On the back roads of Santa Barbara County, over San Marcos Pass and down a side road named, appropriately, Stagecoach Road, lies a piece of Old West history. Preserved and yet polished, Cold Springs Tavern was originally a stagecoach rest stop on the lonely road from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but is now a destination for delicious food, drink and live music.
Taking a turn off the modern 4-lane concrete highway 154 that snakes from Santa Barbara to Los Olivos, Stagecoach Road gets smaller and begins to wind around the hills like the original stagecoach road it was. At the bottom of the arroyo, it winds by a collection of buildings dating from the 1860s, which have been maintained to look much like they did at that time. The road was completed in 1870 and in use up until 1901.
We try to visit Cold Springs every time we’re in the area, as there’s just nothing else like it in California, and the food is really good, too! This last time we went with our extended family ages 11-83, and they let the younger boys have their own table.
Jen had their famous tri-tip beef sandwich, which they coat in spices and slow roast, and then slice thin. Rich had their baby back ribs, which were also delicious. Everything is fresh and local, and the ambiance is pure Old West.
Cold Springs hosts live music from Friday to Sunday, with Sundays being the most popular day. Reservations are recommended.
Whenever we visit Santa Barbara, we never miss an opportunity to visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Located on Stearns Wharf, what this sea center may lack in size it makes up for in quality.
Upon entering the exhibits kids can look at and crawl through a 1,500-gallon tidepool tank. It’s up close and beautiful, filled with local creatures.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
Our twins loved the Shark Cove exhibit where they were invited to gently touch coastal sharks and rays. They were fascinated by the baby sharks, which can be seen inside their translucent eggs.
At the Intertidal Wonders exhibit, you can touch and feel sea anemones, starfish and hermit crabs. Trained naturalists stand by to engage and answer questions. Our boys really enjoyed this hands-on experience.
Intertidal Wonders touch pools
Our teen was quick to head upstairs to the dimly lit and beautiful “Jellies & Friends” exhibit. Black lights glow through tanks full of these gorgeous creatures as they move slowly through the water. They are like floating artwork.
JELLIES & friends
Upstairs they also have a small reading area for young kids and an adorable puppet theater.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center is open daily from 10 to 5 but is closed on most major holidays.
Seniors (65 and over): $7.50
Teens (13-17 years): $7.50
Children (2-12 years): $6.00
Children under 2 years FREE
Museum Members FREE
They also sell the SB Nature Pass that includes unlimited admission to both the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center for two days. They’re both well worth a visit for kids of any age.
Santa Barbara must be one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. We love the Spanish revival architecture, beaches lined with palm trees, amazing cuisine, and of course the laid-back California vibe. We lived in Santa Barbara in the 1990s and we still have family there, so we get to return regularly. It’s always exciting to visit and so very hard to leave.
We spent a week there this winter, which is out of the peak tourist season in summer, but the weather was very moderate. There were no crowds and getting into restaurants was easy.
We stayed at The Fess Parker: A Doubletree by Hilton Resort, which is a wonderful family (and pet) friendly hotel. Located across the street from the beach and within walking distance from the pier, it’s in a perfect spot. The resort has some great restaurants and relaxing pools!
Running through the middle of Santa Barbara, State Street is the ‘main drag’ of Santa Barbara and is lined with shops, restaurants, night clubs and movie theaters. We spent a good part of our trip there, and it’s fun to wander around on State with the crowds.
Sterns Wharf lies at the end of State Street. It is one of the only wharves on the entire West Coast of the US that you can drive on and park your car. The boys loved it!
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It has a great aquarium (see our post on Sea Center Fun in Santa Barbara for more info), restaurants, gift shops, ice cream counters, and an adorable candy store. You can even book a sunset cruise! We took a ride on the “Lil’ Toot”, which is a narrated boat ride around the harbor. The boys loved the ride and we saw several adorable harbor seals. One way tickets are $5 per adult and $1 per child.
My favorite thing about the wharf is the amazing view of Santa Barbara!
Santa Barbara Arts & Crafts Show
Another of our favorite things to do in Santa Barbara is to stroll along the beach on Sundays between 10 and sunset to see the wonderful creations at the weekly Art and Crafts show.
