Santa Barbara is a popular tourist destination for families all over the world, but to me, it's just home.
Once, when we were flying back home after a trip, my dad met someone who was vacationing in Los Angeles, about a two hour drive from Santa Barbara. He lived in the place we had just traveled to, so we exchanged travel tips and talked about the places we had been to on our trip. After every place we mentioned, he just shook his head and laughed. "I've never been there," he said, "but I've heard of it." When he proceeded to tell us what he was planning to do in LA, we did the same. "We've been meaning to go there," we explained, "but we never have."
The funny thing about that story is that it's really true: when you're in your hometown, you just don't seem to go to the places that most "tourists" visit. But as soon as you visit another place, you suddenly cram your days full of all the things locals never seem to get around to.
Santa Barbara has always been that way for us. We never go to museums, or explore more than one beach, or see main tourist attractions, such as the Mission. Our weekends are spent doing average, family things - maybe a walk on Miramar Beach here or there, but other than that, nothing unusual. One lazy afternoon, when my mom was out, my dad approached my brother and I with an idea.
"Lets do a scavenger hunt around Santa Barbara," he said. "I'll create a list of clues, and you two have to try to solve them to get to your next location."
"Do we get a prize?" asked my brother.
My dad smiled. "The prize is the adventure, isn't it?"
My brother wasn't convinced, but in the end, consented.
That afternoon, we got to do all the things we never even thought about - the things visitors to Santa Barbara crammed their days full of. And, despite our original reluctance, it was really fun. We had never even realized the beauty within our own little town. It was like discovering an entire new world, right in your own backyard. Since then, we've done more of these scavengers hunts, which has inspired me to write about all the "Staycation" places to explore in Santa Barbara. So here it is! For the local and visitor alike, I've put together my new favorite things to do in Santa Barbara.
Coronado Butterfly Preserve
It's been a tradition in our family ever since we moved here. Each year, beginning in January, the monarch butterflies flock to the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, a eucalyptus forest perched right on the edge of towering cliffs above the sparkling blue sea. We love to explore the forest, watch the monarchs fly around, and see clusters of them on the eucalyptus trees. And when you've had your fill of that, you can take a few steps out of the forest and come out into a whole different world, with bursting sunlight, azure waves crashing against the cliffs, and fields of tall, dry grass stretching as far as the eye can see.
We often come to the Butterfly Preserve with our friends. After a short, pleasant hike through the forest, the trees begin to thin out, and lo and behold, there's the sea. Hanging right over the edge of the cliffs are a small group of trees, with branches that weave together to form a blanket over your head. For hours, my friends, my brother, and I would climb the trees, build secret hideouts looking out over the ocean, and play games, pretending we were magical creatures in another world. In my opinion, the Butterfly Preserve is a portal for a child's imagination to run free. And in my opinion, that's the best thing on this planet.
Aside from the adventurous and butterfly aspects of the Butterfly Preserve, it's a beautiful place to take a walk, too. There's a bit of a hike to get into the forest, but it isn't strenuous - instead, very much the opposite. A cool breeze blows through the trees, and the air smells of wildflowers. The scenery is amazing, too. After all, what's not to like about a forest filled with butterflies, peeking out at the sea?
I could literally go on and on about Miramar Beach. My family lives just a few blocks away, so it is, by far, our favorite beach to go to. There are endless places to explore: the rolling blue waves, the tide pools - filled with hermit crabs, seastars, sea slugs, sea anemones, and sometimes, even an octopus or two - the sandy part of the beach, the rocky part of the beach, and more. It's a beautiful place to spend the day, splashing in the sea and hanging out on the sand, and even seeing wildlife.
Every once in a while, when the day is just right, my family will take paddle boards out to Miramar, hoping to catch a glimpse of dolphins, stingrays, and shimmering fish. When we do see one, it's an incredible experience, one that we remember forever. Paddle boards are also an amazing way to experience the ocean. One of my favorite activities to do with friends is to paddle far out and pretend we're lost at sea. We'll jump off the board, too, and into the water, marveling at how pretty it all is.
