If there is a more beautiful city in California than Santa Barbara, we have yet to find it. Broad beaches are set against lush vegetation and a hilly landscape that is nestled just in front of the picturesque Santa Ynez Mountains. An abundance of Spanish architecture completes a panorama that could just as well be a beautiful city on the Mediterranean.
In fact, Santa Barbara marketing gurus like to refer to their little piece of California as the American Riviera because of its resemblance to other warm, coastal areas in other parts of the world.
But like any thriving city in an idyllic location – and especially one that has development geographically restricted by lack of buildable space – the real estate prices are high in Santa Barbara. In fact, the cost of living means that many people who work in Santa Barbara can't actually afford to live there and they end up commuting from the more affordable cities and towns nearby.
The beautiful thing about visiting Santa Barbara is you don't have to stay in less expensive nearby towns. You can live – if only for a few days – in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
There are many fine hotels in the city and you can choose how much you want to spend during your stay. The beach hotels are spectacular, and you'll find comfortable boutique hotels available on State Street in the city's colorful main shopping district. But we found you don't even have to pay a lot for your room if you don't mind staying in a smaller inn.
We had seen a $79 rate advertised for the Cabrillo Inn, located on East Beach in one of the city's most popular locations. We found out that it's true – it's possible to pay bargain basement rates and still be on the beach in Santa Barbara. Go to any city or town in California and it's often hard to find a good room for just $79 – forget about a beach. Getting that rate on the beach in Santa Barbara really is extraordinary.
The only small catch is that this rate doesn't give you a unit facing the ocean – but for just a few dollars more you can get the ocean-facing unit and, even if you don't, how tough is it to walk out the door, turn the corner and see East Beach and the vast Pacific Ocean in front of you?
Most of the units at the Cabrillo Inn are relatively small, motor-inn style and there is a small swimming pool and comfortable deck area where you can bask in the sun or read the Santa Barbara News Press or catch up on whatever book you're reading. The ocean stretches out before you – on the other side of a road and public park – and you'll enjoy the same ocean breezes as the major hotels close by. The deck also is an ideal location to enjoy the rather elaborate breakfast (for the price) that all guests get free with their room.
If you want more space and maybe the best ocean view of any Santa Barbara hotel room, check out the Cabrillo's third-floor suite with its panoramic picture windows and full ocean view, as well as a living room area, a small kitchen and a dining room.
But whether you stay at the Cabrillo or one of several high-end hotels nearby, the East Beach area is a good choice and definitely our favorite part of the city. During our short visit we went on endless walks along the beach enjoying lots of sunshine and a brilliant sunset. Close by is Stearns Wharf, a 130-year-old structure that was built originally to serve passenger and cargo ships. During World War II it became a naval installation and, today, has been turned into a shopping mecca for tourists with several stores and restaurants in a gorgeous setting out over the Pacific Ocean.
Also in the East Beach area is the Sunday Arts and Crafts Show, an eclectic mix of artwork and household items sold by street vendors, many of whom are the actual artists. Visitors and local residents spend hours shopping the fair, which stretches what seems like miles down Cabrillo Blvd. Got someone with you who isn't as excited about crafts or shopping? Turn them loose to walk the nearby beach, one of California's most scenic.
There is plenty else to see in Santa Barbara and a fun way to do it is aboard the Santa Barbara Trolley Tours. These trips are fully narrated and you can catch one of the trolleys about every 60 minutes. For $16 ($8 for kids) you can ride the Trolley all day and get off at any of several attractions included on the route. Among those are Butterfly Beach, the Moreton Bay Fig Tree, Stearns Wharf, the Dolphin Fountain, Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County Courthouse and the Andrea Clark Bird Refuge.
One place maybe you haven't thought about visiting is the Susan Quinlan Doll and Teddy Bear Museum and Library, one of the largest doll museums in the U.S. – and the largest Teddy Bear museum. Guests enjoy personal tours given by owner Susan Quinlan and, in addition to the dolls and teddy bears, there are many hand-painted murals throughout.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is another option – you'll find a concentration of Ancient Art, Asian Art, French and English 19th and early 20th Century, 19th and early 20th Century American Art and much more.
Or how about an elaborate garden with more than 3,000 plants from all over the world? You can visit Lotusland, where Madame Ganna Walska dedicated more than 40 years to creating this living masterpiece. The garden is located in a residential neighborhood and does require reservations before you visit.
If East Beach isn't enough for you and you want to find one of Santa Barbara's most remote beaches, check out 1000 Steps Beach or, as it is called, Camino Al Mar -- “the way to the sea.” While most Santa Barbara beaches are easily accessible, this beach is more isolated and requires a long walk down a narrow stairway to the beach. But once you get there, you might as well be on some deserted island because there are seldom other people around and there are tide pools galore for your exploration. To reach the beach, drive to the corner of Santa Cruz Boulevard and Shoreline Drive – then turn toward the ocean where you will find limited parking.
Yes, the treasures of Santa Barbara seem endless and it's great to know you don't need endless financial resources to visit one of California's most picturesque coastal cities.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Santa Barbara is just a hundred miles north of downtown Los Angeles and the drive to this gorgeous city is scenic from either the north or the south. From the north you'll pass through such popular destination as Pismo Beach and nearby beach communities; from the south plan a stop in Ventura where you'll enjoy the colorful and compact downtown as well as beautiful beaches and coastal walks. Keep in mind that less than a half-hour from Santa Barbara, in the Santa Ynez Valley, are some of the most amazing vineyards and wineries the state has to offer.
WHAT: Santa Barbara is a perfect combination of location, architecture and climate, making the city feel in some ways like it really is on the Mediterranean. A lot of care and attention goes into keeping the city in tip-top condition and visitors come away with the impression that every-day life there must be idyllic.
WHEN: Blessed with year-round good weather, there's no bad time to visit Santa Barbara.
WHY: Santa Barbara has a certain sophistication that sometimes may be lacking in a beach town. While the city doesn't feel stuffy, it does offer a multitude of cultural attractions for those who want a more “civilized” stay at the beach. But a lot of people visit not so much for the culture as for the natural beauty that is so abundant.
Photos, from top: Sunset on East Beach; Cliffs near East Beach; Sunday Arts and Crafts Show; Cabrillo Inn is just across road from Santa Barbara's most famous beach
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway