Family travel: Santa Barbara
Pretty as a picture postcard, Santa Barbara offers incredible vistas and a wealth of things to do with the family.
By Margot Black

Picturesque Santa Barbara, California has an irresistible charm that you can’t help but notice from the moment you arrive. The city has spectacular beaches, abundant scenic waterfront walkways and an elegance and sophistication that comfortably co-exists alongside a casual beach vibe. The area is packed with attractions, activities, restaurants, parks, festivals, marinas, hiking trails, shops, award-winning wineries, impressive architecture and historical monuments.

Everywhere you look you see natural beauty and breathtaking vistas as pretty as a picture postcard. It’s a great place to bring the family to dig in to a wide variety of outdoor activities from whale watching, boating, cycling, scuba diving and surfing to kayaking, horseback riding, golf, tennis, beach volleyball and hiking. And there’s world-class strolling around this upscale village perched on gentle coastal hillsides. With a number of family-friendly beaches, near perfect year-round temperatures and ample public parks, it’s also a great place to simply kick back and relax.

We checked into our room at the Franciscan Inn, a boutique hotel with a Spanish/Mediterranean courtyard on a quaint street one block from the beach. We were greeted by the aroma of baked cookies and freshly brewed tea and coffee, an afternoon tradition we enjoyed. Our room was clean and comfortable and came with a little kitchenette (a great help for traveling families). There’s a continental breakfast each morning and the friendly staff was eager to answer questions and help us plan our day. The hotel has a small but well-maintained swimming pool with lots of clean towels, tables and lounges.

The Franciscan Inn is in a great location for a family on vacation: it’s one block from a beach with a playground and one block from a large park, where you can let your kids run free! It’s three blocks from Stearns Wharf and within walking distance from numerous restaurants and the town center. The Franciscan Inn, 109 Bath St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101, Tel: 805-963-8845.

We started our journey by walking along the beach to Stearns Wharf, home of The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Ty Warner Sea Center. This place is a gem. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this is a fun, engaging, creative and interactive marine education facility. Don’t let the word education fool you; your kids (and you!) will be fully entertained here. For little budding Jacques Cousteaus, this place is a must-see. The museum’s mission is to cultivate a passion for the natural world and they succeed. We visited on a “Shark Sunday” when visitors can watch (and touch!) sharks and stingrays in the Shark Habitat. The kids were enthralled and squealed with delight around the touch tanks. There are opportunities to work like scientists, sampling and testing ocean water, studying animal behavior and examining microscopic marine life. This is a wonderful, inspiring and truly child-friendly place to visit. Ty Warner Sea Center, 211 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, Tel: 805-962-2526.

We worked up an appetite and headed over to the Endless Summer Bar & Cafe, located on the Waterfront Center. Inspired by the surfing film of the ‘60s that shares its name, The Endless Summer features a great display of surfboards, photos, memorabilia and a glorious view of the marina. The restaurant is framed on either side by two covered, open-air patios, which provide plentiful outdoor seating. In accordance with its theme, the menu is also beach-inspired. Generous lobster tacos (delicious!), seafood margaritas (mmmm!) sesame crusted ahi Caesars, fish and chips, crispy calamari, killer nachos and burgers are sure to please your palate. And as for the bar, this is a great place to enjoy a cocktail. Nestled above the marina, you’ll love the view. Endless Summer Bar & Café, 113 Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, CA 93109 Tel: 805-564-1200 (grill); 805-564-4666 (bar-café).

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is located in the same building as The Endless Summer Cafe (at the Waterfront Center) and is a worthwhile stop. This museum is small, but packed with interesting content. Exhibits at the Maritime Museum include: ship models, sailing and yachting displays, the Chumash Indians heritage, otter and seal hunting, whaling and oil resources, scuba suits, waves and surfing, knots, a touch exhibit, and my favorite, the submarine exhibit that enables you to snare a 360-degree-view of the outside world (and water) through a periscope. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, 113 Harbor Way Suite 190, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, Tel: 805-962-8404.

Leave some time to walk the pier along the Waterfront Center. It stretches the entire length of the marina and is filled with stunning views. We lingered at the end on a bench artfully sculpted in a whale tale and soaked in the sun and sea. With the view of the marina on one side, a beach in front of us and the ocean on the other, I was in bliss on a bench.

