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Soak up some sun, California history

Playground for rich largely unspoiled by tourism

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Hanging out at the Santa Barbara Auto Camp.

POSTMEDIA Enlarge Image

Hanging out at the Santa Barbara Auto Camp.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Trailer-park boys and girls get to glamp in the land of the rich and famous at the Santa Barbara Auto Camp.

Recent nostalgia for mid-century modness, plus the marriage of glamour to camping, hits a new/old high here in the heart of this wealthy beach town -- gorgeous old Airstream trailers for rent at a two-night minimum.

The Airstreams have been renovated with creature comforts such as tile showers and flatscreen TVs, but sit in a retro auto camp that has operated continuously since 1922. That means your neighbours are the real deal -- full-time happy campers.

Reservations are made online at and check-in is self-service. Simply punch your individual code into the electronic door lock and get welcomed back to the future.

The gleaming San Miguel is a 1959 Airstream Overlander that shows nothing of its half century-plus age, sporting a pleasing pale blue decor equal parts retro and modern hipster. All five Airstreams have been remade by a local architect who has teamed up with a Santa Barbara developer to offer this unique holiday stay.

The auto camp lies in a quiet residential area less than five kilometres from the beach, fronting a small commercial strip with a couple of restaurants, a grocery store and retro bar. It's a unique way to experience Santa Barbara, a ritzy enclave two hours north of Los Angeles, without a single sign of what we now know as tourism. Going local in Santa Barbara has a host of rewards. Unlike glitzy L.A., the town has a graceful air of genteel history and old money.

First stop is Old Mission Santa Barbara, a 10-minute walk or ride on the complimentary cruiser bikes. Founded in 1786 by the Spanish Franciscans, the sprawling complex is a fascinating look at California's colonization by Europeans. The splendid church and informative exhibits are worth a visit in their own right, but the graveyard and mausoleum give off a peaceful/haunting groove that has staying power. Successive rule of the area by the Mexicans and then the invasion of rowdy gold-seekers, Victorian spa-seekers, the oilpatch, America's first movie studios and the U.S. military have failed to disturb this corner of tranquillity.

In the early part of the last century, Santa Barbara was the centre of America movie making, and the playground of stars. A devastating earthquake in 1925 levelled the town, but its popularity with the well heeled and well connected ensured a rebuild. The elite favoured an architectural nod to Spanish/Mexican roots, and since this crowd was used to getting what it wanted, today's Santa Barbara is a gem.

Downtown and the beach are a 15-minute bike ride through neighbourhoods that give Beverly Hills a run for its (mega) money -- but there isn't a tour bus in sight. Be warned that this trip is all downhill, so the ride or walk back up will be more of a test, although bus service is an easy option.

The Latin theme prevails, and the town centre is dominated by impressive churches and parks. There is no lack of upscale shopping and dining down here on State Street, but if it's sea you want to see, you'll have to duck under the freeway... either on bike or on the electric shuttle bus that reaches the foot of Stearns Wharf and the "American Riviera" in a few minutes. The wharf is about 130 years old, hosts a maritime museum and a few restaurants and is flanked by kilometres of sandy beaches. The commercial strip facing the water offers a host of beachy rentals and dining options.

Dolphins and surfers are common sights on this rare east-west stretch of California oceanfront that attainted cache for "Mediterranean light."

Further to the east lies the California nirvana that is Montecito. It is here that one of the most sublime microclimates in the United States coddles some of its most expensive real estate and more beautiful beaches. Charlie Chaplin built a hotel here (it still stands), it's home to the swank Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore and the lush Lotusland botanic garden -- and Oprah is one of the celebrity residents. Should you run into her in one of the village boutiques, let her know you're enjoying the trailer park... or, uh, maybe not.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 D1

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