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In Santa Barbara, 'T' Is for Tour Guide
Mystery Writer Sue Grafton Shows Off Her Home Town

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.

We roll through impossibly picturesque streets, past the Spanish-style county courthouse surrounded by gardens of manicured palm trees, the weathered Santa Barbara Mission, the wide beaches populated with buff surfers and volleyball players. The scents of eucalyptus and saltwater perfume the air.

It's lovely all right. There's just one thing I don't understand. How could a hard-working gumshoe like Kinsey afford to live here? "She'd have to rent," Grafton says flatly.

Overview achieved, we leave the trolley and head for tourist central: Stearns Wharf, an old wooden pier where you can order up some seafood and a beer, get your palm read, go parasailing, even sample Santa Barbara wines in an off-site tasting room. Seagulls swoop obligingly as tourists snap pictures and a contingent of local anglers cast off next to the "No Fishing" signs.

But we can't linger, because Grafton wants to stop at the Four Seasons Biltmore for drinks on the patio overlooking the ocean. Doormen at the gorgeous, 1920s Spanish-style hotel snap to attention as we drive up, despite our rumpled attire. Grafton laughs. "You never have to dress up in this town." Soon we're sipping $11 margaritas in the soft afternoon light as sea breezes waft around us. And should those breezes turn chilly, no worries -- unobtrusive space heaters are tucked discreetly overhead.

Later, driving through Grafton's -- need I say it -- posh neighborhood of Montecito, we pass an adobe church with a sturdy mission-style bell tower, a sanctuary that looks as if it's been here 200 years. "Sorry to burst your bubble," Grafton says, laughing. "It was built in 1936."

It doesn't matter. The Mount Carmel Church, its soft weathered walls set in a garden of specimen cactus meant to evoke New Mexico's landscape, is a respite. Even more remarkably, it is open. Inside, there's a primitive painted altar, silver-framed stations of the cross, funky columns painted barber-pole style and an ornate silver chandelier hanging from a beamed ceiling. This place alone, I think to myself, is worth the trip.

Grafton starts her days at 6:15 a.m. with a ritual three-mile fast-walk along the beach. "It's beautiful in the morning," she enthuses on the drive over. In fact, it's damp and foggy. Which is the way she likes it.

We trot off down the paved path, ocean on one side, palm-lined avenue on the other. Despite the ungodly hour, runners, inline skaters and cyclists are out in force, many greeting Grafton by name. It's all very small-town -- if your town abuts the Pacific and your morning jog is enlivened with seagulls overhead and leaping dolphins offshore.

This is Kinsey's jogging route, Grafton points out. "She lives on a street parallel to this and up one block. I go up there and I think, 'Where is her house?' I can't ever find it. That's one of my problems -- I become so convinced that what I've written is the truth."

I pump her about Henry, Kinsey's smart and sexy landlord. You don't run into too many octogenarian hunks in detective fiction, and I'm curious about his inspiration. Grafton shrugs. "I like the elderly. The notion that everybody over 75 is infirm or mentally deficient is crazy. It's wise not to dis them -- because soon there are going to be many more of us in that age bracket."

Many of the joggers we've passed seem to have ended up at the East Beach Grill, a beachfront joint that's famous, Grafton says, for its blueberry wheat germ pancakes. "Worrisomely wholesome," she pronounces them. I look longingly at the locals sipping coffee beneath blue-and-white striped umbrellas overlooking the ocean, but there's no time to dawdle.

Over a quick breakfast in her Montecito kitchen, Grafton lists the day's itinerary: the 1786 Santa Barbara Mission, a downtown stroll to admire the architecture and a drive over the mountains to the Santa Ynez Valley -- but whoops, "just a minute, first I have to read about this murder here." Seems the morning paper has a juicy story about a guy who pushed his wife and kid off their yacht for $700,000 in life insurance. Grist for the master. Eventually, though, we make it downtown, parking near the courthouse, which Grafton insists we see before anything else.

She's right. It's hard to believe trials are actually held in this building, a 1929 Spanish-Moorish confection of arches, towers, painted tiles, vaulted ceilings, fountains, curved stairways, balconies, murals and lacy iron grillwork. But this may well be where the yacht murderer is brought to justice. As were most of the buildings in downtown Santa Barbara, the courthouse was constructed after the 1925 earthquake that ravaged the town. Aside from the fact that Kinsey Millhone spends a fair amount of time here, the building should be a must-see on anybody's list. Up in the clock tower, 85 feet high, the view is spectacular -- ocean, mountains and a sea of red roofs.

It's hard to tear ourselves away. Especially Grafton. "I'd love to sit in on that Markowitz trial," she mutters as we leave. But she also wants to show off the paseos. These are Santa Barbara's alternatives to tacky shopping malls -- lovely little winding alleyways lined with outdoor cafes, benches, flowers and beckoning storefronts. We wend our way from shop to gallery to cafe. No bargains here -- and no lack of customers.

The mood is more exalted at the Santa Barbara Mission, the city's namesake and the 10th of the original 21 missions founded by the Franciscans on Spanish territory in the early 1800s. A self-guided tour takes us through reconstructed monks' cells, workrooms and a kitchen with period furnishings. The chapel smells deliciously of candle wax and incense and boasts gorgeous painted walls, trompe l'oeil columns and a sunburst crucifix.