That evening, we took a leisurely walk down central State Street to Aldo’s Italian Restaurant. The building that houses the restaurant dates back to 1857 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We enjoyed outdoor patio seating and the casual family-friendly vibe. The owner, Mark Sherman, is on hand almost every night acting as the local greeter to extend a warm welcome. A lot of places may claim they are family-friendly, but this place really nails it. My favorite touch? A changing station in the unisex toilet. Hallelujah! Someone give the owner an award for that, please! The food was creative and comforting, the pizza perfect, the chili salmon was my favorite while the runner up was the pork chops. I have no idea what’s Italian about the pork chops; I was too busy eating them to ask. There’s a decent kids’ menu and the owner’s got a few of his own kids’ toys in the back he’s willing to share. And as the day turns to dusk, the patio provides a romantic setting.Aldo’s Italian Restaurant, 1031 State St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101, Tel: 805-963-6687.

I’ve gone whale watching a couple of times in my life and had two standout experiences. The first was in South Africa and, I’m surprised to say, the second was in Santa Barbara. We went out with Condor Cruises at the beginning of whale watching season, in an area that is generally considered to contain one of the world’s highest concentration of feeding blue whales and humpback whales. Well, I’ll be darned! They were indeed all over the place … jumping, breaching and splashing around. Packs of dolphins joined in and swam alongside the boat for a while. There were several volunteer naturalists on our trip, eager to answer questions and equally excited to see the whales. The half-day trip takes you to the Channel Islands National Park. I thought we’d see a lot of whales there, but we saw most of them en route.

Eager to explore some of the stunning mountains of Santa Barbara, we called upon the Santa Barbara Adventure Company for a guided hike. We were picked up in style in one of their well-equipped shiny red vans. We headed towards the nearby mountains with our knowledgeable guide whose narrative was filled with interesting anecdotes about the land’s history and geography. He also pointed out all the poison oak along the way, and for this I dubbed him my hero. We hiked a good hour or so up to an ocean view vista that was worth the sweat. The hike features lots of great streams and resting spots and makes it a terrific, first foray into the mountains if you’ve never explored them before. TIP: Call The Adventure Company: they’ll get you in and out safely and easily. They’re the prominent outfitter in the area and they also lead guided kayak adventures to the Channel Islands, guided rock climbs, wine country tours by mountain bike or van and they offer group surfing lessons. Pick anything and you’ll be pleased; they’re all pros and we had a great day. Santa Barbara Adventure Company, 410 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101, Tel: 805-898-0671.

We dined that night at The Pierre LaFond Bistro, which is both a culinary and people-watching treat. We dined al fresco on the patio and listened to live flamenco music and watched an expansive array of people walking by. The food here is creative and eclectic, prepared with organic ingredients and local produce. Our dinner was beautifully presented. It was delectable and we gobbled it all down, from the fresh seafood entries to the tasty vegetable sides that even the kids ate, leaving room for a delicious ice cream dessert we all shared. The Pierre LaFond Bistro, 516 State Street, Santa Barbara CA 93101, Tel: 805-962-1455.

Every Sunday in Santa Barbara there’s an art walk on the beach that seems to go on for miles. It’s a great reason (as if you needed one) to stroll along the beachside and a wonderful way to linger through a lazy day. As you can tell, Santa Barbara is a world-class walking town from the mesmerizing beaches to the store windows that wind leisurely throughout.

For a dinner option, I recommend the Epiphany Restaurant. Chic without trying too hard, it offers an upscale experience with a stunning ambience. It’s an ideal spot if you’re calling a babysitter for a date night; otherwise you may want to arrive early if you’re bringing the kids.Epiphany Restaurant, 21 W Victoria St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101, Tel: 805-564-7100.

The Santa Barbara Zoo has a wonderful family play area. Leave extra time to let your kids linger and explore as it’s well designed with a variety of play spaces to discover. As for the zoo itself, it’s large enough to maintain prominent animal exhibits (the giraffes here have an ocean view) but intimate enough that you feel you have fully explored the terrain. I particularly enjoyed the pink flamingos, which were out in mighty large numbers. Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Niños Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93103, Tel: 805-962-5339.

Santa Barbara is a special place with an abundance of entertainment and relaxation options for the entire family and an ever-present temptation to just while away the hours strolling, grazing and exploring. The biggest challenge is finding a way to get it all in. My best advice? Go and then return soon.

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