So, I’ve done a little research, and it turns out Attorney General Gonzalez got his words mixed up: the word “quaint” is best defined by a little seaside town just south of Santa Barbara, not by prohibitions against torturing prisoners of war. (Silly Alberto!)
Fortunately, it’s hard to think politics when one is sipping a mimosa on Summerland Beach, or leisurely browsing the numerous antique shops that dot Lillie Avenue (Summerland’s commercial stretch). Which is partly what makes biking to Summerland on a Saturday one of my favorite easy vacation escapes. And with the Ortega Hill Bike Path completed, allowing riders to bypass narrow and steep Ortega Hill, the ride from Santa Barbara is as easy as it is gorgeous.
Perhaps we can thank the town’s unique history of ghosts and oil for the fact that a place quite aptly dubbed Summerland has largely managed to stave off what would seem like inevitable over-development, maintaining a population of just under 1,500 people and the least crowded beach in the Santa Barbara area. A rancher named Harry L. Williams founded Summerland in 1889, bringing with him a hearty interest in the supernatural. He is believed to have held numerous Spiritualist seances at his home, which is now the landmark Big Yellow House. As Williams and his cohorts attempted to commune with ghosts and spirits, the oil boom at the end of the 19th century threatened to destroy Summerland’s charm with its ugly drilling operations. Fortunately, today those operations are offshore – but rumors of supernatural haunts persist. For instance, in the Big Yellow House’s former restaurant, wait staff have alleged such oddities as giant cooking pots moving across the floor and one room that always remains cold, no matter the temperature in the rest of the building. Such phenomena are so numerous, in fact, that Rod Lathim documented them in his book The Spirit of the Big Yellow House.
Although several large estates have replaced the hippy cottages of the 1970s – and driven the median house value up to $1.3 million – Summerland’s lazy residential streets and quiet downtown have managed to mostly resist a gentrified atmosphere. Some of the area’s top eateries include the walkup 1950s diner Tinker’s Burgers – where even vegetarians like myself can enjoy grilled cheese and veggies burgers served with baskets of greasy fries, while meat eaters chow down on their famous fish tacos – and Stacky’s Seaside (2315 Lillie Ave.), which serves classic American fare on an outdoor patio filled with driftwood and buoys. For a slightly classier eating experience, try Cafe Luna (at the former site of Roger Durling’s Bulldog Cafe), which serves Middle Eastern food, paninis, gelato, and fresh baked pastries in an airy, cell-phone-free atmosphere. I’ve recently discovered that the flourless chocolate cakes, which taste more like giant truffles, are best eaten on the beach with a large iced coffee. The Big Yellow House restaurant, formerly one of Summerland’s big draws, has been temporarily closed since it was sold in 2006, allowing the new owners to remodel (read: attempt to drive out the ghosts).
And then there’s my personal favorite Summerland eating experience: grabbing a 40-ounce Corona and a bag of potato chips from Sandpiper Liquor and retiring to the secluded beach with a good book.
But posh experiences are in no short order at Summerland. If one’s idea of a summer daytrip involves drinking cucumber water while receiving a mani-pedi, Amarra and Belleza Vita spas will gladly make your dreams come true (for a price). And Summerland Winery’s $6 tastings of fine wines grown throughout the Central Coast are the perfect prelude to an afternoon nap on the beach. Shoppers in need of home furnishings or artwork frequent Lillie Ave.’s numerous antique shops, Just Folk – a gallery of American folk art, or Botanik, which offers succulents, orchids, green tea soap, and other luxuries.
My favorite shop to peruse (which is all I do, considering that my writing income has not yet hit the triple digits) is the Summerland Antique Collective, two buildings filled with everything from vintage board games, massive vases and mirrors, and hanging lanterns, to fine silver, baby carriages, and cases of gem-studded jewelry.
Bird lovers will delight in a stop into McLeod Parrot Menagerie (2430 Lillie Ave., 969-1944), whose back patio feels like a small tropical rainforest – that is, if wild tropical birds knew how to speak English. In addition to selling homemade bird food and other avian goods, the menagerie hosts a Birdie Bagel Brunch on the first Sunday of every month, in which birds and humans gather to eat and talk – or squawk, as the case may be.
But the true star of Lillie Ave. is The Sacred Space, a mostly outdoor store filled with “items of meaning” that owners Jack and Rose Herschorn have discovered in their travels around the world. The Herschorns seem to view this space as much more than a store, as they invite passersby to sit in their gardens, read or write, and sip cappuccinos. Surrounded by Buddha statues nestled in bananas trees, a goldfish pond, and trickling fountains, one feels worlds away from the hum of Highway 101 – audible from just about everywhere else in Summerland.
As State Street becomes packed with corporate chains and increasingly expensive sidewalks, we Santa Barbarans are fortunate to have a place so close to home where we can go to bask in the true meaning of the word “quaint”.