Friday, May 23, 2008

Santa Barbara

On Thursday morning, May 15, we continued up the California coast for a quick stop in Santa Barbara on our way to Big Sur. Santa Barbara is known for being a wealthy community in a beautiful location. It seemed like it would be nice to see, but we didn’t plan to linger long.

Our first stop of the day was the visitors center, which is located on a drive along the waterfront. The helpful lady there gave us a map of the Red Tile walk through the central area of town as well as a Sideways map. The movie Sideways was filmed in Santa Barbara wine country, and apparently touring the movie locations is a popular activity in the area.

The Red Tile walk starts at the courthouse, where you can ascend the bell tower (for free, even!) and view the city from above. Santa Barbara is indeed picturesque – located between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. After an earthquake in 1925 wiped out many buildings, a strict building code required new structures to be Mediterranean-styled. In addition, the streets are all impeccably clean and the vegetation well manicured.

Here’s a look at the bell tower:

The view looking out over the city at the Santa Ynez Mountains:

A closer look at the red-tile roofs:

The green of the courthouse courtyard nicely complemented the white and red buildings.

On the second floor of the courthouse, there was a large room with walls completely covered in murals showing various scenes of local historical relevance. A sign outside the room invited visitors to come in and take photos, even if there was a meeting going on. Here’s one of the murals:

Much of the interior of the building was tiled with colorful Mediterranean tiles. This hallway was a bit more subdued, but offered good views of the courtyard below.

Back downstairs, we stepped out into the courtyard. Despite the impeccable appearance, it was refreshingly free of “Keep Off” signs. In one corner, a man juggled; in another corner, several people lounged on the stairs.

After the courthouse, we strolled through the rest of the tour, enjoying the pleasant weather and nice surroundings. There were several museums and a historical park along the way, but we decided to skip them so we’d have more time in other places later in the day. We did stop to browse at a book sale and picked up some more reading material – not that we really needed it, given that we usually keep ourselves too busy to have much time to read.

Leaving Santa Barbara, we detoured inland to Santa Barbara wine country. The drive along winding roads passed golden hills dotted with trees as well as a number of vineyards. The number of wineries and vineyards in the area has exploded due to the popularity of Sideways.

Our first stop was the Gainery estate winery. Not really knowing anything about the myriad wineries to differentiate them, we chose the one that had a coupon for two free tastings in the Red Tile walk brochure. By this point, the temperature was well into the 90s and we were happy to step inside for a wine tasting, though the picnic area looked like it would be inviting on a somewhat cooler day.

After the wine tasting there (which covered an amazing nine different varieties!), we went to the Firestone winery hoping to catch a tour. As it turns out, we arrived five minutes before the last tour of the day. What timing!

We were the only people on the tour. We learned about wine making in general as well as the history of this particular winery. We discovered that estate wineries are wineries where the grapes are grown onsite. The vintner decides when it is time to pick the grapes for a particular wine. Once the decision is made, a full-scale effort is mounted to pick all the grapes for that wine in the same morning. This helps ensure consistency in the wine’s flavor.

Moving along through the tour, we passed the barrel room, where wine is aged. This room is prominently featured in one scene in Sideways. Most of the barrels were standard-sized but there were several huge barrels.

The last stop on the tour was a museum-like room with an assortment of family photos and photos from the early days of the winery. Until recently, the winery was owned by the Firestone family (known primarily for Firestone tires). One photo from the 1930s showed Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, George Eastman, Charles Schwab, and several other prominent men from that era. In more recent years, the Firestone family is known for less business-like pursuits, as Andrew Firestone was a recent bachelor on ABC’s The Bachelor.

You’d think that after all this sightseeing and touring, we’d have had a full day already. However, we still did lots before calling it a night. From the Firestone winery, we drove the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail road through a rural pastoral area. There were many farms picking what appeared to be strawberries.

Next, we stopped in San Luis Obispo for the evening farmers’ market. The farmers’ market was truly a sight to behold. Situated on a street of modern chain stops (ala the Gap, Banana Republic, etc.), there were a huge number of booths. One section was entirely farmers selling fresh produce. The other section had a wide selection of dinner options and a surprising number of political tents.

Right at 6 pm, there was a long line for this one barbeque place. The cooks started singing a patriotic tune and clanging pots, and then they were open for business. The whole market was bustling, but this place had a huge line. We decided that it must be good and jumped in line too.

When we tired of wandering through the market, we drove out to MontaƱa de Oro state park to camp for the night. The campground was nicely located across the street from a beach, where we were treated to yet another stunning sunset.

Very shortly after sunset, we were in our tent, sleeping in preparation for our morning tour at Hearst Castle the next day.

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