The tide pools are super fun, too. My dad and I often take a walk through them at sunset, exploring for octopuses. Finding one is always cause for celebration (it's a game, of sorts, in our family. My dad named the always elusive octopus, like the Holy Grail, JR Ruggle Butt). And the sunsets - those are always priceless.
(I know - what is up with all of these "Butterfly" things? Sorry. That just now occurred to me, and I couldn't help but point it out.)
Anyways, my family has another "tradition," if you could call it that. Each year, during Winter, a lot of sailboats are abandoned by their owners out of fear of a storm. These boats often wash up on Butterfly Beach. My dad and I always drive by Butterfly to see if there are any shipwrecks, and when there are, we seize the moment. The instant we get home, we grab our jackets and head down to Miramar Beach. After walking for a bit, Miramar becomes Hammonds, and Hammonds becomes Butterfly. It doesn't take long to find the shipwreck in question: many others have flocked around it, too, curious.
My dad and I observe the sailboat for a while before pulling out the camera. And that's where the real magic happens. Over the years, we've accumulated hundreds of pictures, but out of all of them, the one shown above is probably our favorite. Siesta, the name of the sailboat, happens to mean nap. My dad and I found it hilarious that the boat appeared to be taking its own little siesta, right on the beach.
Of course, Butterfly Beach isn't only good for its sailboats. Standing grandly behind it is the Four Seasons Biltmore, one of the nicest resorts in Santa Barbara. As a result, the sunny beach is always wildly popular, among both locals and tourists. It's a great place to learn to surf, too.
The Rose Gardens at the Mission
The Mission is also infamous in Santa Barbara. It was built hundreds of years ago, by the Spanish Inquisitors who had come to California to attempt to convert all the Native Americans there. Therefore, it's a huge tourist destination. The Spanish Architecture is prominent and beautiful, and the building is incredible, but the real beauty, at least to my family and I, is in the rose gardens.
Stretching out before the Mission is a large field of grass. Speckled across the lawn are hundreds of different rose bushes, blooming gloriously and giving off a sweet scent. One of my dad's scavenger hunt activities was to photograph every single type of rose we could find. The overall objective? To capture the individual beauty of each rose, and, most importantly, to notice it. The Mission is a place most residents of Santa Barbara have been to at least once, but never paid much mind to. At least, that's how my family was. But sometimes, you can find adventure in the least obvious of places.
The Harbor is another bustling part of Santa Barbara among tourists. And what's not to love? Thousands of sailboats all clustered together provides a lovely setting for a walk next to the ocean, while saltspray is always in the air. And don't forget the infamous restaurant, Brophy Brothers, which sits right on the edge of the harbor, overlooking it. My family would eat there sometimes, but not as often as you might think.
One day, while waiting for a table at Brophy Brothers, we happened by a new restaurant concealed in a little alley, just next to Brophy - called On the Alley. We asked around, and discovered that it was owned by Brophy Brothers and served similar food, with a more casual setting. Intrigued, we canceled our reservation at Brophy Brothers and ate there, instead. We weren't disappointed. Since then, the Harbor - and On the Alley - has become a regular part of our life.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is one of few museums in Santa Barbara. It also happens to be a really good museum, lucky for us. The main attraction there, in my opinion, is the Asian display, filled with some of the most beautiful Asian artwork you'll ever see. They even have Samurai armor, which my brother obsesses over because of the connection to Darth Vader.
It is, overall, a small museum, but a great one to browse through nonetheless. I always cherish every time I get in a good museum, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is no exception. It's especially great for families, because it's not a ton of art to take in all at once, and therefore, is not overwhelming, like some more known museums are. My school goes there often on field trips, so it's more known and visited among locals, too (more so than, say, the Mission). I definitely would recommend this museum, if you're in Santa Barbara: the art is absolutely beautiful, and it's the perfect place to start an education in artwork with young children.
