Friday, 11 November 2011

Onto Santa Barbara

Balboa Park with the ducks
We spent the next four days with the family, taking Lily for a spin around Balboa Park to stare at the ducks, the passers by, the trees etc! She does a lot of staring and "weighing things up"! We love it when she follows you to the loo/bedroom/kitchen, crawling all the way, and then peeping around the doorway, to see what you're up to. She's not walking yet, but has taken a few cautious steps, and she stands momentarily, when she's got her hands full, and is quite firm, so it looks like it won't be long before she's off!
We went to a Trader Joes, a bit like Chatsworth farm shop full of grumpy Americans, possibly because it was raining and chilly. In fact it bucket ted it down that weekend! On the way back, Lizzy was just warning us that they can't drive in the rain over here, possibly because it doesn't happen very often, and they're rubbish at stopping distances, drive too fast, don't indicate etc! Just as she'd finished this warning, the car behind us rammed into the back of us, with such a force that it left her licence plate fixed into the bumper of our rental car!
We packed again and set off north, to Santa Barbara. We spent our first two nights away in the Holiday Inn Express in Downtown, just off State St, and within a short walk of the sea-front. We arrived in time to walk to the end of Stearns Wharf and have, what turned out to be, the best seafood in town. We were both bowled over by this "crab shack". Superb fresh shellfish cooked right in front of us, whilst we sat having a beer and watching the skilled chefs at work. It was a bit chilly, but sunny, so the heat of the cookers made us feel cosy and warm. We loved it so much, we went back the following day, having watched what others were ordering and asking questions about the menu. Ian tried abalone, local delicacy, which he said tasted sweet and crab-like, and he said that the sauce was amazing. I had something called "cioppino", which seemed to be a favourite- a large bread roll, hollowed out and filled with clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp, cooked in a marinara sauce, topped with what seemed like half a crab, which I adventurously broke and poked which the various instruments I was given, but in the end came to the conclusion that it wasn't really worth the effort! But the rest of it was fantastic!
Santa Barbara
The whole eating experience in Santa Barbara was superb, with a sample dish at the Palace Grill, which did Martinis flavoured with marinating bell peppers, and the best mini-muffins, flavoured with rosemary, others with black molasses etc. I bought a recipe book from them to try out at home. Their blackened catfish was fantastic, and we both said we'd go again. Having spent a lot that day we said we'd do much cheaper the day after, and went to The Brewhouse, for beers and quesadillas, and for Ian, lamb burger and fries. Again great inexpensive food, sitting in a bar, surrounded by locals watching a soccer match. Great atmosphere, and would go again.
The main street, State St, is full of attractive shops, chafes, and bars on either side. Nice for browsing, but it seemed expensive and classy. The best experience on offer was an early morning trip to their famous court-house, which at 85ft high is one of the tallest buildings in the area, giving you amazing views over the city, out to the Pacific and the Channel Islands, the nearest and largest being Santa Cruz, and views up to the Santa Barbara hills. Absolutely beautiful. Hard to believe you are only less than two hours away from the concrete blocks of Northridge. The courthouse is surrounded by beautiful, lush gardens, set out in Spanish-Moorish style, as is the influence on the construction of the building itself. After the great earthquake of 1925, it was built over a steel frame, with concrete beams inside, painted and decorated as if wooden. The walls are hollow. The ceilings are stunningly painted in Moorish style, with massive wrought-iron chandeliers. Tiles from Tunisia and Spain add to the colour. A very helpful receptionist encouraged us to explore the second floor, where there are magnificent murals all around the court-room, depicting the history of the city, from the native Chumash tribes, to the Spanish, to becoming a Californian city. It is still an active courthouse, with business on-going, so you have to be mindful of this when exploring, but you are encouraged to wander. Michael Jackson appeared here, when he was accused of being over-fond of children!
Unusual Postbox?Where's the flap?
We cycled along the coast bike path, around to the marina, and it was lovely to see a coastal route without the usual shops, just natural beauty. Ian went for a cycle on the mountain road into the hills, with fabulous villas perched on the hillside overlooking the sea. After a walk in Rattlesnake Canyon, following a stream, we drove along the mountain road in search of a curious mailbox- a cyclist with a post box in his pants!
Then we were off on the drive up to Solvang, along the Camino Real historic road, which hugs the coast and then veers towards the Santa Ynez mountains, and the wine-growing areas of Santa Ynez, Santa Maria and Santa Rita. Solvang is a kitschy, faux-Danish, theme-parky kind of town, but to be fair to it, it is a relaxing, pretty, tree-lined town, only two hours away from the hub-bub and noise of Los Angeles. A completely different place with a feel of Europe, where you can buy Danish pastries and Danish products. It was founded in 1911 by Danish settlers, complete with windmills! Great wines include Pinot Noir and Syrah varietals. We went for a great meal of Tomatillo soup and Steak. We stayed at a comfortable hotel, the Wine Valley Inn. The weather was cold but sunny, almost down to freezing, the first night. Ian went on a 50mile cycle ride into Ballard Canyon and Foxen Canyon wine growing areas, and I visited a recommended patchwork fabric shop in Buellton. An indifferent pizza meal, and then back to the hotel for a glass of wine with a couple from Los Angeles, who worked in a prison! Interesting talking to them about state health care and abuses of the system! In bed for 9pm, having been up early again!
Santa Maria Valley

Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley
The following morning was fine but chilly at about 8deg! We cycled along the vineyard route on the Santa Rosa road, past farms and several vineyards, for about 18 miles in total. The scenery was bleached and dry, and the sky was grey, so we didn't see what is described in the guide as the most stunning route in the area, at its best. Better to come back on a sunny Spring day and repeat it. There's an attractive RV park nearby, and the patchwork shop's really close, so we'll be returning!
Just one thing- we're both finding cycling on borrowed mountain bikes really difficult. They're great for dirt roads and rough terrain, but heavy-duty burdens on roads! Can't wait to get back on our road bikes!

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