Oh Willie Nelson. Without the silver-haired old geezer and his compatriots John “Rocky Mountain” Denver and Mr. Graceland Paul Simon, road trips never would’ve been the same as a kid. Despite my being a wee little one when my parents drove cross country in our rust-colored sleeper van, I can’t listen to Willie or John without thinking of my Care Bear-toting days, and Paul Simon’s tunes remind me of trips to DC to visit our family friends during school breaks.
I haven’t taken many of my own true road trips as an adult. (I’m a New Yorker: I prefer trains and planes to automobiles. Or my own two feet—or two wheels.) But being that I’m in California, one cannot escape the car. (Though, I did willingly take the 704 bus from Santa Monica to Silver Lake, yesterday. Took 1 hour and 40 minutes, but only cost me a buck fifty!)
Last week I put the pedal to the metal (if one can do that in a totally unsexy rented Chevy Impala) to visit Santa Barbara. My friend Clare, who I saw Shakespeare in Stratford Upon Avon with and who kindly cleared her couch for me post-exchange in London, was headed there on business and she invited me to tag along. Clare doesn’t have a US or UK driver’s license, so I had to take the wheel.
Since she had to work during the day, I was pretty much on my own to wander about, and I had two full days to do so. Santa Barbara can totally be done without a car—yet I had one, so I sorta felt compelled to use it. Since we had gotten a good lay of the land on foot our first night, during which we wandered down State Street to the beach path and over to Brophy Bros. for clams with a side of chowder (it was that chunky!) and oyster shooters, I thought I’d take advantage of the pre-paid gas and go beyond the walkable radius of the city.
My first stop was La Super Rica for “the best taco in Santa Barbara.” Or so says Julia Child who declared it so, hence why foodies the world over descend on this blue shack-like spot for some caliente Mexican mouthfuls.
As I waited on line pondering all the choices (pork, steak, veggie, chicken, cheese, etc. etc.) I noticed a cute guy…who looked strangely familiar. Like I had seen him on TV just the other night… Is that Ted…from How I Met Your Mother!? (Josh Radnor, also the writer/director the fantastic Happythankyoumoreplease.) It was! I so badly wanted to talk to him, but refused to be that Silly Fan Girl, instead hoping he’d see me and think I was more of that Totally Cool Cute Girl (who “digs” tacos) that he might want to ask out on a date. Sadly, neither happened, but seeing him with his bro-pack (dude was rolling with a group 7-deep!) while eating these truly “super” tacos only made the experience more authentic and tasty.
Following lunch, I stopped by the Santa Barbara Mission for a quick peek, then I decided to head further north to the towns of Solvang and Los Olivos, which is when things got…interesting.
As I mentioned (several times, sorry!) I’m just not accustomed to driving. That’s not to say I’m not a bad driver. I just don’t do it often. So much so that when the guy at the rental car place asked me what kind of car I wanted, I looked at him and honest-to-God wanted to say, “One with four wheels and an automatic ignition.” Of course, once I settled on the most basic, boat-of-a-vehicle, I realized bluetooth would’ve been nice. That and A/C that blasted actual cold air. Oh well. Off I went, with nearly 52% battery on my iPhone, which I had to rely on for directions (but couldn’t plug in), lest I have to look at a map or scribbled notes on a piece of paper instead of the road. (The horror! How ever did we do it before?!)
The concierge at my hotel described the ride through the Santa Ynez Mountains as majestic and beautiful. He failed to mention that Highway 154 was curvy and one-lane in each direction without any shoulders or exits for miles.
Cue the deep ujjayi breathing while simultaneously fussing with radio (hello 1994!) and deciding whether to drive with the windows open or closed due to the ill-working A/C.
I stuck with it, though, and even managed to pull over to see this sick view.
Eventually, I came to the town of Solvang, known as Little Denmark. My friend Saryn urged me to go, plus I’m still in the midst of a love affair with Europe so figured it’d be cool to get a taste closer to home. Turns out, not so much. It just felt…weird. Minutes earlier I had been driving through the Santa Ynez Mountains, surrounded by clearly American landscape, and then suddenly I’m standing in front of a windmill and walking in and out of Middle-Age, tudor-like buildings with clogs for sale in the storefront windows.
I walked around for a bit, but wasn’t feeling the kitschiness of it. It just felt…forced. Maybe I didn’t give it enough time. I don’t know. So I kept on and decided to drive another 5 miles north to the town of Los Olivos. Luckily, the road there was much less claustrophobic and featured a landscape so breathtaking I pulled over twice to take photos.
By the time I got to Los Olivos, the sun was setting and much of the stores and wineries were closed. Which is to say, the whole town was pretty much empty. Still, I liked it. It was like Fire Island meets Montauk, but in the mountains with a “main street” the length of Bleecker. Or half of it. It seemed just the right amount of rustic with a side of contemporary cool.
Back in Santa Barbara, which was about 45 minutes south—I took Highway 1 this time—I met Clare and her colleague for really, really ridiculously good-tasting sushi at Arigato (The No 2. resto in all of Santa Barbara, so says Trip Advisor!) We had rolls with mango and jalapeno, and perfect ceviche, but my favorite was the Mediterraneo roll with artichoke, avocado, asparagus, pine nuts, sundried tomato and soy pesto. Consider it a bite of Italy rolled in cold rice. Bellissimo!
The following day, I stayed closer to Santa Barbara, but ventured to Lotus Land, a 37-acre private garden residence in Montecito, once owned by the vivacious, outlandish socialite-cum-opera singer Ganna Walska. I had made a reservation the day prior, as that’s the only way to come in because of the private, suburban community it’s located in. You’re also not able to roam the property yourself, and are therefore relegated to a guided, two-hour tour. But I didn’t mind being led, and, in fact, I hung onto the docent’s every word about this fascinating woman who had six husbands, lots and lots of money and a deep affinity for…plants. There was a Japanese garden, a succulent garden, an aloe garden, a fern garden, orchards and roses and, of course, lotus’s, which were “sleeping” for the season. Still, the scents, the sights, the textures of the plants—from fuzzy to prickly to silky—were intoxicating.
After Lotus Land, I waited for Clare to join me down in what’s known as Santa Barbara’s “Funk Zone,” a two or three block area near the water where murals cover walls, surfers wax their boards and half-a-dozen wineries offer flights, tastings and live music. We hopped from one to another and woke up the next morning totally confused by why we were so parched.
While I spent the weekend making up for all that car (and booze) time by riding a bike—specifically 15 miles from Santa Monica to Hermosa Beach and back with my sister—I am headed back in the car today. But this time I’ll mostly be riding shotgun on a drive up north with my college roommate Lauren who is moving from LA to Oregon for a new job that starts on Monday. Our plan is to not have a plan, other than to take in the magic of Big Sur with a stop off at Esalen for a soak and a massage and seeing some people in San Fran. I hope to do lots of reading and writing and not worrying about whether there’s WiFi.
I can’t say for sure what’ll be the soundtrack to this road trip, but thankfully Lauren’s ride has Satellite Radio and is equipped for iPods, iPhones and the like. Regardless, I can’t wait to get on the road again…
Oh! One more thing. I’m up for a possible column on SheKnows.com, for which I’ll write about my “expertise”—yoga, shopping and traveling. Winning requires my getting a lot of votes, so if you’d be so kind and to vote for me (once a day!) between now and Friday, that’d be the tops! Merci.