Julia Child’s Santa Barbara

Happy Birthday Julia Child! The television chef and author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking would have turned 99 today. On this anniversary we’re reminded of an article Child wrote for National Geographic Traveler about Santa Barbara, California where she lived the last few years of her life. Here’s how it originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Traveler:

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I remember well my very first impression of Santa Barbara. I was awfully young–maybe three or four years old. My family would vacation in Santa Barbara in the summer from my hometown of Pasadena, about two hours away. I remember we were at the old Miramar Hotel, which is right on the beach, looking down at the water. I’d never seen the ocean before, and I was sure the sea would come up and engulf us, and I screamed and screamed. My family finally had to take me home, which must have been enraging for them, and confusing: Why is she screaming?

The city sits right on the coast, a narrow strip of land backed by beautiful mountains, about 2,000 feet high. Lots of eucalyptus and oak and flowers make the place verdant and lush. In addition to all the green, I love the warm, cream color of the Spanish-style houses and the red of their tile roofs, and the brightness of round oranges set against the dark-green, shiny leaves of citrus trees.

The climate and the atmosphere recall the French Riviera between Marseille and Nice, except that area of France has now become terribly touristy. Very often, being there on the Riviera, where we used to have a little house, I’d look at all the tourists and say, “Well, I’d just as soon be in Santa Barbara.”

When my husband and I were in the diplomatic service, we’d come to Santa Barbara during home leaves. So it was natural to end up here. I now live in a little pad in a lovely retirement community, having recently moved out of an enormous house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which I’d lived in for 40 years. Even though I resided near Boston all that time, I never became a New Englander, though I loved being there. I’m a true Californian: I don’t miss the change in seasons.

I always get up early, at six, and do all my exercises. Then I walk over to the dining room, where a group of friends and I have what we call “the octogenarian breakfast”–lots of bacon, every kind of egg you can think of, pancakes, waffles, you name it.

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On Saturday mornings, I go to a marvelous farmers market downtown (pictured right). All kinds of people gather there, but the market can only sell things that are grown in California, and most items are from Santa Barbara County. Smaller versions of the market take place on different days and in different locales.

When I have visitors, I take them on my personal, quirky tour. We might start with breakfast on the pier, right out on the water. Or we’ll have lunch on the pier, because there’s a wonderful restaurant there where you can get fresh steamed crab or local lobster, and you can eat them outdoors with the pelicans and seagulls.

Or I might take them to lunch up in the hills at the El Encanto Hotel, which has been operating since the early 1900s. The hotel has an outdoor dining terrace overlooking the bay–one of the best vistas of the city I know.

Then we’ll go and view the “Big Tree”: the astounding and famous Moreton Bay fig, planted at the junction of Highway 101 and Chapala Street in 1877. It’s claimed to be the largest tree of its kind in the country.

Later, we’ll head up to the Old Mission Santa Barbara. In season, a splendid array of roses greets visitors. Then we might take a driving tour along the hills.

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Dinner? Santa Barbara’s not a renowned restaurant town, but we have some perfectly nice ones. The Wine Cask is downtown. San Ysidro Ranch has a good, if rather noisy, dining room. Lucky’s, founded by the fellow behind Lucky Jeans, is very jolly. There’s Downey’s, where the atmosphere is somewhat subdued, but the food is delicious. And La Super-Rica Taqueria (pictured left) on North Milpas Street is one of the most authentic Mexican home-cooking restaurants around.

People just seem friendly and happy here. Who wouldn’t be, when it’s so beautiful and the climate is so nice? Just this morning I looked out on another sparkling day, and I said to my breakfast group, “Why live anywhere else?”

For more about Santa Barbara check out our walking tour and photo gallery.

A version of this blog post appeared on the Intelligent Travel blog on August 24, 2009.