There’s an Emily Dickinson poem that cites a certain slant of light, which when it comes, “the Landscape listens -/ Shadows -/hold their breath.” Many say that the poem is about a certain quality of anxiety: but I can assure you that though you’ll find a certain slant of light in Santa Barbara, anxiety will be far from it. One of the most stunning and relaxing locales I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, the seaside escape has what seems like an endless list of activities for even the most determined weekend warrior, and just as long a list for a stress-free family weekend away.
Located just an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, the city is sandwiched smack dab between the mountains and miles of sun-drenched coastline. Between a sandy day at the beach or an afternoon of local hiking, you’ll find gardens to explore, quaint shops to peruse and restaurants for every taste. Stroll the Urban Wine Trail for a sample of local and nearby vintages (the Kunin Wines Tasting was a particularly lovely stop), and cap off the weekend with a historic stroll through downtown on the Red Tile Walking Tour.
We couldn’t have picked a better “home base” than the charming La Playa Inn (laplayainn.com). Opened in mid-March 2020, this dreamy Spanish Colonial Revival-style 38-room boutique hotel is located just blocks away from the Santa Barbara waterfront. Showcasing red tile roofs, adobe walls, painted tiles set in stairways, the picturesque property is designed in modern coastal blue and sand-colored accents. Between the free private parking and being ideally situated within easy walking distance to literally everything on our family’s itinerary, there was no need to get behind the wheel again after arrival untl it was time to head home. One of our favorite perks? The La Playa Inn features a lovely courtyard with ample seating in which to enjoy its complimentary continental breakfast. We also made use of the space to break out a late afternoon board game.
One of the highlights of our trip was our family’s first time ever taking to the sky for an exhilarating parasail flight with incredible views of the scenic Santa Barbara coastline and Channel Islands. Located at the end of the historic Stearns Wharf, it’s easy to see why Santa Barbara Parasail (santabarbaraparasail.co) is the city’s #1 attraction – for our part, my husband, son and daughter were thrilled with every aspect of the thrilling tandem experience, soaring over the water tethered to a 1,000-foot line. For me, it was a growth experience … I’m afraid of heights and I’ll admit, a somewhat irrational fear of sharks. Needless to say, I was a bit anxious, but it was all for naught. California’s top-rated parasail operator, Santa Barbara Parasail’s expert captains are all licensed by the US Coast Guard and endeavor to offer its guests the “safest” and most unforgettable experience.
We kept the ocean-faring theme going coupled with the opportunity to weave in a bit of education on a self-guided stroll through the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (sbmm.org). Discover 13,000 years of human interaction with the Santa Barbara Channel inside the doors of this hidden gem, overlooking the scenic Santa Barbara Harbor. Highlights include a handmade Chumash plank canoe, the rare Point Conception Lighthouse lens, a working periscope, interactive sport fishing and tattoo exhibits, and artifacts that tell stories of nearby shipwrecks, the growth of surfing and hardhat diving, the impact of commercial fisheries, and how a local oil spill in the 1960s helped spur the environmental movement.
There is certainly no shortage of restaurants in this picturesque seaside city – family-friendly eateries, fine dining establishments and places popular with the locals and tourists alike. This trip, we opted to experience a little of each – a bustling neighborhood cafe located at 702 Anacapa St., La Paloma (lapalomasb.com) serves oak-grilled meats, seasonal produce and Mexican/Spanish/Chumash-inspired dishes that harken back to “the old way of California cooking and hospitality.”
For starters, try the flavorful crispy brussels quick fried with syrah-porcini mushroom reduction, pomegranate and smoked cojita cheese. The Santa Maria-style Snake River Farm Wagyu Tri-Tip was delicious paired with rancho salsa, creamy horseradish and bbq pinquito beans while the Santa Barbara Mission Chicken is enhanced with lemon peel, rosemary and apple pink peppercorn sauce.
Santa Barbara’s “best scratch bakery,” Helena Avenue Bakery’s (helenaavenuebakery.com) menu is made up of rustic, organic freshly baked breads, handmade seasonal pastries made from scratch, picnic fare, gourmet sandwiches and salads. Clearly another local fave, the line was out the door … and it was evident why when the order arrived at our outdoor patio seating. Carb lovers rejoice! The Challah French Toast was an inspired take on a traditional take on a weekend brunch staple with vanilla chai spiced custard, brown butter Fuji apples, pecans and maple syrup. The Breakfast Sandwich on brioche was a hearty dish piled high with baked farm egg, smoked cheddar, black pepper bacon and scallion butter.
At the risk of sounding as though all we did was eat our way through our Santa Barbara stay, I would be simply remiss if I didn’t mention our outstanding experience at Opal Restaurant and Bar (opalrestaurantandbar.com) at 1325 State Street. Located in the Historic Art District, Opal is the “go to” for globally influenced, eclectic California cuisine (think dishes inspired by the colorful multi-cultural heritage of America, often with an Asian flair), perfectly paired wines and creative craft cocktails – all in a comfortable ambiance with excellent, yet unbotrusive service.
My kids are huge fans of calamari – they’ve ordered it at every Italian restaurant we’ve ever visited. But Opal’s Asian Glazed Crispy Calamari was certainly something to write home about – a delicious starter paired with baby arugula and crispy asian rice noodles – so good that my daughter was tempted to order another as her entree. My husband and son’s herb grilled filet mignon was cooked to perfection and arrived with whipped truffle butter Yukon potatoes, sauteed broccoli and green beans and a port-wine marsala and wild mushroom cream sauce. I’m the seafood aficionado of the family – my lemon grass crusted fresh salmon is called out as a “local’s favorite” on the menu with good reason: this delicious dish is enhanced with a Thai curry sauce, sauteed julienne vegetables, carmelized apple and orange zest basmati rice.
With California’s signature golden light a guarantee, there’s no better time to plan your escape to Santa Barbara – “The American Riviera.”