Take it from a local: Waterfront activities in Santa Barbara are endless and offer visitors much more than lounging along the coast. That is, if you’re up for a little adventure.
“Just over a year ago while kayaking the entire Santa Barbara County coastline, a friend and I were paddling a long stretch from Refugio State Beach along the scenic Gaviota Coast and finishing nearly in the dark inside the Santa Barbara Harbor. It had roughly been a 25-mile paddle. We were cold, wet, tired and famished. We paddled straight up to Brophy Bros. and the entire restaurant was alive with customers reveling in another epic Santa Barbara day. We tied our kayaks to a dock and I ran upstairs to the restaurant in my wet wetsuit to put our names in for a well-deserved dinner. We were salt-crusted and blurry-eyed, but we didn’t care. We were eating like kings on Santa Barbara’s Waterfront.” – Chuck Graham
For the inexperienced, fear not. In Santa Barbara, there’s a lot of activity along the waterfront for beginners to experts. Visitors and locals alike can easily spend an entire day here enjoying several water sports, learning about the local natural history and enjoying a fine selection of restaurants on the wharf and inside the harbor. Surfers love the harbor entrance especially when a large swell slams the breakwater and fast moving, perfect waves funnel down the gritty sand point before dissipating into the mouth of the harbor. Throngs of onlookers enjoying their stroll on the breakwater are treated to a rare spectacle of high performance surfing and the power of the ocean surrounding this man made wave.
When winds increase in the afternoon, this is an ideal opportunity to learn how to sail or windsurf in the protected waters between the Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf. You can also rent a kayak from Paddle Sports Center and paddle in the protected waters between the legions of boats or take a standup paddling lesson from one of its experienced instructors. If you’re feeling confident, your instructor will take you out to ride a few waves off Leadbetter Beach.
Whale watching in the Santa Barbara Channel is also a viable and highly recommended option. Try Condor Express Whale Watching or the Double Dolphin at the Santa Barbara Sailing Center to look for migrating gray whales, humpbacks, blues and several species of dolphins, porpoises and on rare occasions, even orca. Aboard Sunset Kidd, sail along the Santa Barbara shores and watch for whales as you catch a famous Santa Barbara sunset. Afterwards you can enjoy dinner at a number of restaurants such as On The Alley, Brophy Bros., Breakwater Restaurant or Anchor Rose.
Surrounded in the middle of all the restaurants is the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. You could spend a whole day here alone, and it’s certainly worth walking through to learn about all the rich history of Chumash Indian heritage and their amazing maritime culture. There are also exhibits on the history of Channel Islands National Park and the long surfing history Santa Barbara possesses. Check the schedule for nightly lectures and daily films.
Catch a ride on Lil’ Toot, a beautifully built yellow tugboat that will provide a memorable trip between Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara Harbor. Once arrived, take a leisurely stroll out on 130-year-old Stearns Wharf where a wide selection of eateries hang on the stunning scenery that comes with every meal. The first line of restaurants on the wharf, include Longboards, Harbor Restaurant and Moby Dicks, offering terrific views of the harbor to the west. You can also enjoy a glass of wine at the Deep Sea Tasting Room with stunning views of the beach and Chase Palm Park to the east.
Continuing on your wharf walk certainly requires a stop at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum Sea Center, that’s filled with interactive exhibits such as their live tidepool animal encounters and a theater showcasing the many natural wonders of the Santa Barbara Channel. The kids will love being a marine biologist or an oceanographer for a day.
If you’ve made it all the way out to the end of the wharf without getting a bite to eat, make time to grab some local seafood at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. In the 1980s, it was a buying station for local shellfish and fish and a place to sell crab. Today you can enjoy seasonal shellfish like spiny lobster and Dungeness crab while taking in the always-stellar scenery from the historic wharf.