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Try a Santa Barbara spree. Sheltered, coastal town is ideal for weekend visit

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 11, 1988

Santa Barbara, Calif.

THE best place to savor Santa Barbara's white-washed mission architecture, feather-duster palms, and red-tile romance, is right in the center of town. Climb up to the Andalusian-Spanish clock tower of the County Courthouse, and look north and then south to see what geological gifts give Santa Barbara its hospitable climate. One feature is the Santa Ynez mountains, the only coastal East-West range from Alaska to Chile, which lifts this quiet city of 75,000 above the cool curve of coastline and tilts it so that it receives a full-day arc of sun. Another feature can be seen out beyond the oil platforms that punctuate the deep sea beyond the pier and breakwater - the Channel Islands.

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Twenty-five miles off the coast, these islands provide protection from wind and weather, just as the 90 miles of coastline between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles provide a buffer from L.A.'s hordes and smog. Shake all these ingredients with a 1925 earthquake that resulted in a rebuilding of downtown, add in the fact that there's been zero-growth since the 1950s, and you have a protected, inviting, elite kind of city.

Santa Barbara was under Spanish and Mexican rule from 1782 until 1846. But the easterners who flocked here after Californian independence tore down most of the adobe structures. It wasn't until the 1925 earthquake leveled the town that Pearl Chase, founder of Santa Barbara's Architectural Board of Review, pushed for laws favoring the ``mission-revival'' style.

For a one- or two-day visit, Santa Barbara is the perfect, bite-size destination. An official at the Convention and Tourism Bureau says visitors come for two main reasons: to see the wealth of horticulture and the early-California mission architecture; that is, besides the beaches and unruffled atmosphere.

Visitors can explore the town on organized walking or auto tours. Those who have lots of time may like to visit the neighboring vineyards and surrounding communities.

To get the lay of the land on my overnight visit, I drove the 30-mile ``Scenic Drive'' labeled with blue signs that are cued to maps available from the chamber of commerce. The drive goes high above town, wraps through neighboring Montecito (a bedroom community for L.A. celebrities), runs along the ocean around Hope Ranch, and circles back to town.

The highlight is the drive itself, with its 15 numbered stops that offer wonderful vistas framed by eucalyptus trees. The owner of my bed-and-breakfast drew asterisks on my map next to her recommended stops, all of which I took.

Of course, you can't be a tourist and not visit Mission Santa Barbara, the ``Queen of Missions,'' built by Franciscan friars in 1786. Still used as a parish church, it also houses exhibitions on early Franciscan life and two lush courtyards brimming with statuary. A $1 tour takes about 15 minutes.

Next up the road is the 60-acre Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens, nestled in the nape of the Santa Ynez foothills. Dirt paths take you past all-native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and cactuses. There is also an historic dam built by the Indians in 1806 under the direction of the mission padres.