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Kid-Friendly Zones: Santa Barbara and Ojai, California

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Lovely:   love-lyadj.  1.  Enjoyable and delightful.  2.  Having beauty that appeals to the eye.  3.  Santa Barbara.

Lovely is a word that comes up often when you visit Santa Barbara.  There is a languid pace among the city’s residents, a balmy breeze tickles your face and flowering trees are everywhere.  You could spend your days in a sensory haze or you could experience a number of natural as well as man-made pleasures.  If you do both, your days might look like this:

Where to stay.  The Hotel Mar Monte is located at the far end of Cabrillo Boulevard and directly across the street from East Beach.  This long, calm stretch of seashore extends to State Street, Santa Barbara’s main drag, where it bumps into West Beach.  In Santa Barbara, east is definitely the place to be if you’re looking for peace and quiet.  The Mar Monte’s low-slung, whitewashed buildings are nestled among leafy trees and flowering shrubs and mostly face the beach.  Back inside, the yellow, tan and blue tones evoke sun, sand and sea.  With ultra-spacious rooms (parents will appreciate the in-room refrigerator and microwave), an attentive staff and perks such as free wi-fi and an outdoor heated pool, families have everything they need.  1111 East Cabrillo Blvd., (805) 963-0744; hotelmarmonte.com.  Double rooms start at $259.00.

Land and Sea.  A fixture on the national dining landscape in the 60s and 70s, Sambo’s is down to its original location, across the street from West Beach.   The good news is that time has been kind to lil’ Sambo and his tiger pal, making this the best breakfast spot in town.  Snag an outdoor table and order light-as-air pancakes for the kids, topped with a generous dollop of whipped “tiger butter.”  The garden omelette is fluffy as can be and will make a vegetarian out of anyone.  Expect Dad to devour the basket of fresh-baked mini-muffins before Junior says “can I please?”  Duly sated, head over to Stearns Wharf, the city’s main pier and marked by a lyrical dolphin fountain.  Poke your head into assorted postcard-souvenir shops as you take in the salt air and make your way over to the Ty Warner Sea Center, a cozy haven for aquatic exploration.  The interactive facility is blessed with a hands-on staff eager to tell kids that sharks aren’t all bad (we kill 200,000 sharks a day while they kill four people a year) and that they actually see quite well, poking a hole in that sharks-can’t-see-a-surfer-on-his-board theory.  Little ones will love crawling through a tunnel in a 1,500-gallon surge tank, ogling the sea life all around. At the touch pool upstairs, meet sea stars (their eyes, or “light sensors,” are on each of the five star tips!), sea urchins and decorator crabs (they love to dress up with bits of shell and other sea creatures).  A movie about the wonders of the Santa Barbara Channel will also delight. 

Back outside, head over to the dolphin fountain and greet the Land Shark, a 50-seat amphibious vehicle that takes you on a 90-minute, information-packed tour of Santa Barbara and environs.  Tour guide Milo Wolf is a stitch and itching to point out that not only does Santa Barbara have the highest per capita ratio of bars and restaurants in the country, it’s also home to Oprah on occasional weekends (in nearby Montecito).  After an hour of land-based fun, Capt. Andre Manoux deftly maneuvers his vessel into the Santa Barbara Channel to the cheers of both kids and adults.  Harbor seal sightings are the norm, as is plentiful kelp, the world’s fastest-growing plant, growing up to two feet a day.  Not only will you be smarter once you get back on land, you’ll also be ready to stretch your legs.  Pay a visit to Wheel Fun Rentals, across the street from Stearns Wharf and full of two-and-four-wheeled contraptions that can be rented by the hour or half-day.  A two-mile bike path parallel to Cabrillo Boulevard is across the way and nearly hugs the sand.  The ride is, well, wheel fun.  If all that pedaling brings on a real thirst, turn in the bikes and walk around the corner to State Street, which is teeming with cafes, restaurants and shops.  Blenders in the Grass is home to a good name and a great smoothie, the better to lubricate a shopping trip to nearby Paseo Nuevo.  This “new promenade” is an open-air shopping mall anchored by Nordstrom and Macy’s and filled with an assortment of stores recognizable to teens.  Lounge at one of the many seating areas and take in the sun while the kids do their thing.

