When I released the 2011 Photo of the Year (taken in Nassau), I wondered whether the man in the photo’s mood was preventing him from noticing how beautiful the scenery was around him. A friend commented to me that it reminded her of the movie The Descendants, which apparently tackles the very issue of normal people in beautiful environments who still suffer from regular people’s problems.
Growing up in the Northeast, I always romanticized the idea of living in a tropical destination like the Caribbean (where most of my travel was focused during childhood), thinking that the locals had it made and that rest of the world was crazy for choosing to live in areas of the country that offered so little in return.
That was a young person spinning his wheels and dealing with the frustrations of growing up – I now realize there are good things to be found in any location, and where a person decides to set up shop is simply a matter of preferences and values and, at times, courage.
I put my money where my mouth was after graduate school, packing whatever I could fit in my car and making a dash for the West Coast. I landed in Santa Barbara and rented a room with some friends, snagged a job renting cars and traveled as much as I could with my limited vacation: I made weekend trips to San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon. In bursts, I was living the life I had always dreamed – the adventures were invaluable – but at the end of the day I still had a job that drove me nuts, relationships to manage, and stress surrounding my future.
Still, I thought very highly of Santa Barbara, realizing quickly that even though the same problems will come my way, I’d much rather battle them from the shade of the palm trees than the concrete streets of the crowded cities. I’m a man of visual stimulation and adventure, conversation and connection. When I ended up falling backwards into the travel writing world and began visiting inspiring places, Santa Barbara was often the cure for my post-trip blues. Happy hour on a catamaran in the Dominican Republic was a special experience, yet few places I visited boasted the diversity that Santa Barbara offers residents.
The realities of life (those pesky aforementioned problems) recently forced me to move on from Southern California, but beautiful memories of afternoons at wineries, in the mountains, and on the beaches of Santa Barbara have earned it the #3 spot on my countdown of the Best Happy Hour Spots of 2011.
A special shout to all my friends who still call it their home: Keep on living it, and thanks for the memories.
Santa Barbara Wine Country: Pack that picnic, my friends. After a 40-minute climb over the mountains into the Santa Ynez Valley (which will not bore you, I promise), Lake Cachuma and the grape vines begin to fill your windshield. Wineries in the area are all picnic friendly and offering reasonably priced wine and tastings (compared to Napa and Sonoma where I found picnicking to be less appropriate… in fact I think there’s a rule against it). The Fess Parker, Kalyra, and Bridlewood were some of my top hangouts.
Earn Your Happiness, Hike Your Heart Out: There are so many good spots to set up shop with some friends – places overlooking the ocean and others the valley – both stunning in their own ways. Knapp’s Castle, Inspiration Point, and Lizard’s Mouth were some of my favorite trails when it came to a gathering at the top: All moderate climbs with room to spread out at the top and views that will take care of any restlessness the drink fails to calm.
Restaurant/Bar Scene: With big-city dining options packed into a town of only 90,000, you’ll run out of money before you run out of restaurants. Brophy Brothers is great for a beer and a bowl of clam chowder as you overlook the harbor; The Boathouse and the Beachside Café offer views of the Pacific; Shoreline lets you eat and drink with your feet in the sand (go for the drink and the novelty of it, as the food does not shine). When all else fails, walk State Street and window-shop for the restaurant, winery, or watering hole that fits your mood (see map of State Street).
Beaches: While Goleta Beach is the only spot in the area where it’s legal to post up with a cooler, no one will bother you at places like Hendry’s or Ellwood. There are no private beaches in California, and the rocky, twisting coastline provides plenty of space to spread out and find your own little spot around corners, on beaches that don’t even have a name. Don’t ask for trouble and you won’t find it, and let the sparkling Pacific, clean sand, and clear skies do their thing.
Check out all my coverage from the past few years on Santa Barbara, as well as the photo gallery.
2001 Happy Hour Spot #5: Eagle Island
Georgia 2011 Happy Hour Spot #4: Saona Island, Dominican Republic