The fine folks of Santa Barbara refer to their sunny sweep of coastline as the American Riviera. Initially, I was dubious of this claim, and questioned their audacity to compare themselves with Nice, Cannes, and Saint-Tropez along that other more famous Riviera. Now, after a couple of weeks here, I must admit that they have a pretty good case.
To begin with, this time of year the Mediterranean climate here is even nicer than Nice. Due to a comfortable and moderating onshore breeze, Santa Barbara boasts an average October high temperature of 72.8 degrees (22.7o C) and a low of 59.6 degrees (15.3o C), with only 1.7 days of rain.
The fair weather conditions along the French and American Rivieras are due to their comparable topographies, where slightly inclined shorelines are sandwiched between high mountains and level seas. Santa Barbara itself lies on a narrow coastal plain squeezed between the soaring camel-colored sandstone of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sparkling blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Santa Barbara is also situated in the center of the longest stretch of south-facing coastline on the west coast of the United States. The resultant acute angle of the sun’s offshore rays imparts a unique quality of pastel light that might have inspired Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, or Henri Matisse.
Reminiscent of a coastal town in the south of France, a pedestrian promenade along Cabrillo Boulevard lined with palm trees connects Santa Barbara’s downtown beaches with its active marina. The beaches resonate a wholesome and healthy California quality rather than the chic and sexy vibe of Saint-Tropez. And, as on the French Riviera, sail boats, fishing vessels, and cruise ships also ply the offshore waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.
To further its southern European charm, Santa Barbara has adopted Spanish Colonial Revival as its official architectural style. After a devastating 1925 earthquake, the city decided to rebuild in this unified design consisting of whitewashed buildings with terra cotta rooves, richly-colored wood trim, and ornate wrought iron and decorative azulejo tile embellishments.
As resort destinations, the French and American Rivieras also share a popularity with celebrities and well-to-do tourists. A walk down State Street reveals chic boutiques, art galleries, cafes and fine restaurants. Like Cannes younger sibling, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival also draws movie premiers and luminaries from around the world.
Speaking of movies, oenophiles will remember the 2004 movie Sideways, which was set in the wine country of the Santa Ynez Valley just outside Santa Barbara. As the movie title implies, Sideways might refer to the transverse, east-to-west orientation of the coastal valley, the reclined position of a wine bottle when cellared, or the askew condition one finds oneself after a day in the tasting rooms.
Whether it’s the first-rate wines, mild Mediterranean climate, or azure seas lapping onto its alluring downtown beaches, the Santa Barbara coast does bear an uncanny resemblance to its more illustrious French cousin. After careful consideration, I am convinced that the fine folks of Santa Barbara are spot-on, rightly referring to their homeland as the American Riviera.