Animal Magnetism.  The Santa Barbara Zoo takes the term “flora and fauna” to heart, the result being a landscape so lush that neither visitors or residents will ever want to leave.  A series of well-laid-out walking paths maximize your experience with the animals and the entire setting is decidedly kid-scale, making this zoo a winner with younger visitors.  Two diesel-powered trains, roomy enough for parents to accompany children, encircle the property and provide an excellent overview of the various areas.  Top stops include The Hilltop, a circular greensward with panoramic views and an amazing cactus garden off to one side and Gibbon Island, with black and white apes you’d swear were monkeys.  The Humboldt penguins and red pandas keep separate residences but all are irresistibly cute while the cats of Africa include his-and-hers lions perched upon a tall rock that looks impossible to climb.  The playground near the Kids’ Marketplace is the ideal chill-out space.  When hunger strikes, head over to La Super Rica Taqueria, a modest establishment that’s off the beaten path and on everyone’s list.  Tacos are the way to go here, especially the tacos de adobado, marinated pork on paper-thin corn tortillas, and the tacos de alambre, chunks of tri-tip grilled with onion and bell pepper.  Kids will love the creamy guacamole and the frijoles, pink beans swimming in a sweet broth. 

If a nap starts to feel like the next best thing, make the short drive over to Butterfly Beach, across the street from the Four Seasons Biltmore in tony Montecito.  The clean stretch of sand is close to the water, reducing the amount of back-and-forth involved in building that epic sandcastle.  That said, tuckered-out kids may find a beach blanket more appealing.  There are no facilities here but hey, the Four Seasons is right across the street, the perfect place for a pit stop (yes, that kind) and a cold drink.

Reaching Higher Ground.  There are two things you’ll need to pack before you start this day: a picnic lunch and a map of Santa Barbara’s Red Tile Walking Tour, available at santabarbaracarfree.org.  Heading north and away from the water, climb scenic Mission Canyon Road till you reach the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.  Located in the foothills above the city, you’ll feel a world away, thanks to the arid landscape and floating-on-a-cloud setting.  Younger hikers will especially enjoy the desert, meadow and manzanita sections of the garden; hikers eager for some real trails will want to explore the redwood section and its curving Woodland Trail or the Campbell Trail leading to the canyon section.  A treat for everyone is artist Patrick Dougherty’s Toad Hall, a rambling structure made of willow and taking its name from author Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows.”  Toad Hall looks amazing and it is – a maze.  Get lost in the wonder of the place, which will be at the garden until Spring, 2007.  Working your way back down Mission Canyon Road, stop in at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where you’ll be greeted by the whitewashed skeleton of a blue whale.  Exhibits inside are placed at kid height and paired with audio, video or reading materials.  Helpful docents will assist you in interacting with the exhibits wherever possible (care to feel the 276 legs of a millipede on your arm?) and are a fount of information on the dioramas depicting animals from the surrounding areas.  “Toadally Frogs,” at the museum through November 2006, is a fascinating exploration of the world of frogs and toads.  You’ll learn once and for all the difference between frogs and toads and will come face to face (okay, there’s glass in between) with South American Dart Frogs, tree frogs, bullfrogs and five species of toads.  Time for lunch?  The museum has a handful of tables out back where you can enjoy your meal under a canopy of trees.  Last stop down Mission Canyon Road will be at the Queen of the Missions, the Old Mission Santa Barbara.  Twin pink-domed bell towers top an imposing stone structure and speak to the stature of the missions, and missionaries, in early California.  The self-guided tour is best suited to older kids who will appreciate the history of the place and the simple elegance of the interior courtyards and church itself.  Younger kids will surely enjoy a romp on the soccer-field-sized lawn out front.  Stick with the history theme as you work your way back downtown for the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour.  This roughly twelve-block walk takes in some of the city’s most notable historic landmarks, many of them in the Spanish-Moorish style.  The county courthouse, built in 1929, is an architectural gem replete with 80-foot clock tower, hand-painted ceilings, giant murals and imported tiles.

