Head to Santa Barbara's waterfront

The sunny stretch is a haven for cycling, strolling, dining, and people-watching

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Santa Barbara's waterfront

A parade of skaters and cyclists wind their way along Santa Barbara’s Cabrillo Beachway.

Andrea Gomez

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Much is made of Santa Barbara as the American Riviera ― not a melting pot but a highbrow bouillabaisse of society mavens and jaw-dropping wealth.

But while it's true that there are movie stars and money here, the real Santa Barbara is found along its waterfront, where beach bikes are the transportation of choice, sailboats turn lazily on their moorings, and fishermen lay out their fresh catch on the docks.

Like any travelers, my family comes bearing a bias ― ours is that we think we know Santa Barbara.

Our hubris ― or at least mine ― is shattered soon after our arrival during an evening sail on the Sunset Kidd, a local 41-foot ketch.

The waters off the coast turn molten silver, then disappear into darkness. On Santa Barbara's hillsides, tiny enclaves of firefly lights flick on as night arrives.

"First comes the sunset, then the twilight colors, then the city lights," says the tour operator, Dennis Longaberger.

"There's this incredible presence out here, this sense of Santa Barbara that you don't get from dry land."

It is a Santa Barbara I have never seen; intimate and, truth be told, almost inconsequential as we sit and watch the city nearly swallowed by the dark hills.

A haven for active families

Of course, most kids don't like to sit still, and ours are no exception, which is why we have planned a weekend that would bring Marines to their knees.

Early the next morning, we head down palm-lined Cabrillo Boulevard to Skater's Point. In this waterfront-centric city, even the local skateboard park is steps from the sand.

Santa Cruz Island looms on the horizon as my boys swoop up and down the concrete walls, chasing their shadows.

The nearby Santa Barbara Harbor is small ― just a scattering of fishing and diving boats amid a bristle of sailboat masts. There's just one address, Harbor Way, shared by all, so it's easy to find the Saturday-morning Fisherman's Market on the pier in front of Brophy Brothers Restaurant.

At 7:30 in the morning, fishermen Sam Shrout and Mike Wild have already set out their offerings: live fat-clawed rock crabs ($2 a pound) and fresh-caught rockfish ($4 a pound).

Neither keeps well in a suitcase, so we opt for Shrout's "buy and release" crab program. Shrout shows us how to pick up our purchase without getting pinched (grab the two rear legs), then follows us over to set it free in the shallows. Settling to the mossy bottom, it backs quickly away.

"He's not wastin' any time," observes Shrout. He grins. "All right, Mike, put that trap back in the water."

After, hungry for things other than crab, we head for nearby State Street and the Tupelo Junction Cafe. Run by sisters Katie Scott and Amy Jeschke, the Junction is famous for its cinnamon beignets.

The boys split vanilla-dipped French toast and declare it the best breakfast they've ever had. "Sorry, Mom," says our youngest, Graham.


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