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Mad to miss out on Santa Barbara

Guests have gathered for a wedding in the lush sunken gardens of Santa Barbara county courthouse. They are surrounded by blue agapanthus blooms, and the music of a string quartet drifts across precision-clipped lawns.

We haven’t been invited, but wished the couple well all the same.

Santa Barbara. Credit: tkksummers, flickr.com

The stately, white-washed courthouse is in the Spanish-Moorish style that characterises the whole city. After Santa Barbara was razed by an earthquake in 1925, a far-sighted socialite called Pearl Chase decreed it should be rebuilt in keeping with its Spanish heritage.

So the city centre’s stone-paved courtyards are flanked by bright hibiscus hedges, there are squares with tiled fountains, shaded by orange trees, and purple bougainvillaea spills from terracotta pots.

From the courthouse clock tower the views across the red-tiled roofs to the Santa Inez Mountains are dazzling. The Santa Barbara coast is known as the American Riviera.

We arrive shortly after the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited on their tour of California in July. On our first day we hiked up Mission Canyon at a cracking pace, striding along pathways flanked with canyon sunflowers and hummingbird sage to the summit with its vista of town and sea.

By lunchtime we’d also motored along the coast to the Santa Rita Hills and picnicked in one of the region’s boutique vineyards. Its owner invites us to a tasting. ‘Try a chardonnay,’ he says, then interpreting my grimace correctly, he adds: ‘I know, ABC - Anything But Chardonnay - but try it anyway.’

So I did, and it was a revelation: as pure and clean as the sea breezes coming off the mighty Pacific.

There are also wineries in the bohemian area of town, alongside art and craft studios and surfboard makers, and near the station which is like a Spanish villa.

One evening we cycled the coastal path from Channel Drive, the town’s most exclusive sea road, along a route scented with summer jasmine, passing the salmon-pink mansion owned by Ty Warner, who made his fortune from Beanie Babies, the cuddly toys.

We reached Stearns Wharf and its cluster of weatherboard buildings selling shellfish. Further along still, the fishing sloops were disgorging their catch of purple urchin, destined for the sushi bars.

We stayed a couple of nights at the opulent Four Seasons Resort which is like some glorious Spanish colonial mansion - polished oak, burnished floor tiles, lofty ceilings - set in acres of luxuriant gardens. It also has a vast, dazzling Art Deco pool and the Coral Casino, opened in 1937. It’s like an animated Hockney print.

Santa Barbara is a gourmet’s paradise; the year-long temperate climate yields abundant fruit and vegetable crops, and the Saturday farmers’ market is crammed with produce. Stalls are piled with summer fruits, dates, avocados, olive oils and cheeses. Sunflowers, gerbera and canna lilies spill from the flower stalls.

The sheer scale and acreage of the department stores is boggling: you amble round vast marble-floored arenas, never jostled or crowded. The place to stay in the shopping district is the Cannery Hotel.

Santa Barbara is famous for its surfing - Rincon Point’s waves are world-class – but the glory, for me, is its gardens. Lotusland in the affluent suburb of Montecito is my favourite, a 37-acre botanical paradise created over 43 years by a Polish opera singer called Ganna Walska.

She designed great operatic vistas, collected succulents, bromeliads and ferns, ransacked the world for rare cycads. Loveliest of all is her pond with its night-blooming lilies and shell-pink lotus flowers, the size of dinner plates.

If you’re not sure how to organise your Santa Barbara holiday, a local company called Craving Adventures will do it for you brilliantly. Just remember you could easily pass by Santa Barbara - but you would be utterly mad to miss it out.

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