James O’Mahoney opens the door to the Santa Barbara Surfing Museum wearing a dazzling blue Hawaiian shirt. Although the word “museum” might be stretching it somewhat, we are standing in a room filled with an eccentric collection of surfboards.
O’Mahoney bought his first board 22 years ago and has never looked back. His favourite is a replica of the one used by Colonel Kilgore’s men in Apocalypse Now.
The walls are lined with cases displaying memorabilia, including the St Christopher’s Medal worn by Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock and the ukulele played by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.
We are downtown, in a part of Santa Barbara recently dubbed the “Funk Zone”: a 12-block area set back from the waterfront and filled with new restaurants, galleries, pop-up shops and craft breweries. O’Mahoney compares it to “Greenwich Village in the 60s”.
“Yeah,” he says. “All the artists are coming to this part of town and there’s the same kind of atmosphere, where anything goes.”
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Before arriving here, I associated this Californian coastal town with a naff 1980s soap, all big hair and heightened emotions.
Then, when the film Sideways came out in 2004, the surrounding wine county saw an upsurge of visitors wanting to check out the shooting locations and taste some of the region’s finest pinot noir.
Locally, it is renowned for being the millionaires’ residential area of choice – Oprah Winfrey lives in nearby Montecito and the director Nancy Meyers makes many of her movies here (the light-soaked, open-plan bakery run by Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated is situated in the town).
Over the years, Santa Barbara has gained a reputation as a wealthy, nice, civilised, possibly slightly stodgy kind of place where people wear floaty linen and drink San Pellegrino. But now, thanks to the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara, California, is becoming cool.
Of course, it’s a terrible name. Some say it was the brainchild of a local politician. Others insist on a more romantic explanation and say it dates from the time, several decades ago, when this part of town was filled with warehouses where fish would be gutted and where you’d take your surfboard to be waxed.
The air smelt “funky”, hence the gradual evolution into the Funk Zone.
Whatever the source, the crowd is distinctly hipster. There are bearded types in rolled-up jeans serving artisanal pizza at Lucky Penny, so-called because its facade is entirely covered by a shimmering mosaic of copper pennies. At the Lark, a buzzy restaurant housed in a former fish market, there are delicious cocktails made with locally sourced jam on the menu (try the punchy Star ghost chilli vodka with plum jam).
There are artists in black T-shirts hanging out in studios in converted warehouses, the walls alive with bright swirls of graffiti. Often, these studios operate an open-door policy and you can wander in to look around.
Gallerie Silo, for instance, is located in a former grain silo for the Weber Bread Company and is home to the artist Michel Armour, who has opened the ground floor as an exhibition space for his work.
It is a democratic ethos that extends to the accommodation. For years, Santa Barbara hotels were at the higher end of the price scale. But the Wayfarer, a chic, contemporary hostel that opened in the Funk Zone last year, offers private and shared accommodation, complete with a heated outdoor swimming pool, library and on-site laundry.
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I stayed in the Harbor View Inn, on the beachfront, which has a wide range of rooms.
On the horizon, seagulls are circling a white sailboat. Behind me, early evening joggers are running along the beach, the sand lined by the lengthening shadows of tall palm trees.
As the sun sets on another dazzling September day, I begin to suspect that Santa Barbara itself is capable of providing all the necessary buoyancy for a spot of life rehab.
The wine helps, too. There are 20 tasting rooms clustered in the Funk Zone so that walking between them is easy: the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail provides a useful map and suggested itinerary.
At the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, I sit at the bar and try the fruity shiraz and the smooth, full-bodied pinot noir. There is live music provided by a singer and a guitar player on stage and I am surrounded on all sides by fellow wine-tasters. It’s a sociable, fun, easy atmosphere. In fact, there aren’t many things I’d change about the Funk Zone other than its name.
“Well,” says James O’Mahoney when I ask him about it, “it’s OK. We’ve gotten to live with it.”
Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Santa Barbara.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Elizabeth Day from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.