Established in 1965, the show features original works of art made by local artists. You can find the show on E. Cabrillo Blvd, Santa Barbara in front of Skater’s Point.
Ideas for Kids and Teens
Grab your skateboard and have some fun at Skater’s Point. Helmets are required.
Leadbetter Beach is the perfect place to learn to surf or paddle board. They also have volleyball nets, and surfboard rentals are available.
Bike along Santa Barbara’s beautiful waterfront. You can rent bikes at Wheel Fun Bike Rentals at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort.
For the younger ones
Chase Palm Park is a great place to play out some energy. It’s located across E. Cabrillo Blvd from the beach and art show. This park features a shipwreck playground and a beautiful antique carousel. A ride on the carousel costs $2.50.
One of our favorite things to do in Los Angeles is visit the LA County Museum of Art, or LACMA. So when we arrived in LA, we decided to take the boys to LACMA, and we were pleasantly surprised to find an exhibit featuring one of our favorite movie directors: Guillermo del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak fame.
Wall-size photo of Guillermo Del Toro’s home, Bleak House
Entitled “Monsters at Home”, the exhibit is an ode to creepy and scary in all its forms. Del Toro has been collecting movie props, costumes, paintings, books, artwork, and more for many years, and turned his LA home (“Bleak House’) into a sort of museum for them all, pictured above in a wall-size photo that Miles is standing in front of.
Character from Pan’s Labyrinth
Someone at LACMA saw this remarkable collection, and together with del Toro they designed a museum show to share his collection with the world, in a themed exhibit like no other.
Victorian Women’s Costumes from his films
Costume from Crimson Peak
“Monsters at Home” included life-size wax figures of the famous authors Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, along with first editions of their famous books. It also had walls of “monster” comic books from the 1950s and 1960s, and notebooks from del Toro himself, showing his creative process for filmmaking. It was fascinating to see drawings from scenes in his movies, next to a screen showing the scene.
Wax figure of Edgar Allen Poe
In one room, they recreated the “Rain Room” from del Toro’s Bleak House, where he simulated rain on the windows and played a continuous loop of rain and thunder. He found this 24 hour rain room a perfect hideaway for focused creativity, when LA was all sun and fun.
Travis Louie, The Strangler, 2009
The exhibit includes drawings from his notebooks, and almost 60 objects from LACMA’s permanent collection. The diverse range of media—including sculpture, paintings, prints, photography, costumes, ancient artifacts, books, maquettes, and film—totals approximately 500 objects and reflects the broad scope of del Toro’s inspirations.
Brian Poor, Chopin v2.0, 2009
“Monsters at Home” was a remarkable surprise, and if you want to catch it in person, time is running out. It is only open until November 27th. It includes some intense clips from his movies, so you may not want to bring young children. Admission is $25 for adults, but free for those 17 and under, and includes general admission to the entirety of LACMA.
After visiting with Jen’s parents in Cayucos, it was time for our annual family trip with Rich’s family. This year the choice was the stunning Catalina Island, a jewel of an island only 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Catalina is one of the eight Channel Islands, and the only inhabited one, known for its “Old California” vibe and well-maintained Art Deco architecture. The island became popular in the 1920s as a playground for Hollywood, and the Wrigley family famously built mansions and the “Casino”.
Unless you have a private plane or boat, the best way to get there is by taking The Catalina Express, which runs from Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point to the port of Avalon. The boats are comfortable with air conditioning, bathrooms, and a snack bar. The ride can be choppy so be ready if you are prone to motion sickness. We have found that sitting outside on the roof deck made for an easier ride. Adult fares are currently $72 per person round trip, children 2-11 are $56.50 and infants are $5.
Catalina is not that large, so it’s easy to get around. Most of the hotels, condos and vacation homes are located right in Avalon, so it’s really easy to just walk from the boat. Many hotels have shuttles and there are taxis by the ferry terminal. A trolley runs daily from June through August (check for off season schedule) and goes from the dock to Descanso Beach and up to Wrigley Gardens.
Many people on Catalina use golf carts to get around. It’s a fun way to get around but you may be shocked by the price tag–about $40 per hour for a cart that seats 4. It is a fun thing to do for a short tour of the island.
