Santa Barbara – a quick stop on the coast of California

Santa Barbara beach

With Las Vegas under our belts and San Francisco still to come on our North American holiday, we needed somewhere to charge our batteries. Santa Barbara appealed, offering the beach and summer sunshine, but the weather didn’t quite play ball.

Locked between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the ocean north of Los Angeles, it’s an attractive town that’s home to plenty of celebs, among them Oprah Winfrey and yummy Brad Pitt.

But other than a few hours of glorious sunshine on our first day, the weather didn’t deliver. And all we could do was look enviously at the fine stretches of sand as the cloud hovered above us, the wind blew and the showers fell.

Another view of the beach
Another view of the beach

But we didn’t leave disappointed because it gave us some good walks, fine food and drink, funky shops and a lively nightlife courtesy of its large student population.

We arrived in Santa Barbara on a small and noisy United Airlines Embraer, piloted by a man who insisted on describing every minute of our short hop from LA. Clearly an entrant in that year’s most verbose captain’s PA contest, he made up for the stewardess, who spent the flight chatting to a friend, oblivious to the fact she had passengers on board.

We checked into the Harbour View Inn down by the beach. A quick exploration revealed a seafront lined by tall, elegant palms that swayed gently in the sea breezes. Families and students gathered in large numbers in those few hours of sunshine. We even managed an hour or two by the pool with our books.

The view of the town from the court house
The view of the town from the court house

At one end of the beach we found the busy harbour and marina, which had a small collection of shops and restaurants. As the wind gathered force the following day, we went for a walk around but had to dodge waves crashing over the harbour walls.

At the other end of the beach, large family homes that most of us can only dream of owning clung to the tops of the rocky cliffs.

Stuck in the middle, opposite our hotel, we found the touristy Stearns Wharf with its restaurants, shops and marine museum, the Ty Warner Sea Center. We stopped for a beer and nervously watched the pelicans and Embraer-sized seagulls sweeping around us, threatening to unload copious shits and reminding us of scenes from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

State Street is the long main drag that runs at right angles to the beach, ending at the wharf and our comfortable hotel.

Santa Barbara Mission
Santa Barbara Mission

It’s lined with shops, bars and restaurants, ultimately leading into more residential areas inland, although staying by the coast meant it was a bit of a trek into town. The shopping varied from fashion and luxury brands to amazing delis and homewares.

On a particularly gloomy day, we ventured a couple of miles inland to the Santa Barbara Mission and its delightful gardens. Founded by the Franciscan order in 1786 and known today as the Queen of the Missions, it boasted amazing views down to the Pacific Ocean. I couldn’t help thinking of the film The Mission, which charted how the Catholic Church went about corrupting the native peoples of South America and brought with it death and destruction. I wonder how destructive this particular mission had been in those early years?

We chose the gentle if fairly long walk back into town through residential streets lined with some expensive and well-tended houses.

In the afternoon, we took a quick tour of the town courthouse and climbed the tower for more spectacular views. The building itself was a fine example of Spanish-Moorish architecture, and included colourful tiles, mosaics and pretty gardens.

The mission building
The mission building

The Presidio, by contrast, was more of a museum. Home to the Spanish military forces back in the early days of the town, it wasn’t the greatest of historic sites but gave us a flavour of what life was like in the area in the earliest days of the Spanish conquest.

Seafood is big business in Santa Barbara and made up a significant proportion of our lunch and dinner stops. We had a big meal at the Enterprise Fish Company but also enjoyed eating at Emilio’s – a popular Italian restaurant on the coast.

The bars on State Street were the busiest that we found on the few nights we were in town but, sadly, we never did see Mr Pitt or Ms Winfrey in any of them…

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