THEIR TOWN : People We Like and the Places They Love

In Santa Barbara, 'T' Is for Tour Guide

By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 8, 2002

Sue Grafton, best-selling crime novelist and longtime resident of Santa Barbara, Calif., is on the case.

Grafton is the creator of Kinsey Millhone, the gutsy-yet-vulnerable female P.I. whose alphabet-themed adventures, beginning with 1982's "A Is for Alibi," have won millions of readers worldwide. She's agreed to show me around her beloved Santa Barbara (known as Santa Teresa in the Kinsey books), but first she wants to know where I'll be staying. I tell her. She calls me back.

"I've been doing a little investigating," she says. "Your hotel's in kind of a curious location. They claim it's two blocks from the beach -- I would call it four."

Just what every traveler needs -- their own personal P.I. Luckily there are plenty of hotel options in this beguiling city by the sea, and Grafton -- like her celebrated heroine -- is full of opinions. But more on that later.

Grafton, who is originally from Kentucky but has lived in Santa Barbara for 20 years, writes about her adopted home town with such obvious affection and attention to detail that the city becomes another character in the books. Reading her descriptions of palm-tree-lined jogging paths, softly curved beaches and houses built like Spanish missions, the first-time visitor can't help but wonder: Can a town really be this beautiful?

Yes. It can.

Santa Barbara is tucked between the Pacific Ocean on the south and the Santa Ynez mountains to the north. It's impossible to describe the place without sounding like a Chamber of Commerce brochure. White-sand beaches stretch for miles. Houses with red-tile roofs perch Mediterranean-style on terraces rising up from the sea, framed against the mountains. In the historic, Spanish-flavored downtown, the humblest hardware store or tchotchke shop boasts hand-painted tiles, romantic archways and weathered adobe walls. There are allegedly more restaurants per capita here than anywhere else in the country. Oh, and the average temperature is 70 degrees with soft ocean breezes.

Grafton has decided that a trolley tour is the best way to start out. "For the overview," she explains as we drive down the Coast Village Road to the trolley stop. "Honestly, tourists should do this. This'll let you see the wharf, the mission, the courthouse. . . . Then we can concentrate on the real important stuff -- the places to eat and drink."

Right on cue, we pass a steakhouse called Lucky's. "Fabulous steaks! I can hardly resist the place." Then there's Trattoria Mollie ("You see a lot of celebs there"), the Paradise Cafe ("best cheeseburgers in the world") and Emilio's ("exquisitely prepared Italian food").

What, no McDonald's? Fast food is, after all, a Kinsey staple. "I've been known to knock back a Quarter Pounder With Cheese," Grafton admits. "But Kinsey gets to eat them more. I've got to watch that my butt doesn't get any wider."

It's like having a little Kinsey in the car. Grafton -- 62, with grayish bangs framing an unlined face -- is older than her thirtysomething heroine, but they share the same down-to-earth outlook and healthy disrespect for authority. "Oh well, the jail's nice," Grafton says, driving off without her driver's license.

She's not the only celebrity who's found a haven in this moneyed town. The trolley driver reels off a list of famous residents: Julia Child, Brad Pitt, Kevin Costner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Crosby, Jonathan Winters, Jimmy Connors. Oprah Winfrey, he crows, just snapped up a 46-acre estate for $50 million.

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