Catalina has a small public beach in the center of town. You can relax on the sand, swim or paddleboard right from the beach. On the adjacent pier, you can rent Kayaks and snorkeling equipment. It tends to get crowded quickly in the summer, so arrive early to grab a spot.
Descanso Beach Club
We were hoping for a little more space, so we decided to splurge on a private cabana at Descanso Beach Club. Theclub is located on a beautiful private beach. Getting there is easy with a shuttle from downtown. They have 17 Cabanas available for rent and prices vary depending on the season. Our cabana was around $400 for our party of 11 and included smoothies, water, towels, Lounge Chairs. The cabana was large and comfortable. The rental hours are 10 to 4.
It was an expensive afternoon but the kids loved the beach and the food. They went snorkeling and rented paddle boards. We were hoping to spend the day relaxing but the beach club draws a pretty lively twenty something crowd. It was really fun but not relaxing.
Catalina Island Casino Ballroom
Catalina Island Casino Ballroom (or as locals call it, “The Casino”) wasbuilt in 1929. It’s actually a theater and not a gambling hall: the name Casino is Italian for “gathering place”. They offer a fun behind-the-scenes tour where you can walk on the same stage that has hosted hundreds of celebrities from Hollywood’s golden age, including Errol Flynn and Cary Grant. The tour visits the green room, editing room, theater, ballroom, and concert hall. The building is beautifully architected, with a rich history.
The 70 minute tour costs $27 for adults and $25 for seniors and children. Tours are offered twice daily at 12:45PM & 3:15PM
There are also first-run movies shown every night during the summer in the main theater. It’s a beautiful Art Deco theater and definitely worth catching a movie there, even if you don’t take the tour.
Catalina is gorgeous from the water, and you really need to get out onto the ocean to appreciate it. It’s a great place to snorkel and we were lucky enough to be visited by a frolicking sea-lion.
– Edited by Harrison Gaushell
For a good time on the water, Joe’s Rent-a-Boat offers 6 person motor boats for rent by the hour. They’re reasonably priced and well-maintained, and the staff is easy to work with. They’re located on the main pier. You can take their boats 6 miles up the coast and 4.5 miles down the coast from the harbor, and they include fuel and lifejackets. You can rent snorkels from them too.
Great Places to Eat
For a great quick breakfast, we recommend Original Jack’s Avalon Bake Shop at 122 Catalina Avenue. They have all the basics of a great bakery, plus they make delicious breakfast burritos and they have excellent coffee. It’s a walk-up counter that serves everything to-go. Even if there’s a line, it goes pretty quickly.
For lunch with a view, our favorite was Bluewater Avalon Seafood Restaurant, right near the main pier in Avalon. We enjoyed sitting on the deck and watching the boats drift by while eating delicious California seafood. The salmon was fantastic and they had an expansive wine list. It was kid friendly with a kids’ menu and special drinks like the Shark Attack (blueberry soda with gummy sharks).
For dinner or drinks, we really liked Avalon Grille at 423 Crescent Avenue. It’s a stylish indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar, with a sophisticated drink list and excellent food. You can people watch while enjoying some brussel sprouts with pork belly or ahi tartare.
After returning from Costa Rica we decided to spend some time in California visiting our family. Our first stop was Cayucos for a little time with Grandma. Cayucos is an adorable beach town on the central coast of California. It’s a wonderful place for families, with beautiful beaches and a relaxed California vibe.
We started the day off with an early lunch at Duckie’s Chowder House. Duckie’s is a small casual restaurant by the Cayucos pier, serving up yummy chowder, fish and chips, fish tacos, bowls and burgers. They have a to-go window, so you can grab lunch to eat on the beach. We chose to sit down in the restaurant and enjoy a long lunch and a beer. The food was great! We loved the clam chowder and the garlic fries.
After lunch, the kids ran to a playground on the sand at Cayucos State Beach. The beach is beautiful and it’s a great place to relax and watch the surfers.
After the boys played in the waves we took a stroll to the end of the newly restored Cayucos Pier. The original pier was built in 1872 by the town’s founder, Captain James Cass. It’s an old style pier with no tourist shops or rides, so it’s really quiet. You can walk to the end and enjoy the view or bring a fishing pole and cast your line over the side.
