Riding through Reagan country: Rolling hills, ocean views and the charms of Santa Barbara

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- It's easy to wax rhapsodic about Santa Barbara. Especially for me, since I was raised there when it was still possible for families of relatively modest means to own property. The mountains, the sea, the red tile-roofed, Spanish-style architecture, the near perfect weather and the casual, but sophisticated lifestyle are what has drawn high-profile celebrities to the area and driven property prices into the stratosphere. But it was the ruggedly beautiful Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Ynez Mountains northwest of the city that called to the county's only presidential landowner, Ronald Reagan.

In 1974, Reagan and his wife Nancy bought a 688-acre ranch off a narrow twisting road 30 miles north of the city center. They christened the property Rancho del Cielo (Ranch of the Sky), and from then until Reagan's last visit in 1995, the ranch became their haven from the pressures of public life.

"From the first day we saw it, Rancho del Cielo cast a spell over us," Reagan said. "No place before or since has ever given Nancy and me the joy and serenity it does."

In 1998, the ranch was sold to Young America's Foundation, which uses the property for conferences and workshops. Though the site isn't open to the public, the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum at 40 Presidential Dr. in Simi Valley -- located an hour away in the hills between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara -- has photos and exhibits that give visitors a feel for the Reagans' life on the ranch and why it was such a special place (800-410-8354, reaganlibrary.com).

While Rancho del Cielo was the principal hangout for the 40th president, who liked nothing more than to clear brush and ride his horse around the ranch, he also favored a few other Santa Barbara enticements, notably its locally made ice cream and a Western-wear/saddle shop.

Reagan is not the only president with connections here. John and Jackie Kennedy spent their honeymoon at the San Ysidro Ranch in the foothills of Montecito, one of Santa Barbara's toniest neighborhoods. The 500-acre, recently renovated resort has been receiving guests since the turn of the last century. For the quintessential presidential experience, check into the 1,800-square-foot Kennedy Cottage-though at $3,000 a night, you'll need a chief executive's expense account.

Lucky's restaurant in Montecito can't claim any connection to Reagan, a onetime movie actor, but plenty of Hollywood's elite frequent this trendy eatery. The chic New York-style restaurant serves perfectly dry martinis and the best cuts of beef available, and don't be surprised if Ellen DeGeneres or Carol Burnett is at the next table.

Leaving behind the multimillion dollar town of Montecito -- or Moneycito, as some local quipsters have dubbed it -- cruise down Cabrillo Boulevard along the beach to State Street, the city's main drag. Pulsating with vitality, with buildings of sparkling white stucco and red roofs, this is where locals and visitors alike come to eat, party and shop. Sipping a designer latte or glass of wine on an outdoor patio shaded by giant primary-colored umbrellas and flowering jacaranda trees, you're likely to feel like you're in a small European city rather than a California beach town.

Shoppers will find options galore in the downtown area. For department and chain stores, Paseo Nuevo, a Spanish-style outdoor mall, is the place to go, but it's the specialty shops that are, well, special.

My Santa Barbara friends swear by Imagine for creative gifts in all price ranges. Fresh Produce began with a Southern California couple selling silk-screened T-shirts in the parking lot across from the coliseum during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; now their pastel cotton beachwear is found everywhere, including at their store on State Street. Magellan's is a travel store extraordinaire, stocking everything from electrical adaptors to the wrinkle-free little black dress. The Territory Ahead's flagship store specializes in clothing for the outdoorsy set; bargains are in the outlet across the street.

Bordering State Street to the northeast is where the town began and where the remaining historical structures have been lovingly preserved and renovated. There are several adobes; El Presidio, a military fortress founded by the Spanish in 1782; and what is perhaps Santa Barbara's most spectacular building, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. More like a palace than a public building, this U-shaped Moorish structure with sunken gardens covers an entire block. For the best view in town, take the tiny elevator to the top of the courthouse clock tower.

Just west of upper State Street, on the way to the Santa Barbara Mission, there are a couple of local businesses that would be worth visiting even if they didn't have a presidential history. McConnell's has been churning out sinfully rich ice cream since 1949. As long as it's been in business, McConnell's has been supplied with fresh cream from local dairies, vanillas made especially for the company and locally produced eggs. Hanging on the wall of the Mission Street shop is a fan letter from Reagan, attesting to the fact that he, too, was seduced by McConnell's dreamy product.

Not far from McConnell's is Jedlicka's Saddlery, which for years has been the place where local ranchers and horse aficionados go for Western wear and horse-related items. Whether Reagan actually put in a personal appearance remains a bit of a mystery, but the fact that his saddle did is well-documented in Secret Service agent John Barletta's book "Riding with Reagan." Barletta would regularly take Reagan's favorite saddle, an Italian Perianni, to Jedlicka's for repairs and restitching.

After a stop at the 220-year-old Queen of the Missions, head north on Highway 101 toward the Santa Ynez Valley. The ranch that Reagan loved is off a twisty road with minimal clearance, but there are other ways to get a feel for the area.

Adventures Out West will give you an aerial view of the Santa Ynez landscape surrounding Rancho del Cielo from the basket of a hot air balloon. Another option is a wine tour of the Santa Ynez Valley with Cloud Climber Jeep Tours.

With its sunny beaches, blue Pacific and the untamed mountains of Santa Ynez rising above, the Mediterranean-influenced city of Santa Barbara is a seductive destination, whether you're the president of the United States or have never been closer to the Oval Office than your TV screen.

IF YOU GO:


WHERE TO EAT:

• Lucky's 1279 Coast Village Rd. 805-565-7540

• McConnell's 201 West Mission St. 805-569-2323, mcconnells.com

• La Super Rica 622 North Milpas St. The late Julia Child gave it thumbs-up. Homemade salsa's great. 805-963-4940

• Santa Barbara Shellfish Co. 230 Stearns Wharf. Freshest seafood in town. 805-966-6676, sbfishhouse.com

WHERE TO STAY:

• San Ysidro Ranch 900 San Ysidro Road, 800-368-6788, sanysidroranch.com

• Motel 6 Santa Barbara-Beach443 Corona Del Mar. Bare-bones, like Motel 6s everywhere, but rooms are spotless. 805-564-1392, motel6.com

• Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel 1260 Channel Dr. At other end of the price range, a beautiful, 1920s-era Spanish-style hotel on 20 perfectly landscaped acres across from beach. 800-332-3442, fourseasons.com



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