Where to eatThe Palace Grill offers an authentic Cajun-Creole dining experience with the charm and good times of the city of New Orleans.  Start with the Oysters Palace, baked in the half shell with a mixture of crawfish tails, mushrooms and green onion and napped in a jalapeno beurre blanc.  The “All the Best Platter” is just that, a meant-for-two feast that includes blackened salmon, spicy crawfish etouffee and soft-shell crabs.  Kids will love the fried chicken salad and the family will fight over the Louisiana bread pudding souffle.  8 E. Cota Street  (805) 963-5000.  At The Endless Summer Bar-Café, it’s a surfer thing, dude, and the harbor-side setting serves to enhance the boys-on-boards vibe.  Nachos are a great way to start the meal on “Mexican Mondays” but the other days of the week are no slouch.  The Hawaiian Poki Salad pairs glistening raw tuna with fresh greens, seaweed and assorted veggies and dresses it all in a semi-sweet wasabi dressing.  Equally fresh and flavorful is the sesame-crusted ahi over spinach with sweet mustard dressing.  The junior set will find the grilled cheese sandwich to be buttery perfection, as is the scoop of local McConnell’s ice cream that ends the meal.  113 Harbor Way, Suite 180  (805) 564-4666.  Over at the Paradise Café, it’s all about grilling.  Order burgers all around, or a quesadilla for those feeling veggy.  The young servers here know their wine list, an added plus for mom and dad.  702 Anacapa Street  (805) 962-4416.  The beverage of choice at Ruby’s Diner, regardless of age, is a milk shake.  With nearly twenty different flavors to choose from (think Oreo Cookie Fantasy, Black Cherry, Dark Chocolate Strawberry and Butterfinger), you can create your own milk shake buffet.  The usual diner menu is available if anyone is still hungry.  601 Paseo Nuevo  (805) 564-1941.

Retreat to Ojai.  If Noah Webster were staying at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa today, his mind might wander thusly:

Sybariticsyb-a-rit-icadj.  1.  Devoted to pleasure and luxury.  2.  Ojai Valley Inn and Spa.

You’ll understand why this word association could take place the minute you drive into the resort, nestled in the shadow of the Topa Topa Mountains and a quick 45-minute drive from Santa Barbara.  A warm, dry breeze beckons, at once slowing your pace while insisting you revel in the picturesque setting.  Trees shade, squirrels laze and an undulating golf course surrounds a bounty of earthly delights.  And that fragrance…  Once a favorite haunt of Hollywood moguls looking for a round of golf and a decent cigar, the Spanish colonial-style property, spread over two hundred acres, has fashioned itself into a family-friendly destination with something for everyone and is looking better than ever thanks to a $70 million renovation.  Kids will want to start their day at Camp Ojai, where a full day’s activities can include art projects, pony rides, water slides and whatever else the energetic camp counselors dream up.  Parents may want to use their day a deux for a lively game of tennis (pro Tom Rohrbacher is always good for a few tips), a leisurely lunch at Jimmy’s (the thin-crust pizzas are sublime) and a yoga class or more pampering massage at 31,000-sq.-ft. Spa Ojai.  When the family reconnects, it’s off to the gracefully-tiled pool for splashing and strawberry smoothies followed by dinner at the Oak Grill, where the “pink moment,” a rosy shadow visited upon the Topa Topa Mountains nightly, can be viewed just before sunset.  The fireplace suite, a luxe accommodation pairing dark woods and richly hued fabrics and affording parents and kids their own “rooms,” makes for elegant, restful slumber.  Lest you miss the little ones, meet up for a sunny breakfast on the ample balcony overlooking the golf course.  With days like this, you’ll be reduced to a puddle of bliss.  905 Country Club Road, Ojai  (805) 646-1111; ojairesort.com.  Double rooms from $400; package rates available.


Sambo’s, 216 W. Cabrillo Blvd., (805) 965-3269.

Ty Warner Sea Center, 211 Stearns Wharf, (805) 962-2526; sbnature.org/seacenter.

Land Shark, Land and Sea Tours, (805) 683.7600; out2seesb.com.  The Land Shark can be boarded at the foot of Stearns Wharf at 12, 2 or 4 p.m. daily, weather permitting.

Wheel Fun Rentals, 23 E. Cabrillo Blvd., (805) 966.2282; wheelfunrentals.com.

Paseo Nuevo is off of State Street between Ortega and Canon Perdido Streets.

Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Drive, (805) 962-6310; santabarbarazoo.org.

La Super Rica Taqueria, 622 N. Milpas St., (805) 963-4940.

Butterfly Beach: from Santa Barbara, take Hwy. 101 South to Olive Mill in Montecito.  Go right at the exit and follow it around to the beach, across the street from the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel.

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Road, (805) 682-4726; sbbg.org.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta Del Sol Road, (805) 682-4711; sbnature.org.

Old Mission Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna Street, (805) 682-4713; sbmission.org.

Travel tip: pack your child’s favorite small toys or gewgaws in a compact backpack for restaurant trips.  Allow him to pull out a few things if boredom sets in.


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and four-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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