Santa Barbara has Something Special for Kids

ghogan August 15, 2010 1 Comment


When a co-worker recently suggested Santa Barbara and California’s Central Coast as a family vacation destination, I was a bit skeptical. It was on our list of possible honeymoon destinations when Dora and I were getting married and didn’t have much money to go farther than Las Vegas (which my wife-to-be had rejected as too cliché). We never expected that a road trip to Santa Barbara would be the quintessential family escape to really bond with our two girls when our schedules were out of synch. If you are planning a trip to Santa Barbara and are within driving distance, be sure to review our family road trip tips to get the family ready (snacks, entertainment, and change of clothes).    

This time however, the Hogan family decided to take the two-hour train from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. With the gorgeous Southern California weather, taking the Amtrak Coast Starlight (once daily) or Surfliner (seven times daily) was a new experience for all of us.  I’ve been on planes, cars, boats, and buses but never a train. Amtrak has a daily service from downtown Los Angeles, and the gorgeous Pacific Ocean view is free. They even had sleeping accommodations on the Starlight.    

Make sure to get to the station early as coach tickets cannot be reserved in advance, therefore, seating is on a first come first serve basis.    

On our trip, the majestic scenery made us feel proud to be Californians. At the same time, my wife and I wondered what else we’ve missed by not looking at our own backyard for these kind of treasures. Costa Rica and Thailand are amazing destinations if you can spare a week or two,  but we were immediately captivated by this local adventure two hours from our home and by train no less!  As the primary driver in our family it was nice to have a break —Yipppeee!    

For weekend accommodations, we researched several intriguing leads that I’ve included just to make your own decision-making easier. 


Santa Barbara Ala Mar By The Sea Motel

Ala Mar By The Sea Motel

Ala Mar By The Sea is located at 102 West Cabrillo Blvd. in an affluent area despite its very inexpensive price. It’s just steps from the beach so its proximity offers a ton of activities for the family. The Spanish-style architecture of the building certainly doesn’t scream MOTEL. In fact, it looks more like a beachside bed and breakfast. Speaking of which, breakfast is free and kids under 17 stay free so our kids qualified. As a result, Ala Mar by The Sea tops our list.    

Best Western Pepper Tree Inn is at 3850 State St. and sits on five well-manicured acres. It has a one-of-a-kind “Santa Barbara Resort” feel for a Best Western. It also has Spanish-influenced architecture. It is quiet and within close proximity to the Santa Barbara Mission and the Museum of Natural History.    

Inn of the Spanish Garden Santa Barbara

Inn of the Spanish Garden Santa Barbara

Inn of the Spanish Garden (located at 915 Garden St., Santa Barbara, Phone: 806-564-4700) is in downtown Santa Barbara, only a couple of blocks from the best dining and shopping choices on busy State Street. This luxury hotel—in a word—spoils its guests with unexpected comforts and an attentive staff. Luxurious Frette linens, Anichini towels and robes, free WiFi throughout the hotel, and even fireplaces for chilly Santa Barbara evenings await lucky guests in this sanctuary. French press coffee makers are even standard in the rooms. However, what makes the Inn of the Spanish Garden a true jewel is its exquisite Spanish-Mediterranean exteriors with grounds featuring fountains and a fire pit where the kids will enjoy warming up while talking about all the new adventures tomorrow brings.    

Fess Parkers Double Tree Resort  (located at 633 East Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, Phone: 805-564-4333) has stunning grounds with the cool Pacific Ocean and the golden mountains of the Southern California Mountain valley surrounding it. This resort is literally a hop away from the beach, and even has special beachside and on-premises activities to entertain kids and adults. Every room even has a patio (ground-level) or balcony. There are 5 on-site restaurants to choose from as well as 24/7 room service.  Pets are also very much welcome if Rover wants to come along with the family.    

Ala Mar By The Sea Santa BarbaraHotel Oceana Santa Barbara at 02 W Cabrillo Blvd, Santa Barbara also sits across from the beach and delivers a grand Pacific Ocean view that includes the harbor where the kids might even spot migrating whales. What’s “family friendly” about the Oceania? Well, they offer babysitting services. However, since the point of our trip was to spend time with the kids, we passed on this convenient feature. Nearby there is an assortment of restaurants, museums, and shops.    

Hotel Santa Barbara is at 533 State St. in downtown Santa Barbara and has a captivating Mediterranean charm while within arm’s reach of cafes, theaters, and even nightclubs. Mission Santa Barbara is nearby as is the Paseo Nuevo Mall, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The most attractive offering here was the availability of cribs for traveling infants.    

So once the family is settled in, you will want to eat a good dinner after the grueling (not really, but we had to sound like we were hardened adventurers) journey to get here.    


Longboard’s  (210 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, Phone: 805-963-3311) is right where the action is—on Santa Barbara’s well-known Stearns Wharf. A dining experience here with the family starts with a one-of-a-kind appetizer served on the outdoor patio. We’ll even give you the recipe: inhale the ocean air, hear the waves crash, and watch the sunset over the Pacific. Sound delicious? Why not follow it up with some clam chowder, fish and chips, and other seaside favorites? The kids will love the delicious fish tacos, gourmet chicken burgers, and fried shrimp perfect for dipping.    

Moby Dick’s (220 Stearns Wharf, 805-965-0549) has a memorable name, great food, awesome views, and a kid’s menu. It is easy to find at the end of the wharf. I highly recommend the clam chowder as it puts you in the nautical mood.    

