Cruising Santa Barbara in a Convertible Lincoln

After spending a few days by the river in the Sequoia National Forest, we scooted over to our next “homestay” in Santa Barbara. Join us as we visit friends in their newly (-ish) acquired digs and enjoy more of our roving retirement.

Go Gauchos!

As an alum of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), I look forward to any opportunity to see the campus and relive (in my mind, at least) my college years. Naturally, things have changed over the years. Enrollment has grown from 16K to 26K since I left. Open spaces on campus have succumbed to the “progress” of newer and more vertical buildings.

Most of the off-campus activity took place in the adjacent town of Isla Vista (IV). The history of IV and the community writ large is mirrored in the fate of a particular building. Built as a branch of the Bank of America, the building was burned during a riot in 1970 as campuses across the country were still engulfed in protests originating in the ’60s. By the time I arrived in the ’80s, UCSB was ranked as a Top 5 Party School nationwide. The Bank had become The Graduate, a nightclub sporting hourly drink specials: 5-for-1 from 7pm-8pm, 4-for-1 from 8pm-9pm, etc. Today, the building serves as yet another university-owned lecture hall. In a nutshell, IV morphed over the years from haven for protesters to Partytown USA to just an extension of campus. Oh well.

The University is Expanding

To keep pace with growing demand, the university has purchased buildings in IV. The old movie house is now a lecture hall. The massive 10-story twin towers of a former Holiday Inn Resort cum private dorm, Francisco Torres (FT), have been acquired to service university-managed housing. They have even built additional dorms nearby and moved the cafeteria from the dungeon-like basement to an airy, adjacent building. More pleasant and upscale, to be sure.

Erstwhile Francisco Torres party dorm

Even when I attended, IV was noted to be the densest housing west of the Mississippi. To address the greater need for housing, Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chair, grandfather to a Gaucho, and self-styled architect Charlie Munger has funded a $200M window-less dorm on campus. I suspect history will not be kind to Munger’s efforts, which some think will become a grand psychological experiment on unsuspecting freshmen.

The change is palpable. Where I could see remnants of the troubled past and the contemporary party-focus when I attended, the campus today is much more studious, reflecting greater educational stature and exclusiveness across all of the UC locations.

I used to head to one of the FT towers on a Saturday night, step in an elevator, and push every button. As the doors opened, I just picked a floor where the party looked inviting.

In their annual report of top party schools, Newsweek says UCSB has sunk to number 16. Gone are the days of the Fall Drinking Rugby Tournament and the Inter-Sorority Volleyball Tournament (on the beach). Even the legendary Halloween Party on Del Playa is no more. And now, a moment of silence.

Beachfront apartments on Del Playa

Alright, alright, alright!

Our host for our time in SB, my friend Joe was also a freshman roommate of mine in an off-campus dorm in IV. You may remember we ran into Joe and his wife Jane while sampling whiskeys in Inverness, Scotland. Santa Barbara bills itself as part of the “American Riviera”, a nod to some similarity to the area around Nice, our home-of-sorts on the French Riviera. As such, a tour is always in order.

Sometime before retiring from his position as a lawyer at Google, Joe acquired a maroon mint-condition 1965 Lincoln Continental Convertible. We had the great privilege of getting chauffeured with the top down by my own personal Lincoln Lawyer for a few hours one day. Cruising in the back of this magnificent automobile, my wistfulness of days past at the college was abated by the periodic fans adoring our ride.

After touring UCSB, we headed to nearby Hope Ranch, a community of beautiful, large estates where, frankly, a bunch of rich people live. We enjoy seeing how the very small fraction of the 1% live, even if it is a brief drive-by. Even the less affluent community of La Mesa next door was still quite impressive.

We finished our tour in Montecito, where Harry and Meghan have a modest, $15M bungalow. We chose to rent the lifestyle by indulging in some spendy seaside cocktails and light apps at the swanky Miramar hotel. Hey, our room was free, so why not? If you go, just look both ways when you cross the train track to get to the open-air bar. You wouldn’t want to get flattened by one of the 12 Amtrak trains passing daily.

Down By The Sea

Another day, we all decided to check out Stearns Wharf and the surrounding marina and beach. We scored some good parking by the marina and started walking. To my surprise, the Majestic Princess cruise ship was moored off-shore. Never had such a thing happened during my tenure in town. As usual, cruise ships get a mixed greeting in Santa Barbara. Merchants like the customers and locals say it leads to overcrowding. Buses were lined up to spirit patrons on land tours around the area.

Stearns Wharf hadn’t changed much. It’s still a pleasant walk to the end to take in the beach view heading south towards Montecito. Refreshments are available, even wine tasting. Just be mindful of the VERY uneven timbers that make up the road.

One notable change is the lesser amount of oil-tar present on the beach, leaked from the off-shore derricks visible in the distance. Apparently, they have gotten better at containing their effluent. Not a big problem during my college days, just a hassle. Still, I noted that the Miramar hotel provided some wipes for the tar in the bathroom that you are not likely to see elsewhere.

A Classic Remodel, Santa Barbara Style

We visited Joe and Jane not long before we became nomadic. They had just purchased an original condition 1940s house in the middle of Santa Barbara. Actually, not quite in its original condition. Some rather poor additions had been done. Three years and a covid remodel later, their house is a beautiful amalgam of old and new. We enjoyed our time in their hospitality very much.

The house is within walking distance from Upper State street, a location I will describe shortly. Many services are within walking distance, but the area is quiet at night. Nice digs. Even better, we were upgraded to a Modified American Plan, i.e. we got a couple of nice, home-cooked dinners. Joe’s ribs and steaks were perfectly done, and the wine selection was top-notch.

Visiting State Street

State Street is the main drag in Santa Barbara. It runs about 6 miles, straight out of Stearns Wharf. When locals simply refer to State Street, they are talking about the primary part in the center of downtown Santa Barbara. When I lived here, it was where most of the shops, bars, and restaurants were. Lower State was a bit more seedy and industrial and Upper State mostly services and neighborhood stores with a few restaurants.

The entire place has gentrified. Downtown now has some upscale shops and restaurants. Lower state has cleaned up and sports numerous wine bars, restaurants, and trendy hotels. Nice place to bang around for some fun. Upper State is still quiet, but more restaurants and high-end grocers have moved in. We had lunch out a couple of days. Wurst one day, birria tacos another. Life is good.

Opal and The Arlington

We opted to dine out on State one night at Opal. The food tasted good, but the preparation was a bit odd. My “paella” was chock full of seafood and it was delicious, but brothy paella doesn’t really exist in Spain. They would have been ridiculed. Further, Diana asked for halibut done rare, but it came to the table cold to the touch. Hapilly, it got fixed and we got comped a creme brulee desert.

Right next door was The Arlington Theatre, a grand dame from the great movie houses of the ’20s and ’30s. I enjoyed watching The Kinks play when I was young, so I went over to check out the outdoor foyer. Playing that night was King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard, apparently tuning up for their next gig at Coachella. I asked one of the concert-goers what the band was like. He said they played psychedelic rock and offered me a spare ticket. I would have gone, were I alone.

Where have you checked out impressive estates?

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  1. Thanks very much for spending a few days “cruising” with us. Your article and pictures did our wonderful little home town proud. Hopefully your readers will find Santa Barbara during their travels. Safe continued travels to you both.

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