There are moments, as you make the 90-minute drive up the coast from Los Angeles to Montecito, where Prince Harry and Meghan have set up their new home, when you can almost imagine you are heading into an unspoilt wilderness.
The mini-malls, car dealerships and fast-food joints give way, first, to jagged mountainscapes and plunging canyons. Then, after another stretch of asphalt and commercial activity where the mountains meet the Pacific, comes a deliriously unspoiled stretch of coastline, with pristine beaches to the left and the foothills of the Los Padres national forest to the right.
Then comes Montecito. It is indubitably a retreat, not a town in any recognisable sense but a cluster of narrow lanes that wind up from the coast through lush stands of eucalyptus and juniper toward a popular hot spring in the hills. It has a gas station but no chain stores – only a couple of small commercial strips known as the Upper and Lower Village.
What it does have is an extraordinary concentration of wealth and celebrity. This is home to Oprah Winfrey (she calls her sprawling estate “the promised land”), Ellen DeGeneres, Ariana Grande, Gwyneth Paltrow and a broad sprinkling of America’s super-rich whose multimillion-dollar estates stud the hillsides and, occasionally, raise local eyebrows because of their sheer, unabashed extravagance.
In 1966, crime writer Ross Macdonald observed that among Montecito’s “mock-rustic shops” residents “play at being simple villagers the way the courtiers of Versailles pretended to be peasants”.
In short, it’s a place where a couple of errant blue-bloods can feel right at home – while at the same time being assured of the peace it appears they crave.
It came as no surprise to Montecitans, or to residents of its big-sister city next door, Santa Barbara, to learn this week that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have been in their midst unnoticed for more than a month. In those hills, you could be holed up in a $15m mansion – as theirs is believed to be – for years on end and nobody but your servants would ever know.
The spread that local real estate mavens say the couple has bought includes nine bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, a guest house, a teahouse, a tennis court, a swimming pool and a custom jungle gym for the kids. Known as “Chateau at Riven Rock”, it is accessible only along a gated private driveway whose sign warns passersby to stay well away unless they have permission to pass.
This stretch of southern California coast attracts no lack of superlatives. In 1928, Charlie Chaplin called Montecito the “cream of the coast” and gathered a group of investors to establish the Montecito Inn, the anchor around which the rest of the community sprang up. TC Boyle, who probably qualifies as being on the shabbier end of Montecito’s 9,000 residents despite being a celebrated, bestselling author, wrote recently how he valued the proximity to nature and the “semirural ambience”.
“We have no sidewalks here,” he said. “If we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara … But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers.”
There is, of course, a darker side – the noir behind the sunshine. All those wealthy homeowners cling jealously to what they have and are unafraid to use their money and their power to stare down anyone – local elected officials or local newspaper columnists, usually – who dares to suggest they should make room for more affordable housing, or are consuming more than their fair share of California’s desperately short water supply.
Fifteen years ago, the actor Rob Lowe raised eyebrows when he not only strong-armed the community into agreeing to a vast expansion of his hillside palace but threatened his neighbours with restraining orders when they trimmed back ficus trees on his property line because they interfered with the ocean view. Lowe also went to war against the local paper when, in covering the controversy, it made the relatively uncontroversial decision to publish his address. The publisher took Lowe’s side, and the editorial team melted down shortly after.
At the time, Lowe was part of something called the Homeowners Defense Fund, whose mission – essentially, to keep out poorer people – was boosted by a $1,000-per-person cocktail party hosted by Carol Burnett, Bo Derek and Tab Hunter, among others. (Lowe eventually left the group and sold his property in 2017.)
With clout like that, the community has easily resisted calls to merge with Santa Barbara and remains ruggedly independent. To silence the critics about its water consumption, Montecito cut a deal last month to pay for half of a $72m desalination plant in Santa Barbara; in exchange, Santa Barbara agreed to sell Montecito all the water it wants for the next 50 years.
All the money in the world, though, can’t alter the fact that foothill communities in California are at the mercy of occasionally terrifying natural forces. In the winter of 2017-18, wildfires scorched and denuded the Santa Ynez mountains above the town and primed the slopes for devastating mudslides once the rains came. Mud and sludge came racing down the canyons in the dead of night, destroying houses, starting a gas fire, and killing more than 20 people.
As Macdonald observed in his Montecito-set novel, Black Money: “Almost anything can happen here. Almost everything has.”
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