Palace Grill (8 East Cota Street, 805-963-5000) Another great place if you are with the kids since they have a convenient kid’s menu. It has a Cajun theme but everyone is sure to find something to enjoy for lunch or dinner.    

Beach Grill at Padaro Santa BarbaraBeach Grill at Padaro (3765 Santa Claus Lane, Carpinteria, Phone: 805-566-3900) love kids so much they even made a sizeable sand play area on the premises stocked with toys. It’s the perfect spot for them to romp while waiting for lunch or dinner. There is even a grassy area with picnic tables where you can take your food out. As for the menu, they have salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and seafood.  While, you eat, you can even enjoy a seaside view. This is our pick for most kid-friendly restaurant in Santa Barbara hands down.    

Cajun Kitchen (901 Chapala Street, 805-965-1004) is our close runner-up for most kid-friendly because the very casual staff supplied our kids with coloring books and crayons. The Cajun food is also reasonably-priced. Weekends usually mean a long line outside this popular spot so reserve in advance or send someone ahead to save you a spot in line. Have they thought of installing a sandbox?    

Now that our tummies were filled, we wanted to relax at the beach and enjoy the spectacular Santa Barbara sunset, but which beach? Santa Barbara has so many.    


Butterfly Beach faces west therefore guaranteeing one of the best sunset experiences in town. The surrounding neighborhood is very private and exclusive but the people here are certainly colorful.    

Carpinteria State and City Beaches is on a long stretch of two gorgeous beaches. You can camp, surfside and play Frisbee with the tots. However, time seems to absolutely stand still when you take a leisurely walk along the water .  Everywhere you look people seem to be content just watching the waves.    

Leadbetter Beach is a haven for catamaran pilots, surfers, windsurfers, and yes, walkers. It is centrally located so it is one of Santa Barbara’s busiest beaches. Weekly sporting events and parties are a given here especially during the summer. A local radio station even broadcasts straight from the sand!    

The Spit did not sound so attractive but if you wish to avoid the crowds, The Spit is it! It is a small beach at the far north end of the city but has lots of dog walkers, strollers, and even boogie boarders. The Spit is not very popular with the tourists but a gem among the locals.    

We still had one full day of the weekend before heading home so we decided to see the attractions that do a great job luring visitors worldwide to this Spanish-style resort town.   


Santa Barbara Mission [2201 Laguna St., 805-682-4149] is not the only reason to visit Santa Barbara but is possibly the best reason to stop by. It was built in 1786 by well-known missionary Father Junipero Serra with the help of the Chumash Indians. In fact, it blends the spirituality of the Indians and the Spanish almost seamlessly. It isn’t hard to realize why they call Santa Barbara Mission the “Queen of the Missions” as it holds court from a majestic hilltop throne overlooking the Channel Islands and the idyllic town. It even has a crown of twin bell towers.    

“Solvang” (Highway-101 exit off Buellton then follow Highway 246 to Solvang) is Danish for “sunny meadows,” and this little haven of Dutch culture on the West Coast includes one of its most famous tourist attractions replicated here. The kids loved the Little Mermaid statue copied from the original in Copenhagen. In fact, everything here, from the building architecture to the restaurants and boutique shops give visitors a little taste of Denmark. We opted to try the authetic Danish smorgaasbord, a filling buffet with a Nordic twist. If you are just stopping by for a snack at one of the Dutch bakeries, try the aebleskievers, a pancake-like dish topped with raspberry sauce at The Solvang Restaurant (the best place to try this specialty). We also recommend a quick lunch of healthy ostrich burgers!  Solvang was a scenic 30 minute drive from our hotel in Santa Barbara.    

Historic Downtown Santa Barbara

Historic Downtown Santa Barbara

Historic Downtown  (Downtown Santa Barbara) has adobe walls, glazed tile work, and terra-cotta roofs. It felt like we walked back into the past, but then I saw three (count them THREE) Starbucks on State street alone.    

We recommend taking the unique Santa Barbara Trolley especially during the holidays when Santa Barbara becomes a well lit Christmas Ornament. This 90-minute ride shows you this amazing sight that quickly puts the family in a holiday spirit. The Annual Trolley of Lights run from December 10 till Christmas Eve but the regular Trolley Tour runs daily.    

Santa Barbara Mission (Mission Street Exit off the US-101 in Santa Barbara) is crowned “The Queen of the Missions.” It is a well-deserved title  with its gorgeous surroundings that includes meticulously manicured gardens and scenic vistas. It is the 10th California mission and has been active for 223 years since its founding. Here, you can tour the mission gardens, the museum, the cemetery, and the church. Recently added was an Arts and Architecture tour. Some of its historic hotspots include the ruins of a pottery kiln, tanning vats, a fountain, and a lavadero (or wash house/laundry). The mission itself was dedicated to Saint Barbara, a christian martyr. Its twin bell towers are recognizable particularly among California school children.    

So next time you want to go on a family weekend getaway but are short on time, cash, and yes, even short on patience for driving, try looking in your own backyard (not literally, that’s called a “staycation”). I bet there’s a hidden travel treasure only an hour or so away.

avatarAbout the Author:

Garrett Hogan lives in Burbank California and is a proud husband and father of two young daughters. He and his family love to travel and explore new places.

Tags: , Travel Excursions
One Comments to “Santa Barbara has Something Special for Kids”
  1. avatar Cambria, Cayucos & Carpenteria California - Beaches Lodging & Shops says:

    [...] to Los Angeles is another small beach town “C” – Carpenteria. South of Santa Barbara, with Amtrak ticking along through town, Carpenteria is more of a working town than a resort. [...]