California: Santa Barbara
Several years ago, a copy of a beautiful coffee table book on Santa Barbara showed up on my desk. The writing was the work of Barnaby Conrad; the photography was the art of Marc Muench. Their collaborative effort was both delightful and enchanting; it sparked in me an intense desire to visit the city.
I was eager to see Santa Barbara’s Pacific coastline and harbor — home of hundreds of large boats and yachts. I looked forward to walking down historic State Street and strolling in and out of the small boutiques and restaurants. I couldn’t wait to see the red tile roofs of the homes and public buildings, especially the really old ones — built two and three centuries ago.
I had seen pictures of the Santa Barbara Mission, for example, and knew it dated back to 1786. Seeing it (inside and out) was high on my list of priority stops. So too was the Santa Barbara Courthouse — considered by many to be the most beautiful courthouse in America. I could imagine the interiors of both — original Spanish tile work. I could imagine praying in the mission and showing up for jury duty at the courthouse.
My recent visit to Santa Barbara allowed me to see all these sites and more. It permitted me to enjoy a most beautiful and memorable city! It gave me lots of great experiences and much to write about — too much for any one article.
Getting to Santa Barbara, California was not easy from Houston, but it was well worth the time and effort. (First, there was a three-hour flight from Houston’s Bush Airport to LAX and then a 90-mile drive west on SH 101.)
Simpson House Inn
By the time I got to the Simpson House Inn in Santa Barbara, I could not have been more ready to rest and relax.The inn — the only Five Diamond Bed & Breakfast in North America — was built as a private home in 1874. It is tucked away behind tall shrubs in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, just a couple of blocks from State Street.
After receiving a warm welcome from the inn’s general manager, I was escorted across the extensively landscaped backyard to the Weathervane Room, located on the second floor of what was once the property’s barn. What a joy it was to walk in and see this beautifully designed and decorated room with all the comforts of home.
The Weathervane Room features white wood plank walls and high ceilings, and both make the large spaces seem even more so. Multiple windows, French doors opening to a small balcony and skylights throughout flood the room with natural light and keep everything inside bright and cheery.I was thrilled to see a finely dressed king-sized bed, large and luxurious bath, a dining table for in-room service and a sitting area with sofa, reading lamps and wood-burning fireplace. The room also came equipped with wireless internet access, cable TV with VCR/DVD player, mini fridge and wet bar. I liked that too!
After a dreamy first night at the Simpson House Inn, I was up and out the door early — ready and eager for adventure.
Sustainable Vine Wine Tour
The day’s agenda called for a trip into the wine country with seven other travel writers. It was an outing arranged by Brian Hope, owner of Sustainable Vine Wine Tours of Santa Barbara County. Hope promised a six-hour, behind-the-scenes look at organic winemaking and drives through some of the most beautiful parts of Santa Ynez Valley. And, he delivered — big time!
Our first stop was the Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, owned by the husband/wife team of Richard and Thekla Sanford who strongly believe nature and agriculture should co-exist in sustainable harmony.
Sanford came to the Santa Ynez Valley more than 40 years ago to create wines that would rival the best of France. He was the first to recognize the potential of the Santa Rita Hills — now an officially accredited AVA (American Viticultural Area) as Sta. Rita Hills. He was also the first to plant Pinot Noir vines here.
The Sanfords founded Sanford Wines in 1981 and for 27 years produced award-winning wines sold in 50 states and 16 countries. (It was this wine that the characters in the movie, Sideways, tried first on their wine-tasting adventure.)
In 1983, the Sanfords planted their first 100 percent organic vineyard at Rancho El Jabali. The Rinconada and La Encantada vineyards followed, and in the year 2000, all Sanford estate vineyards were the first in Santa Barbara County to be certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers.
It was an unexpected treat to get to meet and taste wines with Sanford himself. I learned a lot from him, including the fact that Alma Rosa Wines are now available at Spec’s in Houston.
The second stop on our tour was the Ampelos Cellars & Vineyards, situated on one of the loveliest rolling hills in the area.
Ampelos, which translates to “vine” in Greek, is owned and operated by Peter and Rebecca Work, former corporate execs who gave up one life to pursue the dream of another.The Works planted the initial 15-acre vineyard in 2001, with10 acres of Pinot Noir (clone 115 and Pommard) and five acres of Syrah (Estrella and 99) and about one-fifth acre of Viognier in a classic Rhône tradition.
In 2004, the couple expanded the vineyards and selected eight separate, small areas on the property to plant 10 additional acres, lovingly called “baby blocks.” The Works continued their focus on Pinot Noir and Syrah but added a small block of Grenache. In 2008, another adjustment was made. The Works grafted the one acre of Syrah clone 99 over to Grenache.
While we were there, Work led us around the vineyards, stopping often to tell us about some of the technicalities of growing grapes in harmony with nature. We learned about why rows and vines are spaced as they are, how the planting area is kept clear of weeds, how the vines are carefully pruned by hand, etc. Fascinating, to say the least.
Mid-day we all sat around a long table under a big shade tree and enjoyed a gourmet picnic lunch, all the while tasting more and more of the Ampelos wines.I couldn’t help but pause and reflect as I sat there: “I can’t think of anything in the world more delightful to be doing on such a bright and beautiful day! Gosh, I love my job!”
After lunch, we made our way over to the lovely Demetria Estate, a family-owned winery founded in 2005.
Getting to the winery was interesting. It called for a long drive to a hilltop and maneuvering delicately up and around a narrow winding road. At its end, we found ourselves perched high above the beautiful vine-filled valley below.
The building on the property was as lovely as it could be. It featured sun-colored stucco walls, arched doorways and rich touches of stained wood throughout. To its left was an outside terrace for simply sitting and sipping wine.We met John Zahoudanis, the owner of the winery, and Michael Roth, the winemaker.
From Zahoudanis, we learned about his long-time interest in owning a vineyard and making wine. We also learned Demetria Estate is named for his daughter.Roth led us on a tour of the winery and told us a lot about the Demetria Estate wines and himself, including how he came to be the accomplished winemaker he is.
Demetria Estate produces two “separate portfolios” of wine, including Burgundian varietals and Rhone-style blends. The Burgundian offerings comprise of manifestations of Pinot Noir, Char-donnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.To enjoy all of these Demetria Estate wines, we sat on the terrace, at a long and shaded rectangular table. From there we were able to fully appreciate the beauty of the scenery below and beyond and share our thoughts with each other about a whole lot of very good wine!
The Wine Cask
After the tour, we were taken back to our accommodations to clean up and dress for dinner. By seven o’clock we connected at The Wine Cask.
Located in downtown Santa Barbara in the El Paseo complex, The Wine Cask is a popular gathering spot, well-known for its style and atmosphere, excellent service and creative, farm-to-table menus.
We gathered in the Tasting Room and met owners Doug Margerum and Mitchell Sjerven. They educated us about the history of their place and introduced us, via a series of tastings, to Doug’s namesake Margerum wines. My favorite was his M5 (a Rhône-styled red blend). I was delighted to learn the M5 is also available at Spec’s in Houston.
We met Chef Brandon Hughes prior to experiencing one of his highly regarded Chef’s Counter Dinners in the Main Dining Room. I discovered some of the chef’s training had taken place in Houston — at Tony’s. I couldn’t help but think: small world.
The thought stayed with me and. Even now, I can seem to get the song, It’s a Small World, out of my head. It would be maddening if it didn’t remind me of Santa Barbara — and how eager I am to go back there soon and see more!
Beverly Denver is the editor and publisher of Houston Woman Magazine. When she’s not working on the magazine, she off purusing her love of travel and adventure.
