California Road Trip: Highway One and Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Main beach

After a fabulous time in Big Sur, we set off down the epic and unspeakably beautiful Highway One towards Santa Barbara.

On paper this is a five hour drive, but I’d strongly recommend allowing at least seven hours – you’ll need to stop for drinks and lunch, and if you’re driving, the only way to truly (and safely) appreciate the scenery along this coastal road is by pulling in to one of the gazillion vista points along the road.

highway 1 california

Highway One is all beautiful – we’d definitely recommend stopping for lunch at Nepenthe, a slightly new-age restaurant that’s been serving brunch and lunch at the Southern tip of Big Sur for over 60 years. Lunch is served at benches overlooking the coastline far below, providing amazing views for miles.

As you get towards San Simeon, you can pull off the highway to see elephant seals lying on the beach – they’re amazing, but smell SO bad! A couple of miles more and you’re at the Hearst Mansion, with all its gaudy luxury and spectacle.

Onwards, and I recommend leaving Highway One as you get towards Santa Barbara and skipping over to Highway 154, which actually shaves a few minutes off the journey time, and cuts through the San Rafael mountains, offering some spectacular scenery and views over Lake Cachuma, especially towards sunset.

It was dark when we finally landed in Santa Barbara. But we woke up to this…

Santa Barbara

The next morning we loved exploring the Old Town and State Street. Santa Barbara is nicknamed the American Riviera and it’s not hard to see why – whitewashed, hispanic style buildings, a ridiculous amount of greenery and hundreds of pavement cafes and coffee shops.

A tip we got from a local – climb the tower in the middle of the court house – it offers the best views over the town and sea beyond. Just gorgeous.

Another real highlight for us was the Farmer’s Market, which takes place on State St on Tuesday afternoons, and offers you the chance to sample fresh goods from some of the regions best farms, with a strong focus on organic, local produce. There are farmers carrying baskets of fresh strawberries to share with passing kids, buskers, street performers and it’s all really good fun.

santa barbara farmers market

We tried wheatgrass smoothies, ate organic heirloom tomatoes and fresh chicken wings, and shopped up a storm. Flea especially loved geeking out at the Metro comic book store – and I adore their “discount for a good report card” policy. How cute is that?

comic book store sign

If the weather’s not too bright, we loved popping in to Santa Barbara Rock Gym, home to some fantastic walls for climbing and bouldering. It’s just $15 for a day pass here. We also spent a happy hour browsing the many, many, many surf and skate shops in town, with Flea choosing a new skateboard for her birthday.

Santa Barbara’s beaches are South rather than West facing so they’re not great for sunsets but they more than make up for it with water sports and activities. We took a glorious sunset kayak cruise to celebrate my birthday (sunset makes me look younger in photos, basically) – for around $50 each, you get a 2 hour cruise around the bay, and the chance to see local wildlife up close.

sunset cruise kayak santa barbara

You can also rent Stand Up Paddleboards, which I loved, although mine need to be re-named “kneeling down paddleboards because it’s surprisingly hard to balance when the waves get big and it’s windy, actually.” 

There are plenty of great restaurants in Santa Barbara – this is serious food and wine country, and I’m sure that there’s probably a bylaw that says you can’t leave town without trying some local wine, and tacos. We had a fabulous dinner at Benchmark Eatery with the most friendly and attentive service (without being creepy). The fish tacos were a real highlight, along with the Bourbon vanilla ice cream. AND the guy who was running the place sang to me to celebrate my birthday. Winning, or what?

The following morning, we took out a jetski ($135/hour) for an hour and a half. Now, it has to be said, I’ve never ridden a jetski before and had no idea just how pant-wettingly terrifying the experience would be. Flea – needless to say – ADORED it, screaming with joy for the entire time, at one point yelling at me, “This is the GREATEST day of my life!”

terrified on jetski santa barbaraI think that’s what she said, anyway, I was kinda busy trying to concentrate on keeping my hands on the handlebars, safely keeping Flea on board, and not think about how easy it might be for a small child to get shredded in the boat propeller.

You can surf at Santa Barbara and Flea took some group lessons with The Santa Barbara Adventure company. My very, very favourite thing about surfing in Santa Barbara is that you have to go about 8 miles out of town to Santa Claus Beach. How do you find Santa Claus beach? I’m glad you asked. It’s right down Santa Claus Lane. Come ON! How can you not love that?

The waves here are closer to shore than in Santa Cruz and Flea struggled a bit to begin with – I was also less than thrilled by the instructors from the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, when I saw Flea get clunked in the head by her own surfboard and there was no instructor in sight to help, or even notice. Once I spoke with them, they were great, and gave Flea lots of support and encouragement, but still, I know other surf schools running group lessons put their instructors (and often the kids, too) in brightly coloured rash vests and/or hats, so kids can easily see them if they get into trouble.

For our last evening in Santa Barbara, we picked up In-N-Out burgers (OMG, they’re soooo good) and headed back to our rental, which has a gorgeous deck with views of the mountains, where we ate burgers, drank shakes and made S’Mores on the barbecue.

Tomorrow, we’ll be up and on the road early, as it’s Flea’s birthday and – not to give too much away – we’re hoping to spend it in the Happiest Place on Earth. It seems like the perfect place for a kid to celebrate reaching double digits!

 

About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

9 Comments

    • 14th August 2015 / 4:47 pm

      Aw, thanks, although the level of bruising today is less fun!

  1. 14th August 2015 / 7:46 pm

    Ok, now I want to go to Santa Barbara! It looks amazing! I’ve loved seeing all of your updates on Facebook! The jet ski looks like fun, but I might have been more like you than Flea and screamed a fair bit! Hope she has a good birthday tomorrow!
    Emily recently posted..Binky LinkyMy Profile

    • 17th August 2015 / 6:19 pm

      Santa Barbara is completely new to us but very pretty, and definitely worth the trip.

    • 17th August 2015 / 6:18 pm

      Honestly, Cali is the perfect place for a family summer, it really is!

  2. 15th August 2015 / 7:16 am

    What an adventure you are having Sally and Flea…how fabulous. Am loving your updates
    Becky recently posted..5 bachelor pad essentialsMy Profile

    • 17th August 2015 / 6:18 pm

      I feel very lucky this summer, keep having to pinch myself!

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