With its backdrop of majestic mountains, thick oak groves, lush landscaping, and stunning beaches, Montecito’s charms have seduced moguls, magnates, and movie stars for over a hundred years.
Nature has played a vital role in the seduction by providing a backdrop of hot springs, cold springs, waterfalls, and the Pacific Ocean that has provided a retreat-like environment long before its modern inhabitants.
One of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation as well as home to some of the most coveted real estate in the world, Montecito is home to regal estates as well as more modest single-family properties. It’s also home to two, quaint business districts. The Upper and Lower Villages offer outstanding shopping and dining opportunities in this upscale community, and beautiful estates and award-winning schools surround both.
Since the 1880s, prominent people from around the world began vacationing in Santa Barbara and the adjacent town of Montecito in search of a temperate climate – often for health reasons. Regardless, the fantastic weather and luxurious lifestyle captivated many who quickly established their roots here.
Today, Montecito harbors many celebrities and regular townsfolk alike, who share commonalities of shopping, dining, and the enjoyment of life.
While the Montecito area is home to great restaurants, shopping, and world-renowned hotels such as San Ysidro Ranch and The Biltmore, its natural assets are the real stars of the show. Montecito is home to some of the most charming beaches in California with miles of white sandy beaches. Frequented by surfers and paddle-boarders, Hammond’s and Butterfly Beach are the mainstays of the show. Butterfly Beach and its west-facing direction lend to captivating sunsets- and for pet lovers, it’s one of a few places in the county where you can walk your dog on the beach without a leash.
Once rejected as a possible site for Santa Barbara’s Mission because it was too far from the protection of the Presidio, early Montecito was known as a dangerous place, where outlaws and grizzly bears hid in the wooded canyons. During its history, this unique and beautiful area has been home to Indians, Spanish and Yankee settlers, agricultural pioneers and eastern millionaires in search of the perfect climate.
During Santa Barbara’s Hispanic era, roughly from 1782 to 1846, soldiers of the Presidio who reached retirement age were given parcels of land in lieu of long overdue pay. These Spanish and Mexican land grant properties extended for many miles, from the mountains to the beach. A number of soldiers and their families chose to settle in an area just west of what is now the intersection of East Valley Road and Hot Springs Road. Between that corner and the banks of Montecito Creek, Montecito’s first residential settlement – now known as Old Spanish Town – was established.
Montecito’s early landmarks were the Big Grapevine (“La Parra Grande”) and the Hot Springs, where a hotel and spa once welcomed people hoping to find relief for their ailments in the curative waters. Both the grapevine and the health resort are long gone, but three original adobes from Spanish days – the San Ysidro Ranch adobe, Masini adobe and Juarez-Hosmer adobe – remain important links to Montecito’s past.
The first wave of Yankee settlers were enthusiastic horticulturists who found Montecito’s soil, air and climate perfect for growing experimental crops, developing citrus and other exotic fruits along with the usual varieties. Some of the new farms also had large areas devoted to the serious cultivation of ornamental trees, plants, and flowers.
Santa Barbara’s early tourists soon discovered the nearby rustic “Eden” with its flourishing farms and gardens, and from the late 1800’s on, many affluent eastern visitors built impressive estates in the Montecito Valley. Through the years they were followed by others: the “Hill Barons” whose mansions commanded the finest views from foothills and ridgetops, and wealthy industrialists who established magnificent estates in the valley to use primarily during the winter months. By the giddy 1920’s, Montecito had become known as an enclave of millionaire socialites whose lives revolved around polo, parties, tennis and country clubs. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is an image that persists, even today.
But there was always another side of Montecito: merchants, craftsmen and those who provided services. They set up the shops, tailored clothes, took care of the horses and autos, taught school, tilled the soil and produced crops, built stone walls and fashioned wrought iron gates. Around the corner of East Valley and San Ysidro, a business area gradually developed – a general store, blacksmith, butcher shop – followed in time by a post office, library and community hall. This once-rural intersection is now the home of busy shopping centers Montecito Village North and South, along with professional and financial offices.
Montecito’s earliest recognition as a citrus-producing valley came largely from the success of Crocker-Sperry Ranch – now the site of Birnam Wood Golf Club – and San Ysidro Ranch, which later replaced citrus operations with paying guests to become the celebrity hideaway that it is today.
The 1929 Stock Market Crash, and the Depression which followed forced even the wealthiest estate owners to reconsider their expenses here. Some simply closed places, while others sold off property for subdivision.
Today, Montecito is an interesting mixture of large estates, slightly smaller homes on subdivided property, and modest houses of varying styles and sizes. On the remaining available land, new construction is now spreading to the southeast and up into the mountains – another wave of settlers coming to Montecito determined to make it their own!