The season of hunched shoulders and chattering teeth is soon approaching. To make the pending icy months a bit more tolerable, it may be time to start planning your winter escapes to one of our sunshine states. I recently headed out on the inaugural Sun Country flight to beautiful Santa Barbara, California. Sun Country Airlines has launched a 3.5-hour non-stop flight directly into the simple, small, and very accessible Santa Barbara airport. Once you’ve landed, hop in an Uber or Lyft, and in 15 minutes you’re driving along the coast, taking in the sunshine and the sea air from the Pacific Ocean. This charming coastal town is often referred to as the American Riviera. I spent three nights and four full days exploring its beauty.
On my flight, I ran into St. Paul native, best-selling author, and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, who now calls Santa Barbara home. I asked Dan to share some of his favorite “not to be missed” spots for Minnesotans planning to visit Santa Barbara in the coming months. I was able to check off all of Dan’s recommendations—except the cocktail at Oliver’s in Montecito’s. (It looks like a return visit is in order!) Dan’s recommendation for the aggressive biking climb to the top of Gibraltar may be best left to the pedals of an experienced cyclist like him. I instead took a leisurely bike ride along the Riviera to the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel to sip their signature cocktail, the Biltmore Fuerte, made with locally distilled bourbon.
Dan Buettner’s top picks for visiting Santa Barbara:
1) Rent an e-bike and ride up the Riviera for the splendid view. For one of the best views on the West Coast, keep pedaling up to the top of Gibraltar. It’s about an hour ride up and 30 minutes back.
2) Visit the Belmond El Encanto for happy hour or dinner on the deck. It’s off the touristy path, very elegant with arguably the best view of the skyline, Pacific Ocean, and the Channel Islands.
3) My favorite coffee shop is Handlebars, owned by a former Tour de France Racer. It’s the best coffee in town, and it’s frequented by locals, serious cyclists, and an occasional celebrity.
4) My favorite casual restaurant is the Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar in the Santa Barbara Public Market. Try the hangover noodles with tofu. Very Blue Zones.
5) The best craft-made cocktail can be found at Oliver’s in Montecito’s. Try one of the specialty cocktails made with premium liquor, fresh squeezed juice, and spices like nutmeg and cayenne.
After checking off Dan’s recommendations, it was time to hit the streets and see what I could stumble upon. I visited the nearby town of Goleta, as I was told they have a pretty great emerging craft beer scene. I stopped in for a few flights of beer at Hollister Brewing Company. Brewer and co-owner Eric Rose has won multiple medals for his beer at the Great American Beer Festival, including a gold medal in GABF’s most competitive category, American-style India Pale Ale.
Bring your Minnesota Nice to restaurant Convivo, located at the Santa Barbara Inn, and support chef/owner Peter McNee, originally from North Oaks, Minnesota. (McNee graduated from Mounds View High School and Gustavus Adolphus College.)
A visit to Santa Barbara isn’t complete without some time spent on the beautiful Pacific Ocean. I headed out for a day of whale watching on the Condor Express. The captain guaranteed us we would see whales, and he did not disappoint: We spotted and followed three different whales. As a bonus, the four-hour cruise included sightings of both sea lions and many dolphins.
Also carve out some time for an afternoon traversing the streets of a hot, trendy area known as the Funk Zone, home to an abundance of quaint wine tasting rooms, boutiques, and independent restaurants.
Get ahead of the game, and book your flight now.