Santa Barbara, California

UPSHOT: The quasi-Mediterranean good life

A UCSB student on a long break from the library     Photo: Nik Wheeler

THE SUN IS ANGLING TOWARD THE FOOTHILLS upcoast from East Beach. A cooling breeze riffles the bougainvilleas. As dusk begins to glow, most volleyballers have abandoned their nets to the sand, but the outrigger canoe team is just getting started, surging out beyond the breakwater. Runners and cyclists whiz by along the walkway; there goes actor Christopher Lloyd, wobbling slightly on his Rollerblades. Sailboats crowd the waves between here and the Channel Islands. Shadows lengthen on the steep Santa Ynez ridge, looming over a sea of whitewashed adobes with red-tile roofs.

Santa Barbara's heady ambience starts with a steady stream of wealth and glitz from L.A. and elsewhere funneled into the laid-back Central Coast. That mix produces a lush cityscape of palms, eucalyptus trees, and flowers, and supports legions of great restaurants—from sushi to Thai to trattoria to whole-grain to tacos to catch of the day. It sustains more culture than any town of fewer than 100,000 can rightly expect: museums, light opera, one festival after the next. The catch? Well...how does a half-million-dollar fixer-upper sound? That's what you get when you jump into the pool with the likes of Jeff Bridges, Kenny Loggins, and Oprah. Ordinary mortals resign themselves to perma-renting or sweating an absurd mortgage. "People make sacrifices to be here," says Joe Coito, a 37-year-old who runs Adventours Outdoor Excursions. "We all know that coming in."

PLAYGROUNDS: To ski, run whitewater, or dogsled requires travel, but otherwise it's all right here, year-round. On and in the Pacific, Santa Barbarans sail, sea kayak, dive, snorkel, spearfish, whale-watch, swim, and beachcomb any of several state beaches in either direction, as well as Channel Islands National Park, reachable in less than three hours by launch from the harbor. Surfers head an hour north to Jalama Beach or a few minutes south to the world-renowned break at Rincon. On the Santa Ynez ridge, which rises abruptly to almost 4,000 feet, numerous trailheads draw hikers and cyclists to steep, bony singletrack and spring-fed plunge pools. Climbers and hang gliders head up Gibraltar Road for sandstone routes and reliable thermals. The August triathlon, almost as old as the sport itself, sells out early. Servers and spikers follow in the sandy footprints of local product Karch Kiraly. On weekends, coffee shops overflow with club riders heading out to the roads.

WORK: The University of California at Santa Barbara employs the most, with government and tourism not far behind; the "Silicon Beach" cluster near campus has a healthy portion of tech companies. For retailers, the State Street shopping district could seduce a monk into maxing out his gold card. Then there are the divers, climbers, and triathletes at heart who masquerade as teachers, electricians, waiters, and graphic designers to get by.

NEST: Ready? The scale starts around $175,000 for a tidy mobile home, goes to $350,000 for a two-bedroom condo, and heads upward of $750,000 for, say, a 50-year-old, partially renovated Spanish-style cottage with some ocean views. If you require only a roof and a mattress, you can always rent a room in somebody's condo for $600.

NEIGHBORS: French winemaker/paraglider from the Loire Valley; ag worker gradually moving his family up from Guadalajara; Jonathan Winters.

HOW TO GO NATIVE: Wear shorts and Tevas anywhere; obey an unwritten ordinance by not fussing over local celebrities.

WATERING HOLES: On the harbor, Brophy Bros. draws locals with bottled beer, decent seafood, and a view that's pure Santa Barbara—sea and mountains through a forest of yacht masts.

THE PRICE OF PARADISE: With the lack of affordable housing, some smog and traffic, and the Bush administration agitating to increase offshore oil drilling, even this paradise has a few snakes in the garden.

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