Montecito, California, my hometown for 50 years in Santa Barbara County, is suddenly in the viewfinders of the global paparazzi. Meghan and Harry — yes, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — “secretly” bought a $14-million Mediterranean-style mansion there in July.
“Everyone has just gone crazy here the past few months,” my best friend, neighbor and fellow Boy Scout mom told me by telephone on Sept 12. “When we first heard that Meghan and Harry had moved here, everyone was frantic to know where they bought and how much they paid. But once everyone found out, things quieted down. My friends who are neighbors of theirs won’t talk. I haven’t seen any paparazzi nor drones in Montecito for weeks.
“Now all attention is on the surging real estate prices in Montecito,” my friend said. “Most people here think Harry and Meghan got a really good deal. But so many people are escaping Los Angeles that everything for sale or rent in Montecito is snapped up instantly.”
Increasingly, homes sell in the eight figures. My friend’s two-bedroom beach cottage is currently caught in a rental price war (it’s now at $24,000 a month and rising). There is no doubt why Montecito is so attractive to celebrities and visitors. It’s unincorporated 9.3 square miles extend from calm ocean beaches, protected by Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands, to the rolling foothills of the coastal mountain range.
Like Georgetown, Montecito village basically consists of two charming commercial streets with home décor and garden shops, small fashion boutiques, a large bookstore that has been in Montecito for decades, a specialty grocer, a post office and a village library. Along with the church where “The Graduate” was filmed, the village is home to numerous restaurants, wine bistros and cafés of every kind, both in the upper village and along Coast Village Road.
The two walkable shopping streets are separated by several square miles of wooded estates (if you can use the term “woods” for thick stands of giant palm, eucalyptus and lemon trees) and neighborhoods along winding roads where Italianate and Mediterranean-style homes — some dating from the Gilded Age — are nestled behind walls covered year-round with almost un-killable f lowering bougainvillea, masses of geraniums that grow like weeds and gardenia and Bird of Paradise bushes. The air is sweet from honeysuckle, sage and the salty ocean breeze.
Montecito is also a great place for the famous and their families to live because, for the most part, they are traditionally, almost rigidly, ignored. They simply become part of village life.
Meghan’s good friend Oprah Winfrey told her to come to Montecito because Prince Harry and their son Archie would be able to live normal lives there. That’s true. Many celebs send their kids to one of the two public elementary schools in Montecito. Several sons-of-the-famous (like the Beach Boys) were in my son’s Montecito scout troop. Many are active in the community. But there are no lists, no “maps to the stars.” They are left alone.
Montecito visitors will probably find themselves next to celebs during some of the hundreds of events at the Music Academy of the West (our Tanglewood) each summer, or at Montecito’s historic estates like Casa del Herrero and the exotic gardens of Lotusland. Or at Montecito’s famous beach club, the Coral Casino at the Biltmore, now owned by Four Seasons. Or at Montecito’s newest beach hotel: Rosewood Miramar Beach.
Visitors from Georgetown will find other connections. Casa Dorinda, an estate with an 80-room mansion, was built by William and Anna Bliss — father and mother (from prior marriages) of Robert and Mildred Bliss of Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks. After Beatrix Ferrand designed the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks in the 1950s, she was commissioned by Anna Bliss to design parts of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The Georgetown Blisses lived at Casa Dorinda for several years after their parents died.
Georgetowners will find another connection at Montecito’s restored San Ysidro Ranch. That’s where “Georgetowners” Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy honeymooned. Also, Michel Richard, chef and owner of Georgetown’s famed Citronelle, lived for years in Montecito and ran a Citronelle there.
In some ways, Montecito is a sister town of Georgetown with similar demographics. Montecito even has a locally owned paper of 70 years, the Montecito Journal, that could be a sister paper of The Georgetowner. A 40-page weekly print publication, it’s where Montecitans learn about local news, business ins and outs and, of course, the latest shock-gasp real estate transactions.