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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Surf, sail and sea: ‘America’s Riviera’ Santa Barbara is an under-the-radar gem amid California coastal destinations

It was akin to being part of a Disney production as a cluster of butterflies floated by as I pedaled into Montecito in August. If scenes from heaven were shot on location, the laidback village of Montecito, which is a 15-minute bike ride from downtown Santa Barbara, would be perfect for a version of an idyllic afterlife.

It’s lovely enough to attract a member of the royal family to relocate to the West Coast. While zipping through what is aptly dubbed Butterfly Beach, it was obvious why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and the guy who created Beanie Babies (Ty Warner) live in Montecito. It’s a stone’s throw from often under-heralded Santa Barbara.

The city, which is nicknamed America’s Riviera, is inexplicably lost in the shuffle when it comes to California coastal destinations. The gem of a coastal town between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean is just 95 miles north of Los Angeles.

If you’re California dreamin’ but would like to avoid theme parks, traffic jams and exorbitant hotels and restaurants, Santa Barbara just might be your kind of town. Santa Barbara is ideal for foodies, wine enthusiasts and outdoor types. Regarding the latter, my sons Milo, 16, Eddie, 19, and I indulged in surfing, sailing and sea kayaking.

Surf Happens (surfhappens.com), which provides board and wet suits as well as access to showers and changing rooms, offers patient instruction. Each of us was able to hang ten even though it had been years since we navigated surf on a board. I had been out with a few instructors, but this was the first time I was ever told to just look out at the horizon when I transitioned from my knees to a standing position.

The subtleties were detailed, and it made a huge difference. Those who fear sharks should know that the beach Carpenteria, about a half-hour south of downtown Santa Barbara, is patrolled by paddleboarders who are on the lookout for predators. There are no rocks along the waters of Carpenteria, and we faired well on a day with gentle waves during our two-hour experience.

It wasn’t very choppy when we sailed into the Pacific. We learned some of the basics, but it was about the experience, which was serene but also stimulating. It was nice taking part in a green activity since no fossil fuels are needed for propulsion. It’s all about wind power .

Our college-age guide from the Santa Barbara Sailing Center (sbsail.com), who has been sailing for the last decade, rendered tips and showed us how the sails use the wind. We relaxed and soaked in the rays as we sailed toward but not to Santa Cruz Island. We kicked back during a sun-dappled afternoon and alternated staring out at the blue sea and the brown Santa Ynez Mountains.

After a half-hour, we were blissfully disconnected from the world as we were rocked by the rhythm of the sea. Kayaking off scenic Haskell’s Beach was quite different from sailing. While embarking on a three-hour trek with our affable guide from the Santa Barbara Adventure Co. (sbadventureco.com), it was a little more challenging. Milo and I shared a kayak while Eddie went solo.

After years of whitewater rafting, it wasn’t difficult to paddle through the waves and venture out past the breakers. It was fascinating soaking up the history of Santa Barbara from our guide, who also detailed what we might see: seals, a variety of fish and possibly some great white sharks. We have no fear of sharks. There’s a much better chance of a car accident than encountering a shark.

There were no great white sightings. It was cool to check out and touch the kelp beds, where seals often hang out. We watched as herons swooped in and scooped up fish for lunch. We paddled out about 2 miles off the coast. Riding a wave toward the beach was a blast. During our active stay in Santa Barbara, we spent considerably more time on and in the ocean than on the beach. We were constantly working up an appetite.

I’ve often had issues with West Coast pizza but was impressed while dining at Lucky Penny (luckypennysb.com), which offers an array of tasty wood-fired, thin-crust pies. The varied selection made choosing difficult, but we loved the Salty Surfer with San Marzano marinara, mozzarella, prosciutto, wood-fired pineapple, pickled Fresno chile and Parmesan. The prosciutto and pineapple make it like no other pizza.

Pennies adorn the exterior of Lucky Penny, which takes its pizza cues from the East Coast. Among artisanal sandwiches, they nail my favorite New Orleans staple, the muffaletta sandwich, the Big Easy’s delicious version of the hoagie, sub, hero or whatever you want to call the amalgam of olive salad and lunch meat invented by Italian immigrants. I never would’ve expected a California town to deliver such comfort food. Wash it all down with a glass of frose – yes, frozen rose.

Santa Barbara is in the middle of wine country – there are more than 16,000 acres of vineyards. I started at the first bicoastal winery in the country, Paradise Springs Winery (paradisespringsofsantabarbara.com). It’s right in the heart of Santa Barbara’s aptly tagged Funk Zone. Paradise Springs Winery, which is also located in Virginia, offers an array of wines. There is a fine selection of pinots, cabernets and chardonnays.

The Valley Project (thevalleyprojectwines.com) is also in the Funk Zone. Sample small lot wines and just hang out in the serene environment. Speaking of the Funk Zone, aka the arts district, the neighborhood is filled with warehouses that have been converted into charming cafes, galleries and tasting rooms

Santa Barbara is ideal for a long weekend or an even more extensive stay. If you would like to hang out downtown, there’s the historic Hotel Santa Barbara (hotelsantabarbara.com), where Hollywood icons such as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard stayed. Shopping, restaurants and the beaches are walking distance from the grand and comfortable hotel, which was built after the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake.

If you would like to stay on the edge of town, there’s the Kimpton Goodland (thegoodland.com) in nearby Goleta, which is funky and swanky. There’s a record player in each room – you can borrow up to three albums from the lobby – heated pool and restaurant, the latter of which is worth experiencing.

The pork chop with apple bacon chutney and sweet potato puree is a must. The pork belly bao buns and fire-roasted milkshake, highlighted by salted caramel and toasted meringue, are delicious. Both hotels are about $200 a night. A round-trip flight from Spokane to Santa Barbara is $195 via American Airlines (aa.com).

Santa Barbara features temperate weather year round and is an enviable combination of mellow and relaxed – and with so much to experience.

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