Santa Barbara a bit off the Beaten Path including Neverland Ranch

We recently spent a few days at Santa Barbara.  I had been there in 1998, for a conference promoting biking and walking, but wanted to see if it had changed. At that time, it had a lot going for it in terms of making a city more enjoyable without lots of traffic.  Because the city hugs the coast and has a mountain range just behind, the geography prevents it from having too much sprawl. There was a fire burning in the nearby mountain range, so we weren't sure how the air would be, but it was tolerable most days. Most people only tend to see the beaches and maybe climb the tower in the courthouse, which are great ideas that we did too, but we wanted to find some more interesting places. Of course, we also visited the zoo, which is small and very beautiful.  Be sure to feed the giraffes and ride the train if you go there.  If you have a zoo membership in your home city, they offer reciprocal free admission, and you get to stand in a line for members which might get you in faster.
Santa Barbara Mission on a smoky afternoon

Hotels in this area are quite expensive, but we managed to find a good deal using Trivago. Using a Turkish website,, we found a rate that even the hotel couldn't beat booking directly. We stayed at the Fess Parker Doubletree near the beach, which is the same hotel I used back then.  It was still comfortable, though it's quite big so you are bound to have to walk quite a distance to enjoy the pools and restaurants.  Trying to live more like locals, we used the places listed on Yelp as local favorites. We had breakfast at a place called Jeannine's three times because it had such amazing choices.  There is more than one location. We ate at the Figueroa store, which is set on an alley filled with artwork and a turtle pond. Super cool place to wander while you wait for your eggs. You're bound to see homeless people anywhere you go in the city. We had breakfast with one of the homeless men we met.  Turned out he'd come from Texas hoping to find a job and nicer weather, but he had been unlucky. The homeless population has remained stable at about 1500 people, which is quite a high number if you're from a community where you never see any. You're discouraged from giving them money, but if you pay for a breakfast or lunch, that's a kindness which is well received. Some push their belongings around on a bike or stroller.  Others live in cars.
Lobster benedict and fresh fruit

Is he real?  Nope- an art installation
One of the turtles in this small pond
There's a great park for kids downtown- Kids World at Alameda Park. The play structure has lots of opportunity for climbing and hiding, and it was community built.  Across the street is Alice Keck Park, where you can see beautiful flowers and loads of waterfowl.  For more information about the many parks, check the parks interactive Santa Barbara Parks webpage. We could have spent an entire day just exploring the parks.  All the beach parks are included on the map too.
Part of the Kids World Playground
Another day we headed to the dog beach which has a restaurant with a view of the ocean, The Boathouse at Hendry's Beach.  I had heard about this and a few other great places we visited on the Amateur Traveler podcast about Santa Barbara. The key to eating here is to come early.  It was breezy and cool, so we ate indoors, but there are heaters if you prefer dining outdoors. The best part for Omar, who is 11, was seeing so many dogs playing in the water and running up and down the beach. If you happen to bike here, there is bike parking and even a station to repair your bike. With a small wetland next to the parking lot, you might see birds swimming around too.
Happy dogs sniffing the seaweed washed up on shore

One more worthy meal place was lunch at Montecito Cafe.   Unfortunately, it plans to close for good in November. They just don't make these places any more- linen tablecloths, fountain filled with flowers, fruity ice water, and decadent desserts.
What a welcoming sight

This coconut cake was delicious

If you enjoy art, there are plenty of options for museums or galleries. We decided to visit a couple other museums though, since we belong to our local public museum which offers reciprocity across the US in the ASTC collective. This gets you into the science or history based museums. We did the Museum of Natural History, which included access to the boardwalk museum, the Sea Center. With lots of hands on exhibits, you could spend a half day at the two places and feel like you learned something.
You can pet sharks at the Sea Center!

Probably the best fun we had was the day we drove through the mountains, on Highway 154. There were two places we wanted to stop, but both were closed due to the fire.  If you are able, check out Chumash Painted Cave, which requires a short hike to see real cave paintings. Then plan to have a drink or lunch at Cold Spring Tavern.  There's a very cool arch bridge near the tavern. It actually spans a huge canyon on 154, but if you want a better view, follow stagecoach road past the tavern and you can see the commemorative plate. From here we drove to Neverland Ranch at Los Olivos. The link I've used is a current article with aerial photos. With Michael Jackson tunes blaring through the car to put us in the mood, we arrived at the locked gates.  There really isn't anything to see of the ranch.  It's on the market for 100 million dollars, and has been for years.  People aren't allowed inside, but they do leave memorabilia in the form of photos, signatures, and even decorated rocks to pay tribute to MJ.  We spent about 20 minutes looking around at all the tributes. A few carloads of people came and went.  Then Omar put on Thriller and did the choreographed dance he'd learned from Youtube, sort of to celebrate the moment. I wonder if MJ knows how beloved he is, even after his death.
Messages from fans

After Los Olivos, you can keep going to Solvang, a touristy resemblance of a Danish village, complete with windmills. If you're hungry, or want to take some pea soup home with you, make a detour to Pea Soup Andersens restaurant.  It's kid friendly. We spent a few hours at Solvang, but having been to the real Denmark, I can tell you, it's more of a fairytale town.  We enjoyed it anyway, taking a self guided tour through the Santa Ynez mission before hitting the streets. This is typical of the missions you'll see across the California coast, with gardens and a small museum.  The church is still being used for services, so we had to wait for the service to end to get inside the chapel.
A mill at Solvang

Horse drawn rides

Inside the chapel at the mission

Make the loop to see the coastline along Highway 101. There's a cool rest stop with a bridge and a fish elevator by Arroyo Hondo Preserve. While we were making our way through the circle route, we met up with some firefighters headed out to fight the fire. Omar got a closer look at the equipment they use. The fire stayed away from the city, but it destroyed many acres.
Nice view of the ocean from here

The fire smoked for days

Checking out the firefighting equipment

There are some cool places in the city that don't see a lot of tourists.  One was the Ronald Reagan Ranch Center. I don't necessarily support the organization that runs this, but the museum has some great videos and photos that show how his life was away from the white house when he'd come out to the ranch and relax. He was a firm believer that it helped a person get perspective by being outdoors with time to think. Especially moving was the center's story about his secret service agent who rode horses on the ranch with him.  I learned a lot and so will you, even if you weren't fond of his political views.
A jeep used at the ranch
Another day we visited the Santa Barbara Cemetery.  You don't hear much about Fess Parker, who played Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in Disney films.  He is buried in this beautiful cemetery on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Of course, it's free to enter, though maybe most people wouldn't think of doing this.  We asked a maintenance crew about his grave, and they showed us.  Surprisingly, it was very modest.  I had somehow expected more of a presumed millionaire. His children still operate his wineries and resort at Los Olivos.
One of the more interesting graves at the cemetery
 Overall, it was a great getaway. There are lots of outdoor spots to visit here.


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