Sunday, May 1, 2011

Flowers, Fauna & Fun: Lotusland - A Day in Montecito

Lotusland is 37 acres of the best manicured and lovingly tended to gardens you will probably ever see. Last privately owned by Madame Ganna Walska, a Polish opera singer in the 1920s, she routinely arranged her vast collection of plants into bold color schemes and unusual shapes. For over four decades she tinkered with her gardens, shaping, creating and recreating them to suit her wishes. But the estate was made for this. The first owner had a commercial nursery on the land in the 1880s. After Walska’s death in 1984 her estate, Lotusland, so named because of the lotus flowers on the property, became a non-profit. It is one thing to visit a botanical garden, but it is another to wander through a magnificent wonderland of plants, trees and gardens.

From the moonscape barrenness of the cactus gardens, to the topiary garden and their array of animals, to the serenity of the Japanese garden, to the olive allee and formal English-styled gardens, and across the great lawn, Lotusland is that rare stop where you feel you could stay forever. In fact, one of the staff gardeners has been there for over 30 years. It is truly an awe-inspiring place. It can get brisk as many parts are so heavily wooded that you can’t see the sun. The wide walking paths easily accommodate wheelchairs and there is no elevation gain. If you love botany, horticulture, or like me you don’t know much about either but you love plants, Lotusland is a treat. Bring your camera and comfortable shoes.

This is a public garden operating in a residential neighborhood, therefore reservations are mandatory. Lotusland is located at 695 Ashley Road in Montecito, 805/969-9990, Tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday between mid-February and mid-November only. Admission is $25, adults; $10 children age 5 to 18 and the tours last two hours.

If you do the 10 a.m. tour, when you’re done it will be lunch time. Close by in Montecito, a five minute drive away, is what is known as the Upper Village, less crowded than Coast Village Road in the lower village and there are several eateries close by. For sandwiches and salads, sweets and such, the Pierre Lafond Montecito Market, (516 San Ysidro Rd., Montecito, 805/565-1504, open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.) gives you great options to eat there, or take away. The Prosciutto and Basil Flatbread is wonderful, and their Farm Cake is terrific. They also have a coffee bar, small produce area as well as cookbooks, olive oils, chocolates and even a few wines. Or head down to trendy Coast Village Road, where there is plenty of shopping and restaurants, and try the excellent (though pricy) turkey meatballs at Trattoria Mollie (1250 Coast Village Rd., Montecito, 805/565-9381, open for lunch and dinner, closed Mondays), made uber-famous when a local resident by the name of Oprah Winfrey, plastered the meatball recipe on her TV show. From there it’s a two minute drive to Butterfly Beach for a walk on the dog friendly sand.

As it’s probably nearing later afternoon, the Four Seasons Biltmore is right there for a glass of local wine, so you can sip while you stare out to the Channel Islands and watch the sun languidly sink into the Pacific. Not a bad way to spend the day.

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