Head to Santa Barbara's waterfront

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

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Cruise the beach

Happily, Santa Barbara's waterfront is as compact as it is sea-washed and sun-blessed. If you pedal a rented four-wheeled beach cruiser, it's less than 5 minutes from the restaurants and fishermen's wares at the harbor to the long pier at Stearns Wharf.

Continue down the bike path, passing joggers and pickup soccer games, and in 10 minutes you've got a front-row seat for volleyball games at East Beach.

Another 5 minutes and you're wheeling past the zoo (catch a glimpse of the giraffes through a break in the trees) to the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, a lagoon hideaway for great blue herons and mallards.

Later, at the Ty Warner Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, we revel in the hands-on demos, lowering a bottle into the sea below the wharf via a long rope and pouring out the contents under a video magnifier.

A crab appears, perfectly formed and not much bigger than the swirling grains of sand ― the opaque, fragile beginnings of life. At the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, we have a go at a live-action video fishing game. Braced in a fighting chair, our older son, Cullen, lands a 79-pound sailfish that leaps on the screen, providing a virtual fight real enough to tire small forearms.

Facility manager William Cochran says it's one of the museum's most popular displays: "We have to replace the reel every few months."

With water as our guide, we finish the day with dinner at the Santa Barbara Inn's Citronelle. It's up on the third floor, so as we eat, we watch the waves and palm trees sway.

"You can tell a really good restaurant because they never let you finish your water," Graham says. My proof, however, is in the Maine diver scallops, which fairly melt on the fork.

The ocean's siren call

The sounds of life by the sea are everywhere in Santa Barbara. In restaurants, on promenades, and behind store counters, the talk is of surfing, diving, kayaking, fishing, and sailing.

Santa Barbara residents aren't highbrow; they're simply smart to play in an oceanic Eden.

Following their lead, on Sunday morning we sail from the harbor aboard the Santa Barbara Sailing Center's 50-foot catamaran.

Three miles up the coast, the crew launches kayaks so we can paddle back with the current. Much of Santa Barbara's shore faces south, protecting boaters from the powerful swells that batter the rest of the coast. Our paddle is as easy as it is dreamlike. Kelp rises and falls, whiskered sea lions regard us jauntily, and a dolphin displays a glistening apostrophe of dark muscled back.

A late-afternoon walk past Cabrillo Boulevard's arts and crafts show leads us to State Street, Santa Barbara's central shopping, dining, and people-watching artery.

This show began in 1965, and every Sunday booths along the promenade display original work, all from locals. Our favorite pieces are David Sugich's stained-glass kaleidoscopes. We gaze happily into silver cascades and starbursts of red, yellow, and purple.

"Hypnotic," beams the artist.

I agree ― but I am no longer looking through the kaleidoscope.

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