Barbara Whoosh: Dave Unwin Continues His Californian Capers
“Mr Unwin – we’re ready to board now” said the steward in American Airline’s excellent Admiral’s lounge at Heathrow. “Just let me finish my manicure and I’ll be right with you”, I replied. Well, as a LUSSO lifestyle-loving modern metrosexual male you wouldn’t have expected me to go on a road trip without first getting my nails done, would you?
Some say that the journey is at least as important as the destination, but – generally speaking – this certainly cannot be said about modern air travel. However, as on this occasion as I was not only travelling business class, but the aircraft was American’s latest 777-300 on its inaugural flight, I had high hopes. And these proved to be well-founded. The booth, bed, service, entertainment and food were all excellent, easing my passage considerably. And, to be honest, this was the real reason I got my nails done. To celebrate this particular aircraft’s inaugural flight, American had a nail bar in the Admiral’s Lounge, where – if you wanted – you could have your nails painted in the colours of American Airlines. I declined being painted, but my cuticles were much better for the experience. Anyway, my freshly-manicured hands and I enjoyed exemplary service all the way across the Atlantic and beyond, to our eventual destination of LAX.
From there, my fellow travellers and I were conveyed by stretched limousine (naturally) to Santa Barbara’s fabulous Belmond El Encanto hotel. Owned by Belmond (Orient-Express Hotels Ltd before the rebrand), the El Encanto is a wonderful property, in an already pretty wonderful setting. Having spent a considerable amount of time in California over the years, I know Santa Barbara well. Often referred to as ‘The American Riviera’ and blessed with a very benign micro-climate that essentially ensures that it is nearly always most agreeably temperate. Extremely sophisticated and yet delightfully unpretentious, Santa Barbara offers an extraordinarily eclectic mix of cuisines and cultures. It has the buzz of a big city, yet has somehow managed to retain the laid-back vibe of a small town. On the first morning of our stay, I got the day started with an enjoyable swim in Belmond El Encanto’s fabulous infinity pool (it overlooks Santa Barbara harbour) followed by a perfect example of the humble travel writer’s go to breakfast – eggs benedict. Belly full, we then (rather bravely) toured the town on Segways with the imaginatively-titled ‘Segways of Santa Barbara Company’.
None of us had ridden one before, but within 30 minutes we were racing through the streets of Santa Barbara like something from a terrifyingly grown up, blandised Easy Rider. ‘The Not so Fast and Quite Content’? We visited the old Mission and the imposing, palatial Hacienda-style courthouse. Our guide claimed that one particular building had been designed by an architect who was also a heroin addict, which was why said building resembled a medical syringe. He wasn’t wrong, so I asked the guide whether the building had given the town a ‘shot in the arm’. I don’t think he got it. I asked if being a Segway instructor allowed him to ‘segue’ from one anecdote to another he simply looked at me blankly.
After so much hilarity, I was as dry as a Nun’s (your guess is as good as mine – Ed) so having tasted some superb wines on Santa Barbara’s famous Urban Wine Trail (courtesy of the Grassini Family) we repaired to The Wine Cask for lunch and beer. Dining alfresco in the historic courtyard on yummy flatbreads and piquant local craft beers, I was impressed with the sensibly-sized plates. All too often when dining out in the States, the sheer size of the plates and the quantity of food placed in front of you can be a turn-off. Here, the food was simple, unpretentious, modestly-portioned but extremely tasty. Gourmet burgers were everything a gourmet burger should be – which is much rarer than you’d think. The afternoon began with a visit to Lotus Land. This astonishing collection of gardens set in 37 acres was created by a famous Polish singer and socialite. Madame Walska was a big star in the early 20th Century. Touring both Europe and America led to amassing a considerable fortune courtesy of a succession of extraordinarily wealthy men. Reader, she married them – according to our guide, six times. As well as being an ardent botanist, she was also interested in birds and was a keen collector of cockatiels. There may be a gag in there about multiple husbands and multiple cockatiels. I shall not be mining it.
Back at Belmond El Encanto, a deep, deep 50-minute massage followed by a refreshing swim reminded me that I hadn’t consumed any alcohol for several hours. This omission was rectified by cocktails on the veranda, overlooking the Pacific. Lovely work if you can get it. I just about got prised away from the perfect vista to dine at Julienne, downtown. All of the food is sourced locally and selected seasonally from Santa Barbara’s thriving Farmer’s Market. Again, you don’t miss gourmet flourishes when the produce is this good.
The following morning, after yet another exemplary breakfast at Scarlett Begonia (I tell you, I sacrificed my figure to write this article) we take a leisurely sail along the coast aboard the 41 foot ‘Ketch Sunset Kidd’. Sadly, Santa Barbara’s famous ‘morning fog’ lingered long into the morning. On an up note, the crew were a jolly bunch, but there’s only so much ‘going about’ and ‘setting the mainsail’ one can take before one’s thoughts turn – almost instinctively – to ‘splicing the mainbrace’ (that does mean getting pissed, right?) and we set sail for the nearest restaurant. As a veteran ligger and landlubber I am much more interested in wine, women & song than the nautical equivalents which are rum, bum and the accordion. Now, I know what you’re thinking: how perfectly dreadful – an accordion.
As we sailed back into harbour, my attention was drawn to the old wharf and I wondered aloud whether or not there was competition amongst the coastal towns to see which could have the most prestigious jetty. “Of course there is” I opined “it’s called pier pressure” (consider this a final warning, Unwin – Ed)
After lunch at the Anchor Woodfire Kitchen (which included – OMG – olive oil ice cream) we boarded Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train for the trip down to San Diego. If you like trains (and other than the American Motor Industry, who doesn’t?) the Pacific Surfliner is one of the world’s great rail experiences. It meanders its way along the California coastline at a slow-enough speed that it is possible to take in all the wonderful views, from dramatic cliffs and immaculate beaches to bustling cities and art deco stations. I was delighted to spot a pod of dolphins, seemingly keeping station with the train, as it rolled majestically towards Ventura.
At times, the scenery really was face-slappingly incredible – the sea, the deepest ultramarines, the sky, shimmering cyans. So you may imagine my chagrin when I tore my gaze away from the window and turned to speak to my companions, only to realize that all three of them were glued to their iPhones, because the Surfliner offers free Wi-Fi. When I somewhat indignantly pointed out the remarkable vistas that were rolling past the panoramic windows, one of them (to his eternal credit) jokingly tweeted “the person next to me says the scenery is amazing! #experiencesofalifetime”
Next Issue, San Diego – where I go paddle-boarding in the Pacific, clubbing in San Diego’s famous gaslamp quarter and encounter a $17,000 toilet with more buttons than some aeroplanes. Prepare for landing, indeed.
Hotel Belmond El Encanto Santa Barbara, www.belmond.com. Rooms from $525 (approximately £325) per night, for reservations contact +44(0) 845 077 2222.
Rancho Valencia, San Diego, www.ranchovalencia.com. Rooms from $700 (approximately £440) per night, for reservations contact +00 1 866 233 6708.