Beaches of Santa BarbaraSubtropical sun and sand
HERE, GIANT PELICANS GLIDE LOW OVER THE WATER, NEARLY SKIMMING THE SURFACE WITH THEIR WINGTIPS, THEN RISE SWIFTLY FOR A PLUMMETING DIVE IN PURSUIT OF FISH. DOLPHINS LEAP FROM THE SURF, DELIGHTING BEACH-GOERS.
For the Chumash Native Americans, the beaches of Santa Barbara, California were sites of natural bounty. Abalone, clams, and mussels served as food, and their shells became tools and adornment. The natural tar that bubbled from the ocean depths was the perfect pitch for sealing canoes. To 16th century Spanish explorers, the rugged coastal cliffs of this region offered the first views of a strange and beautiful new land – a land they would not colonise until two hundred years later.
Today, this sandy stretch of coastline serves primarily as parkland; over 20 scenic miles of meandering shoreline, and rock-studded shallows frequented by tourists and locals alike. Surfers and sunbathers, joggers and dog-walkers, builders of sandcastles, and fliers of kites flock to Santa Barbara’s beaches year round. Though these stretches of sand are indisputably beautiful, they’re more than that; they’re a kind of communal backyard that beckons visitors, compelling them to return, and to linger.
Those seeking bath-temperature turquoise waters won’t find them here; Santa Barbara is not tropical. At a latitude of 34.4° north, it’s considered subtropical, and the climate is often referred to as Mediterranean. It tends to be comfortable all year, with temperatures hovering around 21°C – ideal for a day at the beach. Due to the curving coastline, many of Santa Barbara’s beaches face south, sheltering them from the stronger winds and tides of a full western exposure.
Here, giant pelicans glide low over the water, nearly skimming the surface with their wingtips, then rise swiftly for a plummeting dive in pursuit of fish. Dolphins leap from the surf, delighting beach-goers. Watch the water carefully, and you may even catch the shiny, bobbing head of a harbour seal. Though they’re not often easy to spot from the shore, grey whales cruise through the Santa Barbara Channel as they migrate south in winter and north in spring.
Out beyond the breakers, the Channel Islands seem to float on the horizon. Lying about 20 miles off the coast, they’re worth a visit in their own right; the chain of islands is a designated National Marine Sanctuary. From the mainland, the islands make for dramatic sunset vistas, as well as for mellow surf, should you decide to venture into the bracing water.
Part of the fun of a day at the beach is picking your location, and with so many to choose from, it helps to have a bit of local advice. Arroyo Burro is a family favourite, known by locals as Hendry’s Beach. There’s ample parking here, as well as a snack shack and a rather classy restaurant, The Boathouse, a popular happy hour spot with unbeatable views. From the main steps, head right, or west, for an open vista and miles of walking; surfers and dog-walkers will generally head east, where the shore curves more dramatically, and dogs are allowed to run free. It’s worth consulting a tidal chart if you plan to walk for long, as a rapidly rising tide can turn a leisurely stroll into a rocky scramble. There’s little danger, however, as long as you don’t mind wet feet.
Just a mile down the coast is Mesa Lane, directly accessible only by a steep flight of stairs. You’ll know you’re nearing the right area when the street is lined with parked cars, and barefoot boys in wetsuits ambling down the middle of the road, balancing their surfboards on their heads. If you’re hoping to have the sand pretty much to yourself, Mesa Lane is a good bet, though there are no facilities along this relatively narrow stretch of coast, so plan accordingly.
Still further down the coast, located at a dip in the cliffs, Butterfly Beach draws casual beach-goers all year long. Due to its proximity to two upscale establishments – the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort and the Coral Casino Beach Club – the area is also good for celebrity sightings. Butterfly Beach is flanked by a palm-lined promenade, and accessible via a series of short steps. Walkers stroll along the gently sloping sand, and children frolic in the waves. Head east, left, at low tide, and you can walk from here to Miramar Beach, where the curving coastline offers views further south, and exclusive beachfront properties abut the sand.
It’s overcast this morning, but I’m determined that today is a beach day. I’ve got a guest visiting from Scotland, and sun or no sun, we’re headed for the coast. The tide is low, so I’ve chosen Arroyo Burro as our starting point; the beach has some of the best tide pools in the area. We slip off our shoes at the edge of the parking lot, wedge them between the rocks, and walk out across the sand to the water’s edge, where we both gasp with pleasure at the first shock of cold surging over our toes. Then we head west, sticking close to shore, our eyes on the distant horizon as we chat. We stop now and then to examine a bit of sea glass, or to watch the waves rolling in. Just ahead of us, a flock of sandpipers scurry after a retreating wave, using their long, curved beaks to probe the wet sand.
Around the next corner, the tide pools come into view; a series of long, narrow rock shelves jutting out from the water. We roll up our trousers, and head out for a closer look. In the shallow water, bright green sea grass swirls like mermaid’s hair, tangling with patches of red-brown kelp. Clusters of mussels and barnacles cling to the rocks, exposed to the air for just a few hours each day. We crouch down to examine the sea anemones that line the underside of one rock, their bluish tentacles arranged like the petals of daisies. I show my friend how a light stroke of the finger makes them curl up tight. At the base of the next pool, a hermit crab scurries along the floor. A little further along, we come across an orange starfish tucked deep inside a crevice. Excited, we call to a couple of little sandy-haired boys who join us to squat on the rock and gaze into this underwater microcosm.
When we look up again, the sun has broken through the clouds, and the water around us sparkles and dances. Across the sand, rise chalky cliffs dotted with green. They form a comforting natural barrier, enclosing us in wild, natural beauty. The heart of the city is just a few miles from here, but it seems a world away as we linger on the sand, listening to the cry of the gulls, feeling the sun soak into our skin, and letting the sea breeze tangle our hair.