City to Watch 2018: Santa BarbaraBy Richard Bradley

Recovered from the natural disasters of the last year, Santa Barbara remains a unique American gem.

  • The Belmond’s zero-edge pool. Belmont El Encanto/Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara
  • Funk Zone storefronts. Photo by Blake Bronstad/Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, a small city of about 90,000 people some 95 miles north of Los Angeles by car, is blessed with remarkable natural beauty. It has balmy weather, the longest section of south-facing Pacific coastline in the U.S. and a backdrop of the majestic Santa Ynez Mountains. But you might have forgiven the residents of Santa Barbara if earlier this year, they started to feel cursed. In December 2017, what came to be known as the Thomas fire broke out in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. It would burn for weeks, consuming more than 280,000 acres of land. Then, on January 9 of this year, the denuded hillsides were hit by a sudden and hard rain that produced a massive mudslide. Hundreds of homes in the residential Montecito neighborhood were destroyed. Twenty people died.

It would take months for Santa Barbara to recover from the conjoined disasters—if a place ever fully recovers from such a thing. In the meantime, a smaller disaster took place: Tourism, the lifeblood of the Santa Barbara economy, plunged as regional and international visitors (the two form the vast majority of Santa Barbara’s tourism base) read the headlines and imagined a war zone. It was a little bit as if visitors stayed away from Amity after Sheriff Brody killed the shark. Though some tourist favorites—notably Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore and the iconic San Ysidro Ranch—were forced to close temporarily, downtown Santa Barbara wasn’t damaged by the fires and mudslide. And, whether through taking in homeless neighbors or offering near-constant expressions of gratitude to emergency workers, the citizens of Santa Barbara pulled together with inspiring generosity and humanity. A close-knit city became even more so. Visitors who stayed away not only didn’t have to; they missed the chance to help a city that needed their support.

Visitors to Santa Barbara now can appreciate even more what a remarkable place it is. You can stay in some of the finest hotels in the country, like the Belmond, the Hotel Californian, the Four Seasons and, soon, a renovated San Ysidro Ranch; visit the region’s acclaimed vineyards and tasting rooms; walk through Santa Barbara’s diverse neighborhoods (my favorite: the eclectic and gritty Funk Zone); kayak in the stunning Channel Islands National Park; or dive into one of the country’s best food scenes (try the Lark, in the Funk Zone). Santa Barbara has survived. It shouldn’t be missed.

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