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

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. 

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.

Keep Reading: