Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast author and Santa Barbara resident Michael Cervin knows the best way to explore California’s idyllic hotspot. As a restaurant critic for the Santa Barbara News-Press and wine connoisseur, Cervin has insider knowledge to help travelers make the most of their time in Santa Barbara and the rest of California’s Central Coast.
Discovering Santa Barbara with Michael Cervin
1. How would you describe the spirit of Santa Barbara?
In a word; celebration. In three words, it’s the celebration of the sea, the city, the mountains and artisans working together on a shelf of land that embraces the best of its environment. Okay, that’s a lot more than three words, but Santa Barbara is about a way of life. Just visiting here is an act of celebration, because you will end up treating yourself well just by being on California’s Riviera.
2. What's the best time of year to visit?
Typically March through May, and October through November are the best times to visit. At these times the Channel Islands are clearer, the air more pristine, the crowds have subsided and the temperatures are more consistent. There is less summer heat and coastal fog. June through August we often have the “June gloom” when the marine influences blanket the city and sometimes the sun doesn’t peek out until 3 p.m. or so. One of the reasons I chose April to get married (at Leadbetter Beach by the way) was that I knew the weather would showcase the area to my family and guests.
3. Where is the best place to go watch a beautiful sunset?
You can’t beat Francheschi Park tucked into the Riviera. Not only do the eucalyptus trees frame the city, the harbor and the ocean, you can see the Channel Islands as the amber sun creates a beautiful glow across the city. Closer to the waters edge, both Leadbetter Beach and Butterfly Beach give you expansive views of the islands, the water and the sun sinking into the blue. Note however that if you’re standing on the shore near the wharf, you’re actually facing more south than west.
4. Name a few of Santa Barbara’s best surf spots.
Hands down the Rincon (which borders Ventura County and southern Santa Barbara County near Carpinteria) is a long right break and undeniably popular. But so is Campus Point at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), but it has more visible rocks at lower tides. For crazy big waves, Jalama Beach is great, but you need some surfing experience before you attack these big boys. For those just getting their feet wet, the right break in a semi protected area at Leadbetter Beach is also very cool, and you’re close to downtown.
5. If you only have 24 hours in town, what’s the best way to spend it?
I’d start off with a morning walk or run along the waters edge, around the downtown area, Leadbetter Beach, East and West beaches for example. You’ll see the Channel Islands in the distance, the mountains behind you and you might see dolphins. From there you can walk up to Santa Barbara Roasting Company and get coffee (the State Street blend is my personal favorite). I would then head to the County Courthouse and not only tour the building, but make sure you get up to the clock tower for the best photo-op of the city's red tiled roofs. From there you can walk to State Street and amble about to get the vibe for our most prominent street, with its mature trees flanking both sides, covering outdoor cafes and shops. To keep the Santa Barbara experience, have lunch at Art’s and Letters Café (right next to the art museum) where you can sit in the intimate courtyard behind the Sullivan Goss gallery. It’s outdoor dining with a three tiered fountain in the center of the courtyard. Then head to El Presidio State Historic Park and stand in the birthplace of the city. Across the street is El Cuartel, the second oldest building in all of California and the only remaining original section of the presidio from the late 1700s, so make certain you get inside, if only for a moment. Walk down the street and at least walk through El Paseo or La Arcada Court, even if you don’t stop and shop, as these are two historic and quintessential Santa Barbara paseos. Head back to the waterfront and rent a surrey or bike and roll down the coast along the Cabrillo path and take that all the way to the Andree Clark Bird Refugee to see the wildlife, or stop in at the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens. Go for an early dinner at Opal then walk a few doors down to the Arlington Theatre, our best multi-purpose theatre to see what’s on the screen and also to experience what’s inside the theatre with its Spanish plaza interior. To finish, stop by Live Culture in the Paseo Nuevo mall for a bit of live music and a late night snack or nightcap.
6. What are your three favorite restaurants?
Santa Barbara has more restaurants per capita for a town its size than most any place in the U.S., so it’s tough to narrow down choices. But Restaurant Julienne is consistently on my short list. The food is as fresh as you can get. I also adore Opal, a stalwart for 20 years with can’t-miss food located right on State Street. Opal also has a terrific wine list with local wines, but also a well rounded international selection. For the quintessential waterfront dining experience, of which there are surprisingly few, Brophy Brothers at the harbor has terrific seafood. But I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention D’Vine Café, an inexpensive sandwich shop downtown with great, flavorful food and wonderful prices
7. Describe Santa Barbara wine culture. What wineries should first-time visitors make time for?
Wines have been made in Santa Barbara since the late 1700s, but it was in the 1960s that commercial production really began. That still makes this a 40+ year wine growing region and pinot noir and chardonnay are very common. But there is also excellent syrah (both cool and warm climate versions), viognier and Cal-Ital varieties like sangiovese, barbera, and dolcetto, and classic grassy, herbaceous sauvignon blanc. To get the full effect of what Santa Barbara can produce, definitely check out Carr Winery as well as Kunin, both of which are right downtown. Or hop in the car and head for the Valley where you can sample biodynamic wines at Presidio Winery in Solvang, and Beckmen in Los Olivos. Rusack Winery has the best picnic options along picturesque Ballard Canyon, and both Tantara and Flying Goat wineries are excellent pinot noir producers.
8. What activities do you recommend for kids?
There’s plenty of tide pooling in Santa Barbara along miles of beaches, and it’s all free, and renting a kayak is a great inexpensive way to spend the day with your kids. Santa Barbara also has over 40 parks to explore and the wooden castle design of Alameda Park will keep young ones busy. The Landshark is an amphibious touring vehicle that will tour you through town, and then dunk you into the harbor, but most kids love being at Skater’s Point, a skate park right by the ocean which accommodates both skaters and bikers. Though Santa Barbara has no children’s museum, the tangible history at El Presidio State Park and the Historical Museum might be great options, if your kids are the more studious types. And yes, whale-watching is great because even if you don’t get up close and personal with a whale, you’re still on the ocean with your kids.
9. What are Santa Barbara’s best kept secrets?
1. I have to begin with the clock tower at the county Courthouse. Though people may visit, many never ascend to the top of the clock tower, which is open to the public and free! Here you will get the best views of the city.
2. Also unknown to nearly all visitors and most locals, the Frog Wall is a whimsical, very neighborhood-centric sight, where literally thousands of frogs (not real ones) have been tucked into and on top of an old wall.
3. Two exceptional beach walks, both far from the madding crowds: More Mesa is 300 undeveloped acres on a bluff overlooking the ocean, with the mountains in the background. There is beach access down an old wood block stairway cut into the cliffs. But the best views are from the bluffs. And the lagoon at UCSB is a fantastic spot to walk. The lagoon abuts the ocean, but you can veer around the lagoon which brings you back to the ocean, and only takes about 15 minutes.
4. As you drive up the San Marcos pass, Knapp’s Castle is a must. It was built by a wealthy landowner in 1916 and was originally a seven building lodge. It was sold to a woman in 1940 who lived there just five weeks before a fire destroyed all of the buildings, with the exception of a few stone chimneys are a stone archway which looks out to the Valley. Forlorn and ghostly, it has amazing views of the back country.
Interested in learning more? Buy a copy of Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast.