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Photos by Dori Arrington

Santa Barbara, CA as a Cruising Destination

Like many of California’s best-protected ports, Santa Barbara’s harbor opens to the southeast, shielded from the prevailing westerlies by the promontory of Point Conception, making it a preferred inlet for hundreds of years. Located midway along Southern California’s contouring coastline, Santa Barbara is a seaside jewel nestled into the base of the Santa Ynez mountains. Strict building and zoning laws have helped emphasize its limited natural resources. With under 100,000 residents, Santa Barbara has evaded the crush of people inhabiting most of SoCal.

The city’s harbor, situated behind the seawall of Point Castillo and Stearns Wharf, is a focal point of life in this community. With more than 1,100 boat slips and 45 moorings, the municipal marina has everything a visiting boater could want or need. Haul-outs, fuel and full repair services are available, along with entertainment and countless eateries within walking distance. Yacht clubs worldwide typically reside on amazing waterfront real estate, but none better (in my experience) than Santa Barbara’s Yacht Club. Dinner and a sunset shared with friends at an SBYC oceanfront table perfectly captures the boating lifestyle so many of us enjoy.

Santa Barbara’s sculpted coast and dramatic sea cliffs are an outdoor lover’s paradise. Whether it’s surfing, diving, kayaking and fishing, or hiking and biking the terra firma between a verdant green mountain range and the deep-blue Pacific, Santa Barbara has an open-air experience for everyone.

Some of the world’s best surf breaks roll into this rocky stretch of shoreline. Rincon Point, just south of town, is renowned as the “Queen of the Coast,” with waves traveling up to half a mile. For those new to the sport, nearby Leadbetter and Campus Points provide smaller breakers, allowing beginners to get time on a board. One popular surfing spot is Thousand Steps Beach, a rock and sand coastline below the high bluffs of Santa Barbara’s East Mesa neighborhood. The hyperbolic name comes from the access point: a long hike down a 150-step stone staircase, originally built in 1923.


Enthusiasts come from all over the world to dive, fish and hike in the Channel Islands just offshore. The Channel Islands National Park is a spectacular example of a well-preserved ecosystem. For thousands of years, the isolation the islands enjoy created a unique environment for plants and wildlife, some that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth planet. The park has a visitor’s center in Santa Barbara, where transportation can be arranged to the islands. Boats provide service to Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. A word of caution to visitors: once on an island, you will need to be completely self-sufficient, as there are no services available. But it’s worth the trip. The intrepid explorer will be rewarded with scenic trails and unforgettable ocean views on any of these remote national treasures.

The undersea life found within the Channel Islands provides anglers and divers with plentiful opportunities to enjoy the rich diversity. The chance of landing a record-size yellowfin or halibut brings anglers back year after year. Whether diving from your own boat or booking an excursion with a local dive shop, exploring the undersea world, including the dense kelp forests, is an unforgettable experience.


If you’re less of the outdoor type, Santa Barbara’s award-winning wineries, world-class culinary adventures and healing spas will more than delight. The mild, Mediterranean-like climate creates near-perfect conditions for vineyards and organic farms to produce crops that inspire local chefs and vintners. A short drive into the foothills north of town takes you into the region’s wine country, and the estates of nearby Los Olivos provide a healthy dose of the area’s
best wines.

An easy way to enjoy the area’s rich food scene is to simply attend one of the many food and wine festivals hosted throughout the year, the premier of which is the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience. The SBCE is produced in partnership with the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts and draws international talent to Santa Barbara (Julia Child’s final home). Chefs and sommeliers craft signature cocktails, meals, educational programs and more in her honor.


Beyond the harbor, Santa Barbara reflects Alta California’s Spanish origins. Of California’s four original presidios, Santa Barbara’s was the last one in use, occupied until the mid-19th century. The Spanish architecture of the early forts set the tone for an architectural style that’s still present today. Santa Barbara’s iconic courthouse, built in 1929, was designed in the Spanish-Colonial style of the early presidios. With its impressive clock tower, ornate arches and sunken gardens, it displays a living history lesson in the detailed, hand-painted murals popularized in the early 20th century. The adobe and tera-cotta construction is replicated in public and private buildings throughout town.

There are few seaside towns the size of Santa Barbara with such a broader array of activities to enjoy, and none are as abundant in character. Boaters navigating California’s rugged coast may have fewer options for safe harbors and inlets than boaters on the Eastern Seaboard, but what California lacks in quantity of small harbors, it more than makes up for in quality.

This article originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.