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Hit the beach: How to make the most of your Santa Barbara getaway

(Shutterstock)

Like Austin, Santa Barbara transcends being a geographic place and has become an aspirational lifestyle brand. While Austin’s lifestyle, at its best, is casually hip, Santa Barbara is casually luxurious on the California coast.


What’s so special about Santa Barbara?

Natural beauty

There’s probably nowhere in the United States more beautiful than Santa Barbara. A ribbon of a city tucked between a coastal mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, it looks southward toward a chain of islands that rise out of the sea 30 miles away and paint a perfect backdrop. The city itself is primarily Spanish architecture with red tile roofs. It’s easy to believe you’re in Europe. The landscapes, which in their original, pre-settlement state were much like the Texas Hill Country–live oaks and native grasses–are now lush, well-watered plantings of palm trees, roses, birds of paradise and agapanthus.

Weather

The Mediterranean climate in Santa Barbara is close to perfect. Average highs range from 60s in winter to high 70s in summer. In the last few years, summer temperatures have spiked higher. Wintertime lows are in the 40s. Summer is nice and fall is glorious—crisp and clear with low humidity.

The chance of summer rain is 0%. Rain comes, when it comes, in the winter.

Late spring and early summer can be foggy, especially in the mornings. The locals call it “June Gloom.”

(Pexels)

The sea

Santa Barbara has beautiful beaches, from El Capitan in the west to Fernald Point in the east. All of them are a place to pack your cooler, set up your chairs and lather up with sunscreen. But here the beaches are more of a setting than an experience. A place to get some sun, take a walk or let your dog loose. The water is cold, mostly braved by young children splashing in the surf and by wetsuit-clad surfers. Walk the beach, or sit and look in the early morning or late afternoon, and you’ll see a passing parade of dolphins and pelicans, and sea lions frolicking and foraging in the kelp forests beyond the breakers.

The mountains

It’s hard to turn away from the ocean, but when you do, there’s a range of 4,000-foot mountains just behind. Spidered with hiking trails and greened with chaparral brush and trees, the mountains are a crinkled, photo-friendly backdrop, especially in the moments before sunset when the hills glow softly in what’s called “the pink moment.” Invisible from below, the upper canyons conceal big predators like bears and mountain lions.

(Michael Theis/Flickr)

Wine country

Here’s a rule of thumb: where wine grapes grow, life is good. And lucky for us, wine grapes grow here. Warm, sunny, summer days and cool nights with occasional foggy mornings are a recipe for world-class wines. Santa Barbara is full of tasting rooms and the nearby Santa Ynez Valley is packed with vineyards and low-key, world-class wineries.

(Shutterstock)

Gawking

The famous and the wealthy discovered Santa Barbara 100 years ago and they never forgot it. Keep your eyes open and you might see the Duke of Sussex walking his dogs on the beaches of Summerland, Ellen and Portia watching Brandi Carlile perform at the Santa Barbara Bowl, or maybe Oprah and Stedman getting coffees to go at Pierre Lafond.

(Mark Krynsky/CC)

Outdoors

It’s so easy to be healthy here. A list of daily activities:

  • walk the beach
  • mountain hike
  • ebike ride
  • Paddleboard
  • Pickleball

In one morning, you can splash your feet in the Pacific, walk on the beach, ride your bike in the mountains, and have time to clean up and have a leisurely wine-soaked lunch. The climate and soil will grow anything, and there are farmer’s markets almost every day. Any kind of bodywork or spiritual help you can think of, it’s here. Namaste.

Other things to do

What to do depends on you. If you’re traveling with someone special, or with small children, or if you’re a surfer or kiteboarder, your activities will be different. But here are a few for everyone to consider.

