Sleep, Eat, Drink, Massage…rinse and repeat. That was the mantra for our recent Independence Weekend getaway after a flurry of personal and professional activity and frantic 1st half of the year – pure rest and relaxation is what we were looking for. The determining factors for our quick getaways – how long will it take to travel round trip and how much quality time will we have to enjoy our destination? Santa Barbara & the Funk Zone, for the third time in the last four summers came out as our destination of choice and, for the third time in as many visits, didn’t disappoint.
Here’s how we do it and some of our favorite recommendations:
It all starts with the mode of travel. Any that have spent time in Southern California know that you can pretty much read a book, do your nails or solve the mysteries of the space-time continuum while sitting behind the wheel in Orange County and LA traffic. And, yet, it’s not nearly as sedentary or relaxing a condition as it sounds. Los Angeles traffic only serves to ratchet up the stress level coming and going, negating any positive stress reducing benefits of spending a weekend anywhere that involves traveling through it.
Our discovery of the Amtrak Surfliner a few years ago, which makes several stops throughout the San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and the South Central Coastal areas all the way up to Goleta, took L.A. traffic out of the equation and is pretty much the game changer that put regular trips to Santa Barbara on our can-do list. With free parking at the Oceanside terminal, the 4 1/2 hour train trip is only slightly longer than the drive would be, with the bonus of being able to nap, sip on a Bloody Mary or glass of wine, read a book and enjoy some beautiful coastal scenery along the way.
Pro- tip: spend the additional $20 per person and reserve business class, which comes with reserved upper level seating, charging outlets, full reclining chairs, foot rests, snacks and a beverage (including wine) of your choice. There is also a deli car on the train for affordable refills on food and drink. Total roundtrip fare – $86 coach, $126 business class – more than the cost of driving, but well worth the absence of traffic and stress. So, while actual minutes in transit might be slightly greater, this factor is more than favorably balanced by the added low stress time that’s gained by skipping over traffic.
Our first visit to Santa Barbara in ’13 introduced us to a brand new area called the Funk Zone. At the time, it was about 3 months old and a block large with a couple of restaurants, a brewery, a distillery and one or two wine tasting rooms. It has since grown to include more tasting rooms and restaurants than you can handle in a weekend, art galleries, a 3 level vintage store and about 7 or 8 square blocks. If drinking, eating and chilling out a block or two from some of the best central coast views available holds any allure for you, the Funk Zone’s gonna be your thing.
The rest of your time you’ll likely spend at various locations throughout the Lower State Street and downtown Santa Barbara area, strolling and enjoying 72 degree, slightly overcast Central Coast summer weather. Over several visits we’ve not been disappointed by visits to the Reagan Ranch Center, the historic Santa Barbara Courthouse and Bell Tower and Stearns Wharf. Honestly, though, we don’t go to Santa Barbara for the culture, history or sightseeing as much as for re-energizing through Sleep, Eat, Drink, Massage…
Santa Barbara seems like the perfect type of town (small, quaint, decent sized population) to get in some cool, artsy, funky, craft-type shopping. Frankly, though, the shopping scene, at least in the areas we’ve frequented, is a bit of a disappointment. There’s the Paseo Nuevo shopping center on State Street, which is a fairly average outdoor shopping mall and there are some touristy shops lining 3/4 mile or so of Lower State Street on both sides.
Other than that, there is a cool three story vintage store called The Blue Door in the Funk Zone which is worth an hour or so of browsing time. While Fluffy Unicorn gets in her requisite browsing and shopping time, I head over to get my man time at a great people watching venue – La Aroma De Havana Cigar Lounge, who are also currently applying for their wine and beer license, which means next trip, they’ll pretty much the lone contender for my go-to afternoon resting spot honors.
We had briefly considered a tour of Santa Barbara wine country on this visit, since we’ve never visited the valley before, but…only briefly. We were there to relax and, let’s face it, even if we sprung for a private tour, tasting rooms can turn into a crowded mess in a hurry and we had other things to do on our brief stay like, ummm – Sleep, Eat, Drink, Massage…I feel like I’ve said that before.
Besides, there are a ton of tasting rooms that do a great job of representing the distinct wines, varietals and AVA’s of Santa Barbara’s unique transverse valley in the Funk Zone. Done and doner…
One of our favorites is The Valley Project, not just because of the extremely cool mural on the wall and the excellent, informative literature they provide on what exactly a transverse valley and AVA is, but for their very tasty, slightly dry rose’. Andrew, the sommelier, who happened to remember us from last year, is also extremely knowledgeable in a surfer dude wearing a collared shirt kind of way. That’s a good thing.
In fact, you’ll find that most of the places you go in Santa Barbara don’t just serve wine…they KNOW wine. And, not in that Napa/Sonoma, treading toward pretentious “I know more than you, so I’m better” fashion, but more in a laid back Ocean Beach/Leucadia/Oceanside, “Hey, bro, let’s share a glass and see if we can figure out what’s so good about it” kind of way, which makes you feel like you’re one of the “in the know” cool kids. Suffice it to say you can throw a rock and find good wine and good people to share it with in the Funk Zone.
If you’re in the mood for something a little stiffer than wine, Cutler’s Distillery was one of the charter businesses in the Funk Zone. They’re a must drop in for me on every visit. $10 gets you an across the board tasting of their several varieties of whisky, bourbon, gin and vodka – bring someone to lean against on the way out, cause it’s about 5-6 shots of goodness you’re wolfing down. Fluffy Unicorn gets a bottle of their Apple Pie whisky every trip and it’s usually gone by the time we get home…not really, but let a bro dream…
Seafood in Santa Barbara – that’s the deal. It’s not that San Diego and other places on the West Coast don’t have good seafood, but there’s something about Santa Barbara that seems to make it taste a littler fresher and brighter. The Santa Barbara Shellfish Company at the end of Stearn’s Wharf is a must visit if only for the experience of having a 5 lb. cooked to order spider crab placed in front of you. With other fresh out of the live tank options such as sea urchin, dungeness and rock crab, depending on the season, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
They also consistently have some of the best and briny oysters I’ve had south of San Francisco. Get there early, they open at 11:00. By 12:00, expect a wait of 15-20 minutes for a seat. All of the seafood is prepared fresh, so at peak hours expect to spend a couple of hours between waiting and eating. Totally worth it.
