The Internet age has made it so easy to drop into a new town and figure out the best places to go. Open a browser, type “what to do in [city name]” and watch the results pour in. The challenge is to digest the flood of information and apply it to what works best for your specific wants and needs.
When my family made the journey to Santa Barbara for a seven-day summer vacation, my goal was to plan a handful of touristy activities but be open to atypical ideas too. So yes, we shopped State Street, strolled the Funk Zone, lounged on Butterfly Beach and ate outstanding Mexican at La Super-Rica. But the following four experiences are what made the trip unique to our group. Here’s what we discovered:
When my mother put me in charge of planning our family vacation this summer, she had but one requirement: “It needs to be hot.” So I felt a bit sheepish when, on our second morning in Santa Barbara, we all bundled up with blankets in the back of a CJ-8 for our three-hour Family Discovery Mountain Tour. Our guide Spencer regaled us with stories of the Chumash Indians, the region’s original settlers, as he drove up the Santa Ynez Mountains until we fittingly climbed above the clouds. We shed our hoodies as the sun eventually burned off the marine layer and we were greeted with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands from 4,000 feet up. A short hike—more like a fun scramble up the face of giant boulders—led to the pinnacle of the tour: Lizard’s Mouth. We learned more about the history of the area with stops at Painted Cave and Cold Spring Tavern before Spencer dropped us off at our rental house. Getting the lay of the land from high above the central coast was an ideal start to our week.
No direct link to the property we rented—the owners took down the listing because of California’s changing short-term rental laws—so you’ll need to take my word that it was outstanding. The beaches are the draw in Santa Barbara, but if your group is seeking solitude and serenity, renting a home in the hills above Santa Barbara is the way to go. The tradeoff for having a 10-minute drive to town, and a 20-minute drive to the ocean, was a four-bedroom home with a pool and hot tub overlooking a canyon with a mountain backdrop that went from red to orange to purple as the sun set. The best part? A zip line that stretched across the 1-acre property and made for an exhilarating start to each day. (And end. And middle. You couldn’t drag me off the thing.) So here’s a hearty vote for skipping the beachfront hotels and Airbnb condos near State Street and heading up the hill for a different vantage point.
Something about vacations always make me want to live differently than my normal day to day. At home, we do 98% of our shopping at grocery stores, but in Santa Barbara, we took the opportunity to stock the house with produce from farmers markets. We hit one in Santa Monica on the way up and this one in neighboring Goleta on the second day. My wife and I live on salsa verde from our local taco stand in Long Beach, but we forgot to order some before we left. So when we saw fresh tomatillos for sale at one of the Goleta stands, we pounced. The woman, in broken English, gave us her own recipe. We made it when we got back to the rental house and used it for breakfast quesadillas and for lunch-time chips and salsa the rest of the week. And having a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables—all grown in California, per market stipulations—was a nice treat.
Have you ever laid in bed while your significant other gets up, puts on workout clothes and trail shoes, then heads out the door? That’s me on vacation, begging to enjoy sleeping in while my wife is itching to take advantage of the local routes. I lugged myself off the pillowtop Serta and joined her on several mornings, making the short drive over to Parma Park for a 2-mile out-and-back that was straight uphill. We walked it the first day, but got passed multiple times by people jogging it. Since I turn everything into a competition, we jogged it each of the next three times we went. I will say: the view at the top—of canyons, of the city, of the ocean—was much better having truly earned it.