Charleston: Rich history and Lowcountry charm
When I was young girl, I made a list of the 10 cities in the United States that I most wanted to visit. Charleston, South Carolina was one of those cities. I was intrigued by its long and rich history, its location on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, distinctive architecture, its culture and cuisine. Regretfully, it was not until recently that I finally got the opportunity to go there and see for myself why Charleston has always been one of our nation’s most beloved destinations.
I arrived in Charleston and the fabulous Charleston Place Hotel in the middle of the afternoon — just in time to enjoy a cup of hot tea and an assortment of finger sandwiches, scones and bite-size pastries. As I sat there in the lobby lounge, enjoying the elegant repast, I couldn’t help but think, “What a great way to start off a visit to Charleston and the Lowcountry, where food and gentility are so much a part of the culture.”
In the next several days, I would come to realize what an understatement that was!
That evening, I had dinner at McCrady’s, located at #2 Unity Alley.Like so many other places in Charleston, McCrady’s has a storied past. George Washington was the guest of honor at a dinner party in 1791. The gathering took place in the “long room” at McCrady’s Tavern, a complex of buildings that still remains.
McCrady’s, considered one of the finest restaurants in town, is committed to using as many sustainable, local products as possible. According to the chef, the menu is a celebration of the hard work of the area’s farmers and fishermen. (I like that!)
I started with a small bowl of Sweet Potato Soup, followed by the Beef Tenderloin with Allium, Fingerling Potatoes, Duxelles and Foie Gras Hollandaise. Dessert was the McCrady’s famous Banana Puddin’. As expected, all proved to be special delights for the palette!
The coffee at McCrady’s was distinctive and good, so I asked my server about it.She quickly told me, “It’s Charleston Coffee Roasters.”
And, quickly, I made note!
The next morning, after an enormous breakfast in my room, I spent a couple of hours strolling up and down King Street, hoping to walk off some of the calories I’d eaten since my arrival.
King Street is famous for its chic and fashionable boutiques and stores. I checked out the inventory at familiar spots like Ann Taylor, The Gap, Abercrombie & Finch, J. Crew, Victoria’s Secret and Talbot’s. But, I also discovered new local favorites, like Eliza’s and Nancy’s.
Bookstores are a weakness of mine, so bumping into a small, locally owned one was great. I spent a long time looking at a lot of books on Charleston. I settled on a charming little book entitled, Very Charleston, written and beautifully illustrated by Diana Hollingsworth Gessler. The book is a celebration of Charleston’s history, culture and Lowcountry charm. Its watercolor drawings are perfect reminders of this very special place.
When I visit a new place I like to take a motorized tour to familiarize myself with the lay of the land and to get some special tips and tidbits from the drivers. So, I signed up to take the owner-operated Talk of the Town City Tour, and I’m glad I did.
The 21-passenger minibus was roomy and comfortable, just right for the 90-minute tour, which covered six miles of Charleston’s Historic District. Included along the way were drives to The Battery and Harbor, The Old Market, churches and cemeteries, museums, historic homes and hotels, shops and restaurants.
Our driver and guide was Alan Hartley, dubbed “the best in the industry” and, true to reputation, he was a walking-talking reference book. His knowledge of Charleston, its history and its people, was extraordinary.
Hartley is the author of a great little travel book, Walking Tour of Charleston, which features 100 points of interest and a centerfold map. At only $5.95 each, the book is a must-have for visitors to Charleston.In addition to the usual historical stuff he spouted off with ease, Hartley told us about Pat Conroy’s book, South of Broad, and the title’s reference to Charleston’s Broad Street. Homes South of Broad Street are some of the most expensive in the city, and those who live south of Broad are fondly called SOBs. Those who live Slightly North of Broad Street are referred to as SNOBs. Fun to know!
Our tour took us to Battery Park, located downtown where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers meet. From there we had great views of Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney and the Lighthouse on Sullivan’s Island.
Battery Park is also home to some of the most lavish houses in all of Charleston, including the Edmonston-Alston House, the Calhoun Mansion and the Palmer Home (Pink Palace).
In that same area, Hartley pointed out the large and impressive house comedian Stephen Colbert lived in as a kid. Back then, the celeb attended Charleston Day Elementary School and was simply known as Stephen, the funniest kid in school. And, back then, the “t” in Colbert was not a silent letter!Hartley also drove us over to Rainbow Row, the brightly painted homes on East Bay Street (shown above).
The homes were built in the mid-1700s, when this part of town was in the center of Charleston’s commercial district. Small shops and other businesses were located on the first floors of these buildings, and the owners of each resided above, on the second and third floors.The old row houses represent the very first style of home built in Charleston. They were portrayed in Porgy and Bess, an opera written by George Gershwin when he was visiting Charleston.
After the tour, it was time to eat (again), so I headed over to Poogan’s Porch, tucked away in a lovely Victorian home at #72 Queen Street. Since its opening in 1976, Poogan’s Porch has served some of the finest Lowcountry cuisine anywhere and has been a favorite destination for actors, politicians, tourists and locals alike.
Just knowing Tennessee Williams, Joe Namath, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin and so many other celebs have dined at Poogan’s Porch made a visit here all the more enticing!
I started with a cup of the eatery’s famous Issac’s Okra Gumbo and found it to be absolutely yummy! (A larger portion would, in itself, make a grand meal.) Ingredients included Cajun sausage, chicken, seasonal vegetables and tomato broth.
For my entree, I selected a big bowl of Sunrise Shrimp and Grits, another signature dish of Poogan’s Porch. After just one bite, I knew why! Featuring a blue crab gravy, peppers, onions, sausage and two poached eggs, it was extraordinary!
After that big meal, I was ready to set out on foot again. This time I headed over to The Old Market, located between Meeting and East Bay streets. The open-air market plays host to hundreds of vendors selling their wares and visitors hoping to buy finely crafted items, like the famous sweetgrass baskets.
Over 400 years ago, slaves from West Africa brought their craft of basket weaving with local grass to the Lowcountry. Originally, the baskets were used to collect rice and cotton in plantation fields. Today, the baskets are widely respected and considered a distinctive art form. Even the smallest of the sweetgrass baskets are pricey! I was about to “walk on by” until I saw a vendor sign that read, “Bev’s Sweetgrass Baskets.”
As you might guess, I took that sign quite literally and brought one home.
One cannot walk the streets of Charleston without noticing huge displays of decorative ironwork. It seems to be everywhere — on balconies, gates, stairwells, etc. The oldest remaining ironwork in the city dates to Revolutionary War period, but historians say ironwork appeared on houses in Charleston as early as 1739.
Because of the prevalence of churches on the city skyline, Charleston is known as The Holy City. It boasts more than 400 houses of worship — of all denominations. Needless to say, I was eager to visit at least a few of them while I was here.
So, on Sunday I attended a quiet and reflective service at the beautiful St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. With its 186-foot-high steeple and a giant classical portico, the stucco structure has awed visitors from all over the world for more than 250 years. Built in the 1750s, St. Michael’s is the oldest church building in Charleston; it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the centuries, it has survived numerous serious blows, including fires, wars, hurricanes and earthquakes. Each time it was damaged, it was painstakingly restored or reconstructed.Inside, the church retains its traditional 18th century English design, with a second-story gallery and native cedar box-pews. Residents here are rightfully proud that Pew #42 was used by George Washington in 1791 and Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1861.
The Bells of St. Michael’s, which toll on the hour, were created and imported from England in 1764. Since then, the bells have made numerous trips back and forth to London — each time to have repairs made when they suffered damages, by fire during the Civil War and by wind during Hurricane Hugo.
I spent four full days in Charleston on this trip, but I left for home with a long list of sites unseen and just as many reasons to return. So, I will have to go back to Charleston. Soon. Very soon!
Now that Southwest Airlines has daily non-stop flights from Houston Hobby to Charleston, getting there will be quicker and easier than ever!
Beverly Denver is the editor and publisher of Houston Woman Magazine.