Way back in the 20th century when life was simple, my wife, Mary Frances, and I lived in Carpinteria, swooping in and out of Santa Barbara without a second thought. Nowadays, returning as Angelenos with a 9-year-old, we have second and third thoughts, as we consider cost, balance kid stuff and adult stuff, and consult the school calendar. But we managed a great visit a few months ago, thanks to a hotel that gave us creature comforts and walking access to great food, historic atmosphere and the beach. All it cost was money. The tab: $339 (before taxes) for a night at the Spanish Garden Inn; $53 for lunch at Anchor Woodfire Kitchen; $157 for dinner at Julienne; $28 for a one-hour surrey rental; $10 to visit Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park; and $1.64 on Stearns Wharf for a how-to-draw-sea-critters book that yielded hours of fun.
The citizen-critics of TripAdvisor lavish so much love on the Spanish Garden Inn (915 Garden St.;  564-4700) that I was suspicious. But this 23-room inn (built in 2002, parking below, Spanish flourishes above) is the real deal, with great service, a handsome courtyard and a kiva fireplace in our room. The price seemed steep at first, but parking and Wi-Fi were free, as was the excellent buffet breakfast; no bogus resort fee.
After a sunset stroll on Stearns Wharf, we ducked into busy, sophisticated Julienne (138 E. Cañon Perdido St.;  845-6488; main dishes $19-$30). More great service and a thoughtful menu. (Instead of American Coca-Cola, it carries the Mexican variety, which has no high-fructose corn syrup.) Our daughter, Grace, was the only kid in the restaurant at 7:30 p.m., but the waitress made her feel welcome and she responded by devouring the trout. Counting my top sirloin (with urchin) and Mary Frances' ravioli, the kitchen hit three home runs for us, then gave us homemade churros for dessert.
Between the beach and U.S. 101 lies the Funk Zone, an old industrial neighborhood now peppered with wine-tasting rooms and galleries. (Details: Urban Wine Trail) After a beach-side surrey ride, we fell in briefly with a rambunctious crowd at the Oreana Winery & Marketplace (205 Anacapa St.,  962-5857), which had not only live music and wine on the patio, but also 25-cent gum balls. We liked the contemporary art displays at the 41-room Hotel Indigo (121 State St.;  966-6586; opened in 2012, rates $155-$339) and detected a hint of anise in the ketchup (that's a good thing) at the Anchor Woodfire Kitchen (119 State St.;  845-0989; opened late 2012). Tasty house-made sausage too.
The lesson learned
There's more to California history than missions — there are the presidios that protected the missions too. And the Presidio de Santa Barbara, founded in 1782 and now a state historic park, stands just a few blocks from the Spanish Garden Inn. We persuaded the desk clerk to guard Grace's scooter while we roamed the mostly reconstructed site and whispered in the chapel.