Traveling with a teenager doesn't often offer appealing options for keeping parent and child equally entertained. Laid-back mom avoids commotion; high-energy kid craves action. The (sneaky) compromise? A vacation that can do double duty as an introduction to college. A two-hour drive to the town of Goleta gave us a look at a new hipster hotel, a student-swarmed college town and a peek at Antioch University, the Brooks Institute and UC Santa Barbara. The tab: from $229 a night, depending on the season, at the Goodland, $65 for dinner, $50 for breakfast and $10 for ice cream.
Done up with a retro, eco-conscious, surfer vibe, the 5-month-old Kimpton Goodland (5650 Calle Real,  964-6241, www.thegoodland.com), formerly a Holiday Inn, brings a big dose of hipster cred to Goleta, just a few miles north of Santa Barbara. The boutique hotel's record player, vinyl albums and vintage mini-bar snacks (Goo Goo Cluster, Pop Rocks) let me share with my teen artifacts of my childhood. ("What? Albums have two sides?" he said in mock surprise.) Our comfortable room had the cheerful personality of an Ikea-shopping millennial: a mix of ethnic-textile-covered pillows, throws and walls; reclaimed wood fronted the dresser; and sliding barn doors concealed the colorful, concrete-tiled bathroom. Complimentary bicycles and a spacious pool area let youngsters burn off energy. Kids 17 and younger stay free when accompanied by an adult.
Goleta seems to favor lunch-oriented restaurants in strip malls such as the Calle Real Center next door to the Goodland. At the mall's Nikka Fish Market & Grill (5722 Calle Real,  967-2600, www.nikkafishmarketandgrill.com), we hovered over the chalkboard menu of specials (lobster roll, shrimp enchiladas) and eyed the display case of fresh fish cooked to order (grilled, fried, burgers, pasta) and promised to return for lunch. For dinner, the lively atmosphere at the hotel's restaurant, the Outpost (5650 Calle Real,  964-1288, www.outpostsb.com), lured us to a tasty and convenient meal of tacos, empanadas and bao buns. For breakfast, we drove about five miles to downtown Santa Barbara's Tupelo Junction Cafe (1218 State St.,  899-3100, tupelojunction.com) for the generous portions that can fill a teen boy (for a little while). Our picks: a starter of apple beignets; deep-dish mac 'n' cheese with collard greens; and a hearty spinach, bacon, caramelized onion and Gouda scramble with homemade banana pecan bread.
Santa Barbara's downtown State Street was so uncrowded, it felt bucolic even with a noticeable and sometimes-aggressive population of panhandlers. The street's trendy clothing and shoe stores, bicycle shops, Apple Store and cafes held my son's interest — especially Antique Alley's collection of vintage cameras. Did I mention I was traveling with a hungry teen? Spotting a sparkling-clean, full-size McConnell's Fine Ice Creams, he was able to survey the gourmet Santa Barbara brand's entire collection and sample new flavors such as Sea Salt Cream & Cookies and Salted Caramel Chip.
The lesson learned
Kicking off the school search process with a quick trip has made the looming prospect of finding a college real — and a real adventure.
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