The Lark was the Funk Zone’s original sit down, upscale restaurant. They specialize in local, fresh and seasonal ingredients and, over all of our visits, have yet to disappoint. They garner an automatic spot on our dining schedule every visit to the area. Get the deviled eggs to start…’nuff said.
I had been asking at wine tasting rooms all afternoon about a little spot we had found off of State Street in 2013 that specialized in French and European wines, to no avail. I could remember the arched front windows and the tall wine bar, but not the name. It wasn’t all too surprising that no one remembered or that it might not be around anymore, considering the explosive popularity of the Funk Zone over the last few years, which has brought a lot of new people and businesses into the local industry.
As we were walking toward the Black Sheep, one of the new, highly touted restaurants in the area, things started to look familiar. It wasn’t until we were seated for a few minutes that the tall bar and the arched front windows registered in my crab-sized brain. A quick questioning of our server confirmed that the the owner’s brother had run a wine bar from the same location for about 6 months in 2013. I’m probably one of 3 people that remember it…too much time on my hands.
Anyways, Chef Robert (pronounced the French way – Ro-Bear) Perez, is doing some cool stuff combining classical French technique with latinesque flavors and seasonal, local ingredients. The tasting menu is off the hook, crazy good and the best deal in town at $45 per person. Include a glass of wine and you’re around $100 for enough food to choke a T-Rex…and it’s damn good, too.
Lure Fish House – If you’re having trouble remembering the night before, come here, because happy hour starts at 11:30 on Sundays…you can get an early start on forgetting the new day. Seafood selections both cooked and raw are fantastic and, at happy hour prices, a steal, ringing in at under $100 for two with multiple cocktails including some killer Bloody Mary’s and 6 courses of hand selected food.
And, when I say hand selected, I mean I lifted my had to point at what we wanted.
Handlebar Coffee – This place has espresso that reminded me of Blue Bottle in San Francisco, but more velvety, a bit fuller and smoother with an even finish, similar to unsweetened chocolate. Spend 1/2 hour or so at the outdoor patio enjoying some extremely light and flaky pastries, a cup or two of the coffee product of your choice and watch just about every bicyclist in the area join you – turns out the owners are former professional bicycle racers.
During our first visit in ’13, we checked out The Simpson House Inn. It’s about the coolest B & B I’ve ever stayed in, the site of a Victorian estate built in 1874. They serve only vegetarian breakfasts here.
I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing when we stayed there – Sure, I’ll have a bite or two of vegetarian and then go into town for some real food. So wrong on so many different levels. I couldn’t get enough of the food here – it was creamy, rich, luscious and full of flavor.
In fact, the best thing they can probably do here is stop telling people it’s vegetarian. No one cares after they taste the food. A complimentary 5:00 p.m. wine and cheese hour helps round out the day and get you ready for dinner.
The Wayfarer is a hostel/hotel that we stayed in last year. There are community dorm rooms for backpackers and those on a streamlined budget and very affordable private guest rooms, which is what we opted for. It’s new, clean, well run, just across State Street from the train station and in the middle of the happenings at the Funk Zone. A large community kitchen just off the lobby is available for guests to use for meal preparation.
Our accommodations this trip were at the Hotel Santa Barbara, which is in the thick of things on Lower State Street. It’s an older building with a cool/funky/sketchy elevator that will give you minutes and minutes of enjoyment figuring out how to open the doors. We used it once so that we could say we did, but otherwise used the stairs, which were far more predictable. Room rates here are reasonable, especially considering the complimentary continental breakfast in the lobby each morning. Its central location makes getting around a breeze.
Santa Barbara Salt Cave – It sounded like a great idea, the big splurge of our weekend – a 90 minute couples salt massage in a private, underground (albeit man-made) Himalayan salt cave, followed by a 45 minute “meditation” session in “zero gravity chairs” for a little over $300 + tip. The only problem was, there was 15 minutes of waiting, followed by a 60 minute massage, followed by 45 minutes of waiting, followed by 45 minutes in a reclining lawn lounger. All the while listening to some weird rhythmic chanting that felt more like blunt force trauma when I dozed off for a couple of minutes only to be awakened by Fluffy Unicorn because I was snoring. Dammit, woman, I paid good money to snore in here! She didn’t think the other 10 people in the room paid enough to listen to me snore, I guess.
Relaxing Station – If I had my way, this would be the Relaxation Station – sounds more lyrical. But, name aside, this is the best deal in town for a massage. It’s surprisingly quiet for being located in the middle of things on State Street. $35 will get you a 60 minute full body, foot, chair or any combination thereof massage. We had one after dinner on one night and another the next morning – both for quite a bit less than the grand total at the salt cave.
The plan on the train ride home – drink a Bloody Mary, take a nap and arrive refreshed with a short drive home and a well deserved pat on the back for carrying out a finely executed no-stress, restful getaway. Nope. Instead it was drink a Bloody Mary, then a glass of wine, then get a sandwich, discuss what we will do differently (or not) on our next visit, try to take a nap, have another glass of wine, then go hang out with some friends to watch the fireworks. Yikes, no wonder I’m still so tired. Hopefully you’ll have better luck. Cheers, my friends!