentations too, like black cod with bacon dashi, nori, squid ink pasta, and sea asparagus.

Bacara has an outstanding—and enormous—wine cellar, with more than 12,000 bottles representing 1,200 labels from 75 international appellations and 13 countries. Local wines get big play here, plus there’s an onsite tasting room (open to day-trippers as well as resort guests) for Foley Family Wines, featuring vintages from Kuleto, Lancaster, Sebastiani, and Chalk Hill estates.

After all this decadence, consider booking a guided mountain-bike ride or an exclusive yacht cruise. Or consider a multi-day wellness retreat offered by Sky Ranch Fitness. Sandpiper Golf Club is next door, and of course there’s the beach, where you can take a surfing lesson or just grab a boogie board and jump in (be forewarned—ocean temps are chilly here, even in summer). Monarch Kids’ Club, named for the butterflies that spend the winter in the neighboring Ellwood Butterfly Preserve, offers special activities for youngsters age 5 through 12 (offered during summer and on select holidays).

To round out your stay, why not end with a massage on the rooftop terrace, followed by a Hollister Lemonade (acai liqueur, lemonade, and lime juice). It is a holiday, after all.