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.
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.
The road to Montecito gives such an enchanting view of Santa Barbara - a town of shopping arcades, theaters, and caf'es above a sleepy harbor - that I decided to make it a freeze-frame by lunching at the El Encanto Hotel, one of three splendid hotels recently renovated. A romantic French country inn, it offers a wide deck with outdoor dining that give it a Mediterranean feel and a fine view of the city and coastline. Santa Barbara's other hotels include the beachfront Biltmore, the San Ysidro Ranch, and the Red Lion Inn, a posh hostelry owned by actor Fess Parker, television's erstwhile Daniel Boone.
Next stop was West Cabrillo Boulevard, which runs for a few miles along wide public beaches. Jutting into the harbor is a pier with restaurants, parking, some art shops, and ice cream stores. There is also a paved walkway along the breakwater, with restaurants, shops, and tackle and supply stores.
Back in the car, I headed for my favorite curve of the scenic drive, the one that wraps high above the cliffs overlooking Leadbetter Beach, a good place for open-air walks and picnicking. From there, the road turns in to the Hope Ranch residential area, where some of Santa Barbara's most luxurious houses are nestled into rolling hills. The area includes a private country club designed around a landscaped lagoon.
The last curve of the scenic drive plops you back in town for the Red Tile Tour, where you follow the tiles on a walking tour to some of the city's interesting points. Besides the many Spanish-style adobe residences and structures, key points are the Presidio Gardens, the Museum of Natural History, and the El Paseo Arcade of fine jewelry and antiques stores.
The Red Tile Tour is touted as ``a walk through Old California,'' since many of the structures were built in the mid-1800s. Centerpiece of all is the County Courthouse, certainly one of the most beautiful public buildings in America. Built in 1925 for a cost of $1.5 million, it exemplifies the best of the Old Spanish architectural traditions. There are Islamic tiles, Romanesque windows, Byzantine arches decorated with angels, hand-wrought iron work, paintings, and leather-covered and brass-studded doors. Offices are still in use, and courts are in open session.
Before leaving town, I visited the small art museum and the rustic Historical Society museum. The former, with its reputation for exhibiting fine California artists, is now considered on a par with the more famous Laguna Beach museum.
In a bookstore, I found a title on celebrities living in Santa Barbara, most of whom enjoy it for its quiet manageability and human scale. Among them are chef Julia Child; actress Jane Fonda, who runs a summer camp for kids at a mountaintop retreat; and comedian Jonathan Winters. And of course, Ronald Reagan is the community's best-known resident, frequently visiting his ranch on Refugio Canyon Road, a half-hour north of town.
Among the things left to see on my next visit: the Zoological Gardens, and one of the 10 nurseries here specializing in orchids. Or I may just relax in the downtown park and gaze up at feather-duster palms and clean air.
If you go
For help in planning a trip, write or call the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau, PO Box 299, Santa Barbara, CA 93102; (805) 965-3021.