The Santa Barbara Sea Center
What makes this aquarium stand out from all the others is that it's perched on a pier, hanging right above the water. There are many interactive displays that the aquarium offers, too, that take advantage of its perfect location. Santa Barbara is probably one of the best places to explore ocean life, and this aquarium is a great place to do just that.
My favorite part about this aquarium is the multitude of interactive displays - a winner among kids. Touch tanks, an opening in the pier in which you can drop baskets in and pull out sea life to observe, and more all clash to make this a favorite attraction in Santa Barbara. And for good reason, too - you can return to this aquarium multiple times and learn something new each day.
Hot Springs Hike
Hot Springs is one of those hikes that we go on literally every day we can. It's a strenuous yet rewarding hike, which in my opinion, is the best type. For about an hour, the entire hike is uphill, climbing huge boulders that sit squarely beneath desert-like, scraggly trees. It's exhausting, but at the same time, exhilarating. When you finally arrive at the top, sweaty and hot and thirsty, you're met with a view to be dealt with.
All of Santa Barbara is spread out before the top of this hike. (My family and I love trying to pick out certain spots and places among all the buildings). And, beyond that, you can see the ocean, sparkling in the sunlight. Look even further, and you can glimpse the Channel Islands, which look like giant lumps of rock plopped down into the sea from so far away. It's a breathtaking view, one that can hold an entire family's attention for a long time.
From there, the hike meanders through the mountains for a while before beginning to loop downhill. This part of the hike is easy-going and shady, concealed by colossal oak trees that provide a beautiful setting. By the time I reach the bottom, I'm usually worn out, but grinning proudly all the same. Santa Barbara should be known for its hikes, but out of the multitude of options, Hot Springs would be one of my favorites.
Condor Express Whale Watching
Whale watching in Santa Barbara is one of those things I'd call a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Our family usually only goes once every few years, around spring when whales, dolphins, and other sea life are most active. It's a truly incredible experience, one that I wish I could do every single day of my life.
The first time we went whale watching (one of two times in our seven-or-so years in Santa Barbara), we not only saw three humpback whales, a blue whale, and hundreds of dolphins, but a small mob of sunfish, too. Sunfish are huge, yellowish-colored fish with a fin pointing straight up out of their bodies. The only other time we've ever seen a sunfish was at an aquarium in New Orleans, so seeing around five altogether in the wild was an experience we'll always treasure.
The dolphins had me mesmerized for hours. Hundreds of them swam in a pod beside our ship - mothers and their young, who were about the size of a football, ones with cookie cutter shark scars, and still others that would leap out of the water, and even appeared to be racing our boat.
And the whales - those were, of course, amazing. We spotted a blue whale, the largest creature alive, from a distance, and a few humpback whales came right up to our boat. One, a particularly playful little guy (or should I say humongous?), swam to one side of our boat, then dived underneath the boat and appeared on the other. People dashed this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of the humpback whale.
Overall, probably the most special and cherished of all these activities I've listed in Santa Barbara. Whether you're just visiting or have lived here all your life, go whale watching. It's an experience you'll never forget.
Of course, those few places I mentioned isn't all there is to Santa Barbara. Below, like always, are some other places I would wholeheartedly recommend, too. (Note: this article isn't really about food and restaurants, more about sights to see.)
A little bit about us...
We're a family of four (a daughter, a son, and their mother and father.... oh, and a six-month old Standard Poodle puppy). But we all share one thing in common: our love of travel and adventure!
Hotel of the Month
Solage Calistoga: the image of perfection. We stayed here recently on our trip to Napa Valley and couldn't have been more amazed at this stunning resort. The rooms, each one an individual cottage, were immaculate and private. The property itself contained multiple pools and other amenities, all of which were designed beautifully. One of our favorite parts had to be the Michelin-star restaurant, which served some of the best food we'd ever eaten. Solage Calistoga was the perfect fit for our family (and dog!), and we are eager to stay there again.