In Montecito, Bask in California Glamour
For nearly a century, America’s upper echelons have found a refuge in this leafy, intimate and private community along the American Riviera. Here’s why.
A two-hour drive from Los Angeles and a nudge east from Santa Barbara, coastal Montecito is one of America’s most affluent communities and home to household names like Oprah Winfrey, Ellen Degeneres and Rob Lowe. Yet, luxury in this well-heeled neighborhood is not opulent, ostentatious or extravagant.
“There’s a casual, understated elegance about Montecito,” says Jennifer Smith Hale, a resident and the publisher of Santa Barbara Magazine. “You can’t find it anywhere else, not in London, not in L.A. and not in New York.” Indeed, in this timeless little retro-chic bubble, style and nature, food and community collide to birth a uniquely luxurious lifestyle.
Heritage and Architecture
While most of Montecito is comprised of private residential estates, there’s a small, if lively, commercial hub on Coast Village Road, where red-tile-roofed buildings sport white stucco walls. These accents echo the Spanish Colonial Revival style that was the architectural vernacular in Montecito and Santa Barbara.
“This movement gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, when architects like George Washington Smith designed great estates inspired from his trips in Andalucia,” says Jessica Tade, executive director of Casa del Herrero, a Smith-designed historical mansion built in 1925 for the industrialist George Fox Steedman. Besides the stately home, the expansive property features courtyards, tiled water fountains and fruit groves. The layout not only nods to California’s links to Spain, but reflects a lifestyle that embraces nature and the outdoors.
“People have been retreating to Montecito for more than a century to escape the city,” says Neal Graffy, a historian who sits on the board of the Montecito Museum. “With the climate and hot springs, it was a very healing place for many wealthy industrialists.” In the last few decades, more tech entrepreneurs, developers and, yes, film stars have moved in, lured by the enclave’s promise of a more relaxed, private and elegant way of life.
Montecito’s links to film precede its famous Hollywood residents. In the early 1900s, the Flying A silent film studio was set up in nearby Santa Barbara. Its stable of stars included Charlie Chaplin, who established the Monetico Inn, still in operation today. “We have a very sophisticated, very worldly, very creative community in Montecito and Santa Barbara,” says Roger Durling, director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Although its architecture styles are more eclectic today, that Montecito retains a certain bucolic charm is no coincidence. “We have strict height and size limitations, so it still feels rural,” says Theip Cung, the vice chairman of the Montecito Board of Architectural Review, which approves all new residential and commercial buildings in the town. An architect himself, he adds that bringing the outdoors indoors remains a priority for Montecito’s newer residents: “New building technology has allowed us to build bigger windows to leverage the spectacular natural views of the ocean, mountain range and greenery all around us.”
Nestled in Nature
Tucked between the Pacific coast and the Santa Ynez mountain range, Montecito enjoys a mild climate and a gentle ocean breeze all year round. Blessed with nearly 300 days of sunshine a year, this 9,000-strong community is unlike any other along the West Coast. Here, residents don’t just love the outdoors, they live in the outdoors.
“It’s possible to explore a nature trail in the morning, go to work, get off at a reasonable time and go surfing,” says Hale of Montecito’s leisurely pace of life. In March 2019, when Rosewood Miramar Beach Montecito opens, it’ll be the only resort in town that spills onto the beach. “It’s a very special property,” says Graffy, the historian.
“This temperate weather where it never gets too hot or cold makes it possible for a large diversity of flora to thrive,” says Gwen Stauffer, CEO of Lotusland. The botanical garden was started by the Polish opera singer Ganna Walska, whose colorful personality can still be felt in the kidney-shaped pond and the gemlike green glass slag that lines the pathways. “She loved fashion,” she continues, adding that Valentino and Oscar de la Renta have hosted events on the premises.
“She was a true collector of plants, and we are continuing her legacy,” Stauffer says of the gardens’ 3,000 or so plant species, many of which are endangered. All the cultivation methods used at Lotusland are organic, without the use of artificial pesticides. “We’re not just a pretty face,” she laughs half-jokingly of the gardens’ important function.
The superlative climate in Montecito translates into a bounty of fresh ingredients, which inevitably informs the area’s culinary offerings. “We source our produce from around the area,” says Craig Riker, chef at the plant-based restaurant Oliver’s, established by a local resident. Since its opening last year, the airy establishment has been delighting taste buds with dishes like artichoke “crab” cakes. “Many customers don’t realize they’re not eating meat and when they do, they don’t miss it.”
Down the street from Oliver’s is a classic American hospitality concept: the bar and steakhouse. “We are Montecito’s living room,” says Leonard Schwartz, executive chef at Lucky’s. On any given evening, the bar bustles with regulars and flows with the town’s favorite cocktail, the martini. Inside, intimate dining spaces and alcoves make for a more refined — but never stuffy — atmosphere. “Carol Burnett [the comedian] did her famous Tarzan yell in the dining room,” remembers Schwartz. “We want everyone to be comfortable.”
The adage that food brings people together rings especially true in Montecito. If Lucky’s is Montecito’s living room, then the bakery Jeannine’s is its front porch, where the community gathers for wholesome pastries and coffee. “People in Montecito genuinely care about each other,” says its owner, Alison Hardy, recalling how the community pulled together after the 2017 wildfires triggered mudslides that decimated the area to raise funds to support people who had lost their homes. “Montecito is known for its philanthropy,” says Tim Buckley, editor of the Montecito Journal. “We have more nonprofits per capita here than anywhere else in the country.”
“What is probably very rare is how plugged in Montecito residents are,” adds Buckley. Most businesses here — be they the Pierre Lafond market and deli or Rosewood Miramar Beach Montecito — are labors of love that bear the fingerprints of local residents. Rosewood will host events that include the surrounding community, and in turn, allow guests to experience the community that surrounds the resort.
Montecito’s easygoing joie de vivre embodying the best of California glamour seems effortless on the surface. But that could not be further from the truth. “People who move to Montecito make sacrifices — they’re disconnecting from L.A. or San Francisco,” says Buckley. “But they do so for the lifestyle, 100 percent.”