Known as the American Riviera to some, and as home to the classic 80s soap opera Santa Barbara to others, for the rest of us, it’s basically a celebrity haven where the Santa Ynez Mountains meets the Pacific Ocean in a glory of red-tiled roofs and white-washed buildings. But happily, it’s also a haven for young families with plenty to do for kids young and old. We were there recently and although I’d recommend a stay of longer than 48 hours (it was all the time we had), we managed to fit quite a bit in.
9am: Alchemy lunch and massage
You got on a flight at 6am and have been driving the LA freeway for over two hours so what do you do the minute you roll into town? I could tell you we park our car at The Eagle Inn, a charming B&B where the rooms are large and come equipped with a microwave (the things that excite you as a parent, ammiright?), and that we head straight over to Santa Barbara Zoo, or drop by the Ty Warner Sea Centre to get up close and personal with sharks, but we don’t. Instead, we hightail it to Alchemy Art Centre, a super-chic urban retreat renowned for bodywork, health treatments and facials. Fighting jetlag and general ‘parentitis’, I purr under the soothing touch of Roberta, my therapist who works her magic on my face with a Phyto 5 Chromalift (essentially, a non-surgical facelift). Sadly, I fall asleep five minutes into the 90-minute treatment but before I do, I take comfort in the fact my family are tucked up in the centre’s whole-food, plant-based cafe eating buckwheat pancakes. Win/win! I leave the centre GLOWING and looking about five years younger.
11am: Bike tour around the beachfront
When I think about having sex with Clooney, I suspect I enjoy the idea of it more than what the reality would entail. I’ll spare you the details of what goes on in my head but rest assured it doesn’t involve the decoy vehicles and pap-proof shades that such a reality would feature. I tell you this because much like I adore the idea of seeing Santa Barbara Harbour and Stearns Bay Wharf by hiring a four-person bike surrey from Wheel Fun Rentals, it turns out the reality is very different – something I work out after cycling for 20 minutes with a baby hanging from my Baby Bjorn. We cycle up and around the harbour which is lovely and scenic – until your kids want to visit the playground and you’re stuck with a situation where you don’t know quite how to park a bike surrey.
12.00 Lunch at Enterprise Fish Co
It looks old-school with lot of 70s wood and fish tanks galore, but the food at Enterprise Fish Co is so divine, we end up coming here for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals are well-priced, generous in size and come with a side of the most amazing clam chowder known to man. Added bonus? The girls eat everything put in front of them.
1pm: Shopping State Street
The weather in Santa Barbara is chillier than expected so first stop is the massive Old Navy store where we load on winter woolies for next to nix and dress ourselves in the middle of the street. Once the blue tinge leaves our daughters’ lips, we spend some time ambling around the stores of State Street and all of the open air plazas which lead off the street. Not to be missed shopping districts include La Arcada, located in the heart of State Street, La Cumbre Plaza where you’ll find all your American favourites from J.Crew to Pottery Barn Kids (don’t forget to stop by the management office first for their shopping and dining visitor rewards), and Paseo Neuvo, whcih is all about upscale names littered along picturesque brick walkways.
3pm: Shopping Trolley Tour
Most tourists hop on the Santa Barbara Trolley to take a 90-minute tour of the city but I think the real star of the show is the driver whose sardonic delivery of what’s what and who’s who keeps us in stitches as we take in everything from the Old Mission to the sprawling celebrity estates in nearby Montecito (Oprah lives there). I consider torching Beanie Boo inventor Ty Warner’s palatial estate as a sort of revenge for turning my daughter into a Beanie Boo addict but I decide to take the higher road. Also, maaaaan, his security is tight.
Is any trip to any city complete without a visit to a playground of some sort? Fortunately as far as playgrounds go, Chase Palm Park down on the waterfront is pretty good. Based around a shipwreck theme, this large playground features a conch shell lighthouse, nautilus shell play area and even some surfacing whales. Best of all, it’s just next to Chase Palm Park Antique Carousel just next door where everyone can have a ride for only $2.
Well you already know we went back to Enterprise Fish Co so…
8pm: Eagle Inn
I feel as though I should lie to you and tell you we got a sitter and hit up the nightlife but sadly, no. We’re exhausted and 8pm feels like 3am to us most days so soon after we tuck our little ones in, we soon follow.
9am: Santa Barbara Zoo
It’s time to hit the zoo! Santa Barbara Zoo may well be one of the smallest you’ve ever seen, but quite possibly one of the most well-maintained. We start our morning by checking out the elephants, snow leopards and gorillas sunning themselves under the Californian ray and ride the Zoo train (I suspect I enjoy it more than the kids). There are plenty of experiences to be had – depending on how long you want to spend here. Some of the most popular include Zookeeper for a day, taking an elephant walk, overnight stays and hand-feeding the giraffes. And if you have a dinosaur fiend among you (every household appears to have one), they’ll love the new 15-foot long, 7-foot tall animatronic Tyrannasaurus Rex who stars in their ‘How to Train Your Dinosaur’ show.
12pm: Ty Warner Sea Centre
It’s almost lunchtime but we’re not done with the animals yet so we head back to Stearns Wharf to visit the ocean critters at Ty Warner Sea Centre. There are several exhibitions but the things that get our five year old most excited is the opportunity to get some hands-on action with sea life and the chance to crawl through a tide pool tank to get a different perspective of the ocean.
1.30pm: Padaro Beach Grill
We’ve had so many recommendations to eat at Padaro Beach Grill that we finally pull ourselves away from Enterprise (it was hard). But once there, we’re glad we did because not only do we find the quaint cottage set on a large gardens complete with a huge sandbox full of toys, their bugers and shakes are phenomenal. The kids run around while we manage to eat in peace.
3pm: Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
Santa Barbara is home to plenty of gorgeous beaches and parks, but given our strict time schedule, we can only choose one. The lovely lady at the tourism board recommends we do a walk around the Botanic Gardens so we take her up on her suggestion. Set on 65 acres, the garden is full of native trees, wildflowers and cacti and features plenty of easy-to-walk nature trails. Unfortunately although they do run education programs for kids, there’s nothing much happening at the time we arrive and not only does our five year old get over the old butterfly and flower thing fairly early in the piece, our youngest keeps trying to eat the spiky plants. After an hour, we call time.
4.30. Kid’s World, Alameda Park
SB is home to 21 parks and playgrounds but Kid’s World at Aladeda Park has a reputation as being the biggest and the best. It was designed by children in consultation with playground experts and it shows – there’s a small area for smaller children in addition to the main park, climbing frames and climbing trees and activities suited to all ages up to 12. If you check out their website, you can even see what events are coming up at the playground in the coming weeks. We play until nightfall and everyone’s exhausted.
7pm: Enterprise Fish Co
Last dinner in town and we’re back at Enterprise. We’re all so tired no one is talking, but once again we’re eating. Our five year old looks positively suicidal at the thought of leaving Santa Barbara. “Mummy, can we come back here again?” she asks me sleepily. “Sure thing pumpkin,” I tell her and I mean it. Santa Barbara, I can’t wait to see you again.
DISCLAMER: The writer was hosted by Santa Barbara Visitor’s Center. And no, this post is not sponsored by Enterprise Fish Co (!)