No visit to Cayucos is complete without sampling the cookies at Brown Butter Cookie Company. It’s a short stroll down Ocean Ave from the pier. The cookies are fantastic! Our favorites are their classic Brown Butter Cookies and the Bourbon cookies.
Ocean Ave is a great street for window shopping. There are a bunch of cute shops, art galleries, bars, and cafes.
For dinner, we chose Schooners Wharf, a wonderful restaurant on Ocean Ave. We chose a patio table with an amazing view of the sun setting over the water. The service was great and we loved the food. The Pecan Crusted Halibut was a hit. They also offered a good kids menu for the boys. It was a perfect end to a relaxing coastal California day!
We survived our first long drive of the trip. The drive from Tahoe to Albion was long and winding, but was well worth it when we finally took in this amazing coastline. Our vacation rental is in a small housing development perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. The neighbors are set back so it feels like our little house has the meadow to itself. Deer are grazing in our yard and seagulls are perched on our deck. It’s breathtaking!
We drove up the coast to Fort Bragg to shop and have lunch. We decided to eat at a little fish and chips shack on the harbor. The Sea Pal Cove is a small funky place surrounded by fishing boats. It has a bit of an odor from the fishermen cleaning their daily catch but the fish couldn’t be fresher. The seagulls attempted to steal Rich’s Salmon a couple of times. But the best part of lunch was when a large sea lion plopped itself in the water next to the deck that wewere sitting on. It barked at us for a few minutes and then swam under the pier. The boys also fell in love with a series of wharf cats.
A trip to Bowling Ball Beach
One day, we decided to check out a beach that my friend Laura recommended. Schooner Gulch, also known as Bowling Ball Beach, is located 3 miles south of Point Arena. The beach was hard to find but so worth the trouble of getting there. It’s beautiful!
Another day, we decided to check out Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. From 1949 until 1967 this beach was the city dump. Over the years the ocean has rounded the discarded glass and formed a beach of soft glass pebbles. We were very excited to see it and were very let down. The beach was over run with people and their trash. Not the beautiful 1949 kind. Cigarettes, soda bottles and bags of chips. It was very sad. Although the beach is part of a state park, and it is against the rules to take the glass, it seems that everyone is there taking the glass anyway. We met a nice guy named Wayne later in the day who lives in Mendocino, and he said it used to be “10 feet deep”.
We restored our energy with a quick stop for fish and chips and then traveled South looking for a beach. The next stop was Jug Head, which had some quite ominous warning signs for dangerous waves. Really scary stuff: don’t walk on the cliffs or your will fall and die, don’t get near the ocean or a big wave will sweep you out to sea, and DEFINITELY do not walk on the beach, or you will get swept out to sea and DIE. Umkay. So… we kept searching.
We finally found Big River Beach, which was perfect. The beach is where the Big River meets the sea and the sand is soft and the water shallow but with good waves for jumping. The boys loved the water (which was freezing) and the sand, which was perfect for building. We met a nice family who were vacationing from New York. They gave us some advice on fun things to do in the city.
It was a perfect last day in Mendocino and we all agreed that we should return next year. But next time we will bring wet suits!
Tomorrow we head back to Walnut Creek for some last minute preparations. We are so excited to begin our adventure this Thursday. Next stop is New York City!
We rented out the house, packed our bags and are heading out on a family adventure. Our destination is Europe but our first stop is our annual family vacation with my husband’s family in beautiful Lake Tahoe. We have rented a house in the Tahoe Keys complete with speed boat, paddle boats and a kayak. The kids are having a blast. Rich and I are still recovering from our preparations, as moving the family household into one POD was quite the challenge. It’s nice to sit back and relax while the kids play with their cousins.
We think Lake Tahoe is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. It’s a wonderful place to visit year round with water sports in the summer, skiing in the winter and casinos year round. Usually, we spend time on Tahoes’ north shore in Nevada. But for this trip we choose the south shore because it hosts a great planned community on the lake called the Tahoe Keys. Most of the vacation homes on the keys have docks so we were able to rent a boat for the week and ride it out to the lake. Rafting on Lake Tahoe is really fun and the water is warm enough for the adults to get in too.
Of note, the company we rented the house from was easy to work with and very responsive to our questions: InvitedHome.
Here are some of our favorite eateries on the South Shore: