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In the Face of Change, Here's One City That Hasn't Lost Its Magic : CHANGE: One Place That Hasn't Lost Its Magic

December 27, 1987|ANN CONNORS | Connors is a Times copy editor

SANTA BARBARA — The phone call from an old neighbor in Santa Barbara had been a long lament about changes in our beloved town. As many of the longtime residents do, he had even threatened to pack up and move north.

I had clucked and murmured agreement. But even with the changes in Santa Barbara since my childhood there, what I see now is not an urban sprawl (catch me at rush hour on Highway 101 near State Street and I might talk a different line) but a city that has managed, while the rest of Southern California grows like Topsy, to remain achingly beautiful.

Indeed, parts of Santa Barbara were starting to look rather worn and shabby by the 1960s, like the economizing family that has decided to forgo a new coat of paint on the house and hopes no one will notice the worn upholstery.

Then, in the late '70s, an increasingly restless and affluent Los Angeles population began to use nearby Santa Barbara as a weekend hide-out.

The city preened and blossomed under the attention. Neglected areas were revitalized to within an inch of their lives, and new buildings were designed largely--some would say too strictly--to the popular and successful Spanish motif.

Reminders of Old Days

To those contemplating a weekend in Santa Barbara, there is much among the new to recommend and much remaining from the old days to share. Here is where I send friends and colleagues:

Start with breakfast. At 1209 Coast Village Road in Montecito (take the Olive Mill turnoff from Highway 101) is Tutti's. It was built on the site of an aging coffee shop called Gene's, the walls of which had been painted with circus scenes in the style of American primitive. It had diner-style food to match its funky exterior and good coffee.

I miss the coffee and the tigers and elephants, but its replacement has beautiful pastel murals, polenta, and the patronage of such local celebrities as Bo Derek. There are tables outside at which to savor food that is fresh, generously portioned and delicious.

Among the best of the breakfast offerings is a meal of two eggs, polenta and chili that costs $5.25; two eggs and a basket of breads--featuring Tutti's outstanding banana-chocolate chip and zucchini, among many others--comes to $3.65. Tutti's opens at 7 a.m. for breakfast, which is served until 2 p.m. on weekends and 11:30 a.m. on weekdays.

While the day is still cool, take a hike in Montecito's San Ysidro Canyon, behind the San Ysidro Ranch, 900 San Ysidro Lane.

The ranch itself is rapidly becoming one of Santa Barbara's toniest hideaways. But it suffered days of neglect in the late '60s, when paint was peeling off the walls of bungalows that had housed the honeymooning John F. Kennedys and the sanctuary-seeking Sinclair Lewis, among many luminaries.

Many hours of thought and labor later, the rejuvenated ranch has kept its rarefied country charm while adding a touch of elegance. It now has more tennis courts, more bungalows, dahlia-laden gardens, and chatty stationery that begins, "Back at the ranch."

Horses and Trails

Access to the canyon trail is at the stables next to the ranch, where guests can rent horses for trail rides. The canyon has a stream that runs year-round, and the water-loving sycamores along it turn gold in the winter. By March, it is lush with wildflowers such as hummingbird sage, golden yarrow and sticky monkey.

Cottage rooms with fireplaces at the Ranch start at $145; cottage suites start at $220.

According to a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, volleyball is the sport of kings. I don't know about royalty, but a lot of men with well-defined pectorals play the game on East Beach, along Santa Barbara's Cabrillo Boulevard.

Across from the bird sanctuary with its great blue herons and milky-white cattle egrets, the beach features such world-class players as Jon Stephenson, John Hanley and Kathy Gregory, and some impressive up-and-coming players.

In the late '60s, the Cabrillo Recreation Center serving the beach was, like San Ysidro Ranch, a shell of its former self--with some questionable restrooms and little else. It now has a complete snack stand, beach equipment rentals and pristine outdoor showers open to the public.

Trace a line up the coast. The next large bump is the Santa Barbara Pier, which, while it does not have the rough-and-tumble allure of its Santa Monica counterpart, has a fortune teller, gift shops and two fine restaurants--Moby Dick's and the Harbor, with views of the boats squeezing in and out of their slips.

There is a controversial statue at the entrance to the pier of dolphins leaping about. When it was first unveiled, some complained that local sculptor Bud Bottoms could have done something more heady to represent Santa Barbara.

Running north from the pier is State Street, the city's main drag. In the '60s, lower State Street was somewhere you didn't go if you could help it. Now it has art galleries and vintage clothing stores and outdoor cafes that serve everything from pasta to cheesecake.

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