It’s no secret that Santa Barbara County is a dream of a destination, with spectacular scenery and weather, a rich history and culture, beautiful architecture and award-winning wine and cuisine. But here we offer a dozen lesser known places and things to do that may not be on the top of the guidebook list. You know, like those insider tips from your cool, in-the-know local friend.
For decades, history buffs, photographers and view-seekers have meandered off the beaten path in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara to what’s known as Knapp’s Castle, the stone ruins of a palatial hunting lodge originally built around 1916 and later destroyed by fire. The mansion was built for George Knapp, co-founder of Union Carbide, and what remains are sandstone foundations, fireplace pillars and partial walls of the original seven structures. The ridge-top site’s panoramic views of Lake Cachuma, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountain ranges are spectacular, especially at sunset. The ruins are on a private carve-out within the Los Padres National Forest and although no restrictions have been placed on the area in the past, the owner has the right to close public access at any time. So pay attention to all posted signs and be a respectful non-litterbug visitor. The kid-friendly walk to the ruins and back is about 0.9-mile with about 50 feet of elevation gain. To get to the trailhead, take Highway 154 west for 10 miles. Turn right on East Camino Cielo and drive three miles east to a small turnout on the right opposite a gated dirt road on the left, which is the trailhead.
Getting out on the sparkling pacific along Santa Barbara’s spectacular coastline is a must. One of the best ways to go is on the Condor Express (condorexpress.com), a beautifully appointed high-speed catamaran. The state-of-the-art boat boasts a smooth ride and a friendly, knowledgeable crew, and offers whale watching, Channel Islands excursions, dinner cruises, party cruises and private charters. The Santa Barbara Channel is home to more than 30 species of whales, dolphins and seals and sea lions that visit throughout the year, making these waters among the best anywhere to view a variety of marine mammals. Check condorexpress.com for updated whale watch reports. Get close to the action and snag a seat on the upper sundeck for unobstructed animal viewing and sightseeing
The Cat House Hotel
Now in its 18th year, The Cat House Hotel in downtown Santa Barbara (cathousehotel.com) is the go-to place for locals who wouldn’t think of boarding their feline friends anywhere else. They know that Fluffy will be well cared for by a kind, knowledgeable staff of mostly UCSB science students who go the extra mile to make sure each kitty has a purrfect experience. The feline-exclusive boutique hotel specializes in extended stays and premium care for special-needs cats, including those with diabetes or mobility challenges. Special services from baths with all-natural products and brushing to nail clipping are available for an additional charge. There is even a kitty chauffeur for transportation to and from the veterinarian. Fresh catnip, room service and loving attention are free.
Cold Spring Tavern
For a step back in time, take a 15-minute drive from Santa Barbara on San Marcos Pass (Highway 154) and turn off on Stagecoach Road for a one-mile oak-draped drive into the mountains and the rustic Cold Spring Tavern (coldspringtavern.com). Established as a stagecoach stop in 1886, this is a popular spot on weekend afternoons as folks enjoy barbecued tri-tip sandwiches and live music under the oaks. Or sit in romantic wood-paneled rooms near one of four stone fireplaces and dine by lamplight. The tavern is famous for its Texas-style chili but you’ll find other hearty fare including a buffalo burger and charbroiled venison steak, along with breakfast on the weekends. You won’t see any stagecoaches, but motorcyclists from far and wide converge on weekends.
Gliding at the Santa Ynez Airport
Get a hawk-eye view of the Central Coast, from the beaches of Santa Barbara to the vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley. Cloud Nine Glider Rides (cloud9gliderrides.com) offers sev eral options for silent soaring. The Scenic Flight Tour takes you to 2,500 feet above sea level with views of rolling vine yards, Lake Cachuma and Solvang. The Mountain Adventure Tour provides views of Rancho del Cielo (the Reagan Ranch), Pacific Ocean, some of the Channel Islands and the entire Santa Ynez Valley. Panoramas of the Central Coast, including the Channel Islands, Santa Barbara, UCSB and Point Conception are highlights of the Mile High Tour. Take your pick for the 50-minute Star Tour: Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch plus views of the San Rafael Mountains, or the Santa Barbara Harbor and the bluffs of Montecito.
Fine Dining Finds
The John Dunn Gourmet Dining Room at Santa Barbara City College (sbcc.edu) is one of the best-kept culinary secrets and dining deals in town. The restaurant, perched high above Santa Barbara Harbor on the college’s main campus, offers fine luncheons and four-course dinners (check schedule online; reservations are strongly recommended) prepared and served by students in the nationally recognized CulinaryArts program. The dinner courses are expertly paired with wine.
A second secret is The Club & Guest House (theclub.ucsb.edu), a fine-dining restaurant that serves lunch with lovely views of the UCSB lagoon. The made-from-scratch seasonal menu offers a diverse array of farm-to-table dishes, including vegetarian, gluten-free and vegan options.
Jalama Beach and Burgers
Even though it’s only an hour’s drive north of Santa Barbara, you’ll feel worlds away at this remote sandy stretch, part of Jalama Beach County Park (countyofsb.org) in Lompoc. The often windy Jalama Beach, tucked in between points Conception and Arguello, exudes a quintessentially Californian wild beauty. Outdoorsy folks head here for beach walks, surfing, windsailing, whale watching, bird watching, nature photography and fishing the surf or rock outcroppings. The spot is also popular with campers, who stock up on supplies at the Jalama Beach Store. And visitors from all over the planet swear by the Jalama Grill’s World Famous Jalama Burger. For more than 35 years, they’ve flocked here for the simple but supremely satisfying stack of lean beef, fresh-cut veggies and pickle chips slathered with secret sauce.
This story was originally published in the 2018 summer issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.