Things to Do in Santa Barbara: The American Riviera

An American Riviera getaway: a catamaran ride, the Funk Zone and suite sleep at the Kimpton Canary Hotel

Captain Daniel prepares to set sail on the Double Dolphin from the Santa Barbara Harbor.
The author fantasizes about captaining a ship.

So many things to do in Santa Barbara. My agenda includes a much-anticipated sailing excursion. Scattered, late-November rains, however, are threatening to scuttle the plan.

But you know what they say near the end of nearly every Hollywood movie: We can do this! Undeterred, and for-the-moment under sunny skies, we prepare to depart from Santa Barbara Harbor’s dock.

In the name of caution, we won’t sail far outside the harbor’s rocky breakwater, which when built, accidentally created the highly-regarded Sandspit surf spot—a rare, right-hand barrel with a long, shallow bottom.

Come Sail Away

Young Captain Daniel helms the Double Dolphin, a 50-foot sailing catamaran rented from the Santa Barbara Sailing Center. His first mate is Atria, a blonde seafarer seemingly born to the water. I had to ask the origin story of her name.

Atria, as the first mate is happy to regale, is the name of the brightest star in a triangular-shaped constellation in the southern sky. In real life, Atria’s brothers Orion and Leo were named after constellations at the urging of their Merchant Marine father.

“Since he was going to be away at sea so often, he wanted to be able to look up and see his kids in the night sky,” Atria says. Moments later, she springs away from our conversation on the bow to grab a telescoping boat hook. With the hook, Atria successfully retrieves a passenger’s baseball cap that had blown off his head and into the choppy seawater.

The motley crew assembled for an American Riviera sailing trip.

Captain Daniel is also a friendly and knowledgeable sailor. He’s well-versed in the backstories of the boats we pass on the way through of the harbor. On the right, he points out, is Kevin Costner’s Perfect World, a 36-foot, long-range Radon vessel. On the left is Guilty, the aptly name boat owned by Law & Order creator/producer Dick Wolf.

And so on. The Orient is an all-wood boat with a shiny mast made of one sturdy spruce tree. Channel Cat is owned by Warren Buffett business partner Charlie Munger, and is available for rent at $25,000 per hour, Captain Daniel notes with a nod and a smile.

Halfway through the trip, our captain cuts back on the throttle and lines up the Double Dolphin to face the shoreline. The view starts at the horizon with a white beach and a row of like-sized palm trees. This postcard picture segues upward into the red-tile roofs and Spanish Colonial architecture of downtown Santa Barbara. Gazing higher carries your eyes up into the steep Santa Ynez Mountains.

It’s a pause-worthy view made even more dramatic by the rain clouds obscuring parts of the 4,300-foot mountain peaks. “Welcome to the American Riviera,” announces Captain Daniel.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone

Funk Zone street art.

Shortly after the Double Dolphin docks, the rain clouds uncork. Lightening also charges up the sky during this downpour. We’d hit the sailing window perfectly, though. And following a short Uber ride, I’m introduced to the Funk Zone.

Santa Barbara’s newest downtown neighborhood—once funky in terms of the smells derived from warehouses and fish markets—is now funkified with hip and cool. The Funk Zone is repopulated with makers, artisans, street art, trendy restaurants and lots of wine-tasting storefronts. 

Greater Downtown Santa Barbara is filled with some three dozen tasting rooms, and about half of the stops on an Urban Wine Trail are inside the Funk Zone. Rain dampens a full-fledged opportunity to canvas the neighborhood. But I get to bring on da funk during visits to side-by-side tasting rooms.

 Riverbench Vineyard is in Santa Maria Valley, in northern Santa Barbara County. Its Funk Zone tasting room is a sofa-lined, wood-paneled respite on Anacapa Street. Since 2008, Riverbench has focused on a sparkling wine program. A noteworthy holiday tradition at the tasting room: the practice of covering their bottles—Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, et al.—with festively colored and surprisingly well-fastened glitter.

Cutler’s Artisan Spirits tasting room.

Next-door on Anacapa Street is Cutler’s Artisan Spirits. The interior area available to customers is tiny and minimalist. The majority of the property is taken up by an active distillery operation in the back. You can see the brass-colored alcohol still through a glass window.

Ian Cutler mans the operation. He’s carrying on in the tradition of his grandfather, a good ’ol bootlegger who was in operation during Prohibition. Boardwalk Empire West might be a stretch, but history suggests that Duke Cutler’s way-back-when clientele included sheriffs, judges and even the Governor of California.

Duke’s grandson, Ian, is a pleasant guy who happily pours visitors six shots of his products: vodka, gin, whiskey, bourbon, and two sweetly flavored liqueurs—coffee and apple pie (the latter based on Grandma Tommie’s recipe).

This tasting room is a treat, especially since these bottles aren’t widely distributed outside Santa Barbara. As the rain subsides and it’s time to head back and clean up for dinner, I make a mental note to check the hotel bar for Cutler’s Gin.

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Kimpton Canary Hotel  

Checking in to the pet-friendly Kimpton Canary Hotel

The 97-room Kimpton Canary Hotel—Spanish Colonial, natch—is an upscale boutique property just a block off the downtown main drag of State Street.

This urban oasis—like every Kimpton property (I recently discover)—has a “muse,” that is, a prototypical customer. Canary’s muse is named Susan. FYI: She’s an upwardly mobile business entrepreneur who makes $200K a year, has a teenaged daughter and drives a Land Rover.

Apparently, Susan is also attracted to a great night’s sleep. Each of the Canary’s guestrooms are centered by four-post canopy beds. All these king-sized, cozy nests were recently upgraded with top-of-the-line Simmons Beautyrest Felicity Plush Pillowtop mattresses.

During my stay, I check out the rooftop pool and spa (with panoramic citywide views), and invest time in a workout at the nearby Gold’s Gym. There’s no fitness room on property, but Gold’s is less about 30 yards down the street from the hotel’s porte cochère, and free to hotel guests.

Kimpton Canary Hotel has comfy four-post canopy beds.

Dinner at the on-property restaurant Finch & Fork is lively and deliciously flavorful. The “farm-to-fork” menu here is locally sourced, and I can’t get enough of the sea scallops—served with a brown butter cauliflower puree. Another delight is a deviled-egg appetizer, topped with smoked trout.

Yes, the Finch & Fork bar does serve Cutler Gin. Aiming to support local business, I order more than one, accompanied by blue-cheese-stuffed olives.

When it finally comes time to call it a night, I head back to the room and climb up into that lush mattress. Before long, I’m drifting off into a dreamscape–sailing up the American Riviera coastline, waving to humpbacks and orcas and navigating the night sea by constellation.  J&J