Santa Barbara: A Perfect Place to Spend a Perfect Time of Year

You did every amusement park, beach and major landmark within 200 miles, and now the aunts, uncles and mystery cousins (did anyone ever catch their names?) are on their way back to Poughkeepsie.

The Official 1993 Visiting Relative Season has drawn to a close.

You respond by (a) sending fake change of address cards to all kin outside your area code, (b) hiring a hypnotherapist to blot the tune of “It’s a Small World” from your mind, or (c) figuring that after that vacation, your family deserves a getaway.

If you choose the getaway, consider Santa Barbara and its miles of beaches, wonderful zoo, excellent restaurants, shops and museums. And if you hustle, all the dinosaurs your little Barney-iac could desire.


Crowds and Santa Barbara’s famous June fog are about the only things you’ll miss if you visit after the summer rush, said Michael Forbes, director of the city’s conference and visitors bureau.

“Definitely, it’s not as crowded as it is in July and August, " he said. “The weather is still as warm, and the water is probably the warmest it is all year.”

Tourism is the city’s lifeblood, Forbes added, so most of the activities of the high season are available year-around.

The drive from Orange County to Santa Barbara takes about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. If that’s too scary (“Mommmm! Jimmy’s hogging all the air in the back seat!!!”), you can catch an Amtrak into the city several times each day. A one-way trip takes about four hours, but at least there’s room to roam.


If you plan to stay over, you may want to call or stop by Hot Spots (36 State St.), a visitor information center/espresso bar just off the waterfront.

The 6-year-old company, which is supported by fees from participating hotels, prides itself on being “the eyes for people outside of Santa Barbara,” said co-owner Eric Hamor, and provides services ranging from booking a hotel room or a table for dinner to setting up a sunset cruise. The service is free and staffed Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. There’s also a 24-hour self-service area with phones and tourist information. Call (800) 793-7666.

Current rates start about $75 for a serviceable motel room to well over twice that for a full-service resort like Fess Parker’s Red Lion or the historic Biltmore.

If you can hold off for a few months, off-season rates will be offered November through March, and you can save as much as 50% at many hotels.


For dinosaur fans, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (2559 Puesta del Sol Road) hosts an exhibit of moving, roaring and chillingly lifelike robotic dinosaurs from the Irvine-based Dinamation Inc. through Monday.

Under a delightfully gloomy veil of faux vines and trees, visitors take a self-guided tour back in time to visit a terrifying T. rex, a tranquil Triceratops and other prehistoric pals, including a partially finished Dimetrodon that allows kids to view the beast’s inner workings. Companion attractions include a planetarium show on what may have caused the dinosaurs’ extinction, films and a Dino Lab paleontology workshop.

Other highlights of the museum are a touchable 72-foot blue whale skeleton, a Space Lab and a large collection of Chumash Indian artifacts. A wooded area with a stream, footbridge and shady picnic spots are steps away.

Within a few blocks of the museum is the city’s most venerable landmark, Mission Santa Barbara, as well as several rustic parks and block after block of picturesque historical homes.


The Santa Barbara Zoological Garden (500 Ninos Drive) is the 40-acre ocean-view home of 150 different species from around the world.

The exhibits are small and in most cases, animals can be viewed from less than a couple feet away, and the layout, which includes a large play area with antique carousel, miniature train and rolling lawns, is very kid-friendly.

For a glimpse of local sea life, the Sea Center on Stearn’s Wharf (Cabrillo Street at the base of State Street) features life-size models of dolphins and whales, aquariums and a touch tank.

Also on the 121-year-old wharf are gift shops (inflatable sharks are hot sellers here), a palm reader, fishing spots, restaurants, even a small wine-tasting shop.


If you time it right, you may also catch a pair of pelicans so outgoing you might suspect they’re on the chamber of commerce payroll. Cruises of varying lengths (Capt. Don’s offers 45-minute jaunts at $7 a head) can be booked here or at the adjacent harbor.

One of the best ways to take in the seaside scenery is by bike along a paved bike/walking path that runs along the Pacific Ocean on Cabrillo Street.

You can rent bikes of all sizes (including a four-wheeled family model that seats five), as well as in-line and roller skates at shops near the wharf and at the Red Lion.

You can also get around town in daylight hours aboard the Santa Barbara Trolley and the free downtown shuttle.


There’s more of course, ranging from Sunday polo matches (through November at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club) to soaking up sun on East Beach to walking tours of the downtown historical district.

You can also rub elbows with locals and tourists alike at some of the nearly 300 special events and festivals in the city each year. The conference and visitors bureau ((805) 966-9222) has the details.

But whatever choices you make, enjoy.