Great Escapes: The Seductive Sophistication of Montecito
Montecito is best known for its sprawling coastlines and multimillion-dollar homes owned by local figures like Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle looking to fly under the radar. Most visitors to the area pass Montecito unknowingly and head five miles further north to the more populated town of Santa Barbara, full of bars and college students.
For years, Montecito’s sleepy town reputation had been one of Southern California’s best-kept secrets for many A-listers, but not anymore. In recent years, a newly awarded Michelin-star restaurant and five-star Rosewood resort, owned by real estate developer and Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso, have drawn droves of visitors to the area, particularly as that quiet retreat from city life during the pandemic.
It doesn’t take long to see that Montecito has all the alluring qualities of Californian living laced with a hint of sophistication – a laid-back beach town vibe, a myriad of outdoor activities from the mountains to the beach, and a scene culinary promise, from fine dining to street food and everything in between. Santa Barbara’s grown-up sister, Montecito is set to become more than just a celebrity hotspot.
Luxury hotel rooms in Montecito may be limited, but you need look no further than San Ysidro Ranch, a dreamy hideaway nestled in a residential neighborhood ideal for guests seeking privacy and seclusion. Set on 500 lush acres, the manicured property features thirty-eight spacious, self-contained cottages with outdoor hot tubs and outdoor rain showers. The unique, well-appointed cottages are fitted with classic 1920s Colonial Revival furniture and antiques and offer everything you need to feel right at home.
All farm-to-table fresh meals are included with your stay (excluding alcohol) and showcase the abundant herbs and produce grown on-site. The Stonehouse is a romantic fine-dining restaurant with partial ocean views from the outdoor terrace and a popular spot among locals for business meetings. Wine lovers will also appreciate the impressive collection of Petrus vintages between 1945 and 2016.
Property guests also have access to the exclusive Montecito Club, a private members-only club just ten minutes away with a world-class Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course.
For beachfront accommodation, Rosewood Miramar Beach is a great choice. Chic cottages with ocean or garden views have bright, airy interiors that feel like a friend’s beach house (if you can get past the occasional noise of the passing Pacific Surfliner train). The family-friendly resort offers a solid array of beachfront dining options, including Caruso’s, a romantic Italian restaurant with California influences. The Montecito Inn is a more casual but charming hotel option conveniently located in town, with two fantastic restaurants, including a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Head to town and start your day with freshly baked pain au chocolat and an egg sandwich from Bree’osh Bakery, a small cafe opened by a French couple. At Coast & Olive, part of the Montecito Inn, California’s finest produce is on display with must-try dishes like Brussels sprouts and crispy cauliflower.
For dinner, do as the locals do. Head to Lucky’s, an upscale steakhouse with a lively bar scene and guaranteed top sightings. Start with the drink menu that combines classic cocktails with famous quotes from icons like Frank Sinatra, then order the shrimp cocktail to start. While a menu’s laundry list can be daunting, don’t overlook the daily specials where you may encounter the Romanian Steak, a succulent steak marinated in olive oil, pepper and garlic served with a perfect crust.
The Sushi by Scratch restaurant, just steps away, recently earned one of Santa Barbara County’s first Michelin stars in the 2021 Michelin Guide. The 17-course omakase experience is reserved for ten lucky diners each evening to enjoy delight in Chef Frankland Lee’s unexpected sushi pairings, like pineapple flambé over kinmedai (golden-eyed snapper).
Prefer something more casual? Try Bettina at Montecito Country Mart, which specializes in seasonal wood-fired pizzas like caramelized onion pizza with leeks and meyer’s pizza with lemon and mozzarella, or stick with a classic margherita pie.
Stop at Folded Hills, an urban wine tasting room in the Lower Village owned by the Busch family, descendants of the Anheuser-Busch family. Fifteen acres of Rhône varietals are grown on a nearby 600-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, a thriving wine region. Reservations are highly recommended for the intimate tasting room where knowledgeable staff will guide you through a selection of five certified organic wines aptly named after various family members. Discover more local wines at the California Wine Festival, an annual party back in Santa Barbara this summer.
The extraordinary Ganna Walska Lotusland, is a fascinating 37-acre garden that will set the bar high for any garden. The whimsical wonderland was purchased by a Polish opera singer named Madame Ganna Walska in 1941 who spent over forty decades bringing to life her vision of an avant-garde garden filled with exotic plants and flowers . Today, the garden is home to over 4,200 plant species and over 35,000 individual plants. A full day can easily be spent here exploring more than a dozen unique gardens, including cactus, Japanese, fern, and tropical. With only 20,000 visitors allowed per year, reservations are required and weeks in advance.
Take in a glorious sunset and dip your toes in the ocean at dog-friendly Butterfly Beach, about a 10-minute walk down Coast Village Road. Pack your own picnic as there are no public facilities at this popular beach. If you fancy an outdoor workout instead, the Cold Spring Trail is a moderate 2.7 hike with views of the ocean and a creek that luckily still has fresh water running through it. .
Heading south from Montecito, discover a stretch of antique shops and cute cafes along Lillie Avenue in a quiet little town called Summerland. The quaint neighborhood adjacent to the freeway often goes unnoticed en route to Santa Barbara, but some of the best antique shopping can be found here. Field & Fort, started by two longtime friends, is an organic cafe and furniture store rolled into one. Shop for modern homewares and vintage furniture or stock up on sauces and condiments straight from Italy.
The Summerland Beach Cafe, housed in a comfortable Victorian-style house, serves equally comforting cuisine. It’s a popular breakfast spot for locals to start their day, and furry friends are also welcome.
The writer was a guest at San Ysidro Ranch