  • Visit the Mission and the Rose Garden
  • Santa Barbara Courthouse (self-guided tour, climb stairs to clock tower for view)
  • Stearns Wharf (touristy but fun, with beautiful views)
  • Funk Zone and Harbor (for visitors it’s the heart of the city)
  • Santa Barbara Bowl (outdoor amphitheater with ocean views)
  • Montecito (wealthy community of celebrities, tycoons and trust funders)
  • Wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley (one hour drive, numerous wineries and the charming town of Los Olivos)

Where to eat

This and the other recommendations are just samplings. There are lots of great places, and you’ll have fun finding your own special spots.

  • Clark’s (coming soon, Montecito. This is Clark’s, the McGuire Moorman Lambert oyster bar on Austin’s 6th St. They expanded to Aspen and now to Santa Barbara)
  • Shoreline Beach Cafe (at the beach, some tables are in the sand)
  • Brophy Bros. (harbor seafood house with bar and great views)
  • Carazon Cocina (downtown, tacos)
  • Santa Barbara Public Market (casual, various)
  • Shalhoob’s Funk Zone Patio (casual, funk zone)
  • Finney’s Crafthouse (bar/restaurant, funk zone)
  • Arigato (sushi, downtown)
  • Ca’Dario (Italian)
  • The Lark (LA style, funk zone)
  • Bouchon (fine dining, downtown)
  • The Stonehouse (fine dining, Montecito style)

Coffee & breakfast

  • Jeannine’s (breakfast and lunch, two locations)
  • Handlebar Coffee Roasters (coffee shop, two locations)
  • Caje (coffee shop, Haley Street)
  • Tre Lune (known for dinner, but serves an outstanding full breakfast)

Beer, wine & cocktails

  • Figueroa Mountain Brewing (beer, funk zone)
  • Melville Winery Tasting Room (wine, downtown)
  • Riviera Bar (cocktails, downtown)
  • Santo Mezcal (cocktails, downtown)
  • The Pickle Room (cocktails, downtown)
  • Harry’s Plaza Cafe (cocktails and food, locals place, Loreto Plaza)
  • Lucky’s (Cocktails and steakhouse, Montecito)
  • Test Pilot (never been but want to try it!)

Where to stay

You’re not going to spend much time in your room, so keep that in mind when choosing your accommodations. Any of the big hotels along the beach, or the boutique hotels in town, are worth a look. And some spectacular places are available on Vrbo and Airbnb. Just be sure the location works for you. What’s called “Santa Barbara” could be a 20-30 minute drive from downtown. That can get you something really special, so it can be worth it.

A few recommendations:

  • Hotel Californian (perfect location—walk anywhere)
  • El Encanto (tranquil, beautiful views)
  • San Ysidro Ranch (laid back luxury, Montecito)
  • Rosewood Miramar Beach (seaside luxury, Montecito)
  • Motel 6 (the first-ever Motel 6, some rooms have ocean views)

Getting there

Flying: There are no direct flights to Santa Barbara. Fly private if you can. For the rest of us, here are your best choices:

  • Southwest Airlines via Las Vegas
  • American Airlines via Phoenix or Dallas
  • United Airlines via Denver or San Francisco

Driving: Another option, fun for some and not for others, is to drive.

1. Measured from Austin’s Steve Ray Vaughn statue to Santa Barbara’s Dolphin Family sculpture at Stearns Wharf, the trip is 1,474 miles and takes about 22 hours.

2. Driving up from Los Angeles can be fun if you avoid morning and afternoon rush hours. Rent a car and drive through Santa Monica and up the Pacific Coast Highway. Stop in Malibu and get a cup of coffee, a drink or some lunch. Distance: 96 miles. Time: 2 hours+.

3. Driving down from San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the USA. It’s 7 ½ hours on Google Maps, but don’t go if you’re in a hurry. Take two days and spend the night in Carmel, or further south, along the Big Sur coast. At Pismo Beach, take the 101 and when you get to the wine country town of Los Olivos, switch to highway 154 for a spectacular first view of Santa Barbara as you crest San Marcos pass and glimpse the ocean, and soon after, the city of Santa Barbara on its shore.

If you go, let us know how it went, and pass along any recommendations you think we should add (or subtract). Enjoy your trip!

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