Soon we're heading west out of town on Route 154, a winding stretch of road that's been called the most scenic highway in America. This is California desert country, with dry gulf grass, chapparal, scotch broom, manzanita and mesquite all around. In "C Is for Corpse," Kinsey practices her shooting up here, and she has lunch at a rustic old place with lots of fireplace nooks and animal heads on the walls.

And that is where we stop for lunch -- Cold Springs Tavern, a converted stagecoach stop from the early 1900s. Today it serves up killer chili, steaks and barbecue in an authentic Old West atmosphere. Inside, it's dark and cool, with low ceilings and gingham-curtained windows. "Often, people having affairs will tryst up here," says Grafton as we tuck into our chili verde and warm tortillas. "They always get caught."

There's one more stop on Tour Grafton: Gainey Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, a well-regarded winery that produces 20,000 cases annually. A guide lectures about the winemaking process and the valley's two distinct micro-climates, warm and cool, but it's got to be close to 100 degrees in that vineyard. We miss our ocean breezes. On the drive back to Santa Barbara, the temperature plummets nearly 30 degrees in 20 minutes.

That night, I take Grafton's advice and have dinner at Lucky's, tucked between the Liquor & Wine Grotto and the Montecito Cafe on Coast Village Road. As promised, the people-watching is great: bronzed businessmen with slicked-back hair and power shirts, and an assortment of blondes with abnormally large breasts. The waiter, a soulful Robert Downey type, serves up what just might be the best steak I have ever eaten. Jimmy Connors, looking good in shorts and a polo shirt, dashes in for some soup-to-go. And, in a crowning moment of lunacy, Ron Popeil of infomercial fame arrives with a retinue of Miami types wearing gold chains, beepers, leather jackets and one spectacularly bad toupee.

It's all great fun, but it's not the way I want to remember Santa Barbara. The next morning, before leaving town, I head for the ocean and the East Beach Grill. No gold chains here, just runners, retirees and cyclists braving the early-morning fog. I order a plate of blueberry wheat germ pancakes, find a place under one of the striped umbrellas, sip my coffee and watch the waves roll in. P is for perfect.

K.C. Summers will be online tomorrow at 2 p.m. to discuss this story at www.washingtonpost.com during the Travel section's weekly chat.

WHEN TO GO: May through September is high season, but Santa Barbara is a year-round destination -- temperatures range from the mid-sixties to the seventies all year. After September, it's quieter and there are better deals.

WHERE TO STAY: Lodging can be pricey. Sue Grafton likes the Montecito Inn (1295 Coast Village Rd., Montecito, 805-969-7854), a 60-room Mediterranean-style hotel near the beach that Charlie Chaplin opened for his movie industry pals in 1928. "It's not cheap but it's in a great location." Rooms start at $205. She also recommends Fess Parker's DoubleTree Resort Hotel (633 E. Cabrillo Blvd., 866-868-0343, http://www.fpdtr.com/) for its prime location on the beach. Rooms start at $215. If money's really no object, consider the Four Seasons Biltmore (1260 Channel Dr., 800-332-3442, www.fourseasons.com/santabarbara), a gorgeous, 1920s Spanish-style complex overlooking the Pacific, with tiled, antique-filled lobbies where formal afternoon tea is served. Rooms start at $395.

There are also more affordable digs. Lodging information is available from the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau (see below) or the reservation services Hot Spots (800-793-7666, http://www.hotspotsusa.com/) and Coastal Escapes (800-292-2222, http://www.coastalescapes.com/).

WHERE TO EAT: Grafton's favorite restaurants: Emilio's (324 Cabrillo Blvd.), with gourmet Italian food in a romantic setting on the beach; Lucky's (1279 Coast Village Rd., Montecito), with great steaks and crispy onion rings; the Wine Cask (813 Anacapa St.), an elegant S.B. institution popular with locals; the Plow & Angel Bistro (900 San Ysidro Lane) at the posh San Ysidro Ranch, offering American regional cuisine; the Paradise Cafe (702 Anacapa St.), a downtown joint with waitresses in flip-flops, patio dining and great grilled fish and burgers; and the Cold Springs Tavern (5995 Stagecoach Rd.), a rustic converted stagecoach stop serving up a variety of game dishes, great chili and barbecued ribs.

WHAT TO DO:

" Mission Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna St., 805-682-4713.

" Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Dr., 805-962-5339.

" Santa Barbara County Courthouse, 1100 Anacapa St., 805-962-6464. Free guided tours Monday through Saturday, 2 p.m.

" Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De la Guerra St., 805-966-1601.

" Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta del Sol Rd., 805-682-4711.

" Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., 805-963-4364.

" Lotus Land, 695 Ashley Rd., 805-969-9990. Exotic botanical garden with ponds and waterfalls, open by appointment only.

INFORMATION: Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau, 800-927-4688 or 805-966-9222, http://www.santabarbaraca.com/. -- K.C. Summers

© 2002 The Washington Post Company