Santa Barbara is one of those California places folks know about, even if they’ve never been. It has a reputation for top attractions like sandy beaches, sunny days and wine. Put them all together and you’ve got a great combination for a family vacation. Here’s my list of top things to do in Santa Barbara with kids:
There’s a new hotel in town and its got everyone talking, or chirping. Kimpton’s Canary Hotel has a fun, contemporary beachy vibe and its location can’t be beat. Just a block off State Street on Carrillo Street, it’s a great launching point to set out exploring the town. In typical Kimpton fashion, kids are a common sight and families don’t have any trouble feeling at home.
Set Your Sights on the Sand
From the hotel, it’s about a mile walk down State Street to Stearns Wharf. We decided to head out on foot and find some lunch along the way. I underestimated the power of State Street over a tween and teenage girl. Some shopping, some ice cream, and some ohs and ahs slowed our steps to the sand, but made for a fun-filled stretch nonetheless.
State Street ends at Stearns Wharf. You can’t miss it, so no worries about getting lost. Head out to the end of the Wharf to catch of glimpse of the local fishermen hoping to hook dinner. There are some stretches with no railings, so keep an eye on little ones. There’s a handful of places to shop, eat or grab something sweet to munch on while you watch some of Santa Barbara’s best surfers catch a wave.
Ty Warner Sea Center
Kids of all ages will love the Ty Warner Sea Center. Teaming with all sorts of creatures from local waters, kids get to look and more often than not, touch. Don’t miss the Sunflower Star. Capable of traveling 40 inches in just one minute, it’s the fastest moving sea star. They’re also among the largest, growing up to three feet with up to 24 rays or arms.
Make sure to save some time to get sandy. You may think the water’s a little chilly, but the kids probably won’t notice. When they start to get tuckered, head back to the entrance to Stearns Wharf and jump on the Downtown-Waterfront Electric Shuttle. For just a quarter, it’ll take you back down State Street and in our case dropped us within blocks of our hotel. It’s the best bargain in town. Seriously, when’s the last time you paid a quarter for anything? And by the way, kids under 5 ride free.
Pool With a View
With an average 300 days of sunshine, long summer days give you the luxury of fitting in lots of activities without your days feeling like they’re jam-packed. When you get to the Canary, if the warm sun is still shining, a swim in the rooftop pool will give everyone a second wind before dinner.
Paddle Santa Barbara
Some of the best views of Santa Barbara are from the water looking back toward land. And one of the best ways to explore and get a little wet is on a kayak. Head to the “Sea Landing” boat launch area of the Santa Barbara Harbor to meet up with the guides from Santa Barbara Adventure Company. (The Santa Barbara Harbor is on Cabrillo Boulevard, west of State Street.)
Kayaking around the Santa Barbara Harbor is a great activity for school aged kids and up. If it’s the family’s first time on the water, consider a double kayak. With plenty of room for two, they give parents security and more control over safety, and give kids an easy way out if they tucker out and need a break from paddling.
Other than the actual paddling, the guides do most of the work, making the trip easy and enjoyable for families. Once they had our group fitted in wetsuits, out guides, Adam and Cody, gave us a quick but thorough lesson in paddling. After launching into the water, we had some time to practice before the navigating adventure began.
Gliding around the marina is an adventure of its own. We went underneath the hull of a moored catamaran the size of a yacht and played kayaking limbo under docks. But the highlight was leaving the harbor and gliding out to what’s affectionately known as sea lion buoy.
There were more than half a dozen sea lions afloat when we arrived, one on top of the other, fighting for the small amount of space on the buoy to lounge about. Every now and then a sea lion would get booted into the water, but not without a feisty ruckus. Your kayak’s provides the equivalent of front row seats to the action.
Depending on the weather and waves, your guides will pick a location to beach for lunch. They’ll set up a deli style lunch while you hunt for sand dollars or just stretch out and relax on the sand.
It’s nice not having to worry about packing a lunch, but you should pack a few things for yourself and the kids. Bring sunscreen, towels, sunglasses, a waterproof camera and shoes (not flip flops) that can get wet. The guides have dry bags to help keep gear dry, and were happy to take everyone’s car keys before we “put-in”and tuck them safely away so we didn’t run the risk of losing them on the water.
The tour lasts about four hours, which means the kids may fall asleep in the back of the car before you make it to the hotel – the tell-tale sign of a perfect day of vacation.
Editorial Note: Dana and her family received one night’s complimentary accommodations from the Canary Hotel, complimentary kayak tours from Santa Barbara Adventure Company and passes to the Ty Warner Sea Center, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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