“A Stranger in Paradise”

When I arrived in Montecito shortly after midnight the night before the Memorial Day weekend, the first thing I saw after landing was the cover of a publication for which I am a regular columnist: the Montecito Journal. The cover story was headlined “The State of Montecito, California: Are We Better Off Than We Were Five Years Ago?” It was written by departing editor Guillaume Doane.

Saturday morning, I was scheduled to have breakfast with my friends the Buckleys, James and Helen (they own Montecito Journal; Helen is listed on the masthead as chief of “moral support and proofreading.” Before I met them at Jeannine’s on Coast Village Road, I took a few minutes to read the cover story.

As I read the article, it became clear that the residents of Montecito are concerned about the traffic crunch, preserving the “semi-rural character” of the community, and the increase in non-violent crime. These are, of course, very real considerations in virtually every community on the planet, especially one that seeks to provide the quality of life offered by a place like Montecito. It struck me, however, that sometimes those from within a community fail to see things as they really are – the “forest for the trees” phenomenon – and that their perspective might be aided just a little by the observations of a “carpetbagger” from Sacramento with a background in community development and land use planning.

Obviously, there is a limit to how much one can see during a three-day weekend. But, I knew from the moment my rental car entered the grounds of San Ysidro Ranch that I had entered a very special place and needed to go no further to experience the flavor of life in Montecito. Even on a gray day, the splendor of the grounds and the creek behind my cottage were enough to make me forget the weather.

What a place!

Were I writing the report about the future of Montecito, I certainly would have added something about Santa Barbara and the region. Although Montecito is a distinct community – and is the crown jewel of the Santa Barbara region – the character of Santa Barbara and the immediate surroundings cannot be ignored when one is evaluating the future of Montecito. To some extent, as goes Santa Barbara, so goes Montecito. And, for the present, Santa Barbara is doing reasonably well, thank you.

During my weekend in Montecito, I dined at the Stone House and Lucky’s, both of which lived up to their reputations for fine dining and excellent service. Although I had read a few negative reviews of both while checking them out on the internet, my experiences were fully positive. Perhaps, the prior reviewers were simply having a bad day. While the choice of where a weekend tourist dines and lodges may be matters of minor interest to Montecito residents, they are of vital concern to the outside image of Montecito and the attraction of the community to the outside world. If there were no reasons for “outsiders” to want to visit Montecito, I believe this precious community would, over time, lose its attraction even to many of its own residents. There is a reliable “rule” of community planning that correlates the attraction of visitors and tourists to a community to that of residents. When the former lose their attraction to a community, the diminished attraction of residents often follows. Thus, places like Lucky’s and San Ysidro Ranch are enormously valuable magnets for Montecito.

When one is vacationing in a place that is reputed to be special, the lyrics of that old song, “little things mean a lot,” could not be truer. Poor service at Lucky’s or a bad steak at the Stone House could have affected my perspective about the entire weekend. Therefore, it is truly in the best interest of a world-class community that seeks to appeal to visitors to provide an overall world-class experience from the moment of flight arrival to that of flight departure.

To cap off my weekend, I toured several wineries under the expert guidance of Christopher Schubert. During a four-hour period, I had a delicious lunch, learned much about the Santa Barbara area, sampled great wines including that of Richard Sanford, and heard about the difficulty of building a house in the Santa Barbara area. To which I can only say that it is that difficulty which helps to preserve the character of the area.

The concluding sentence of the article in Montecito Journal is: “For now, Montecito controls its own destiny.” Indeed, it does! And, as one who experienced the pleasure of being a stranger in paradise for a weekend, I am comfortable that Montecito will honor its duty to protect and preserve this piece of paradise for other strangers to visit, with the operative word being “visit.”

Just don’t stay and build a new house.