Though the southern California town is a fabulous tourist destination, it's often skipped over by cruise ships. But, that's not to say Santa Barbara is completely unknown; in fact, Sapphire Princess' "Coastal Sampler" cruise, departing Los Angeles on May 9, has always had a scheduled stop there. Short Pacific cruises have featured the city in the past, but longer ones usually stick to Los Angeles to the south and San Francisco to the north. Passengers lucky enough to experience Santa Barbara will be taken with the little city's charms, its glistening beaches, well-known wineries, Puebla-style architecture, chic shopping and trendy restaurants. Although the city's Waterfront Department says it's not planning anything special to welcome cruise guests, it is confident that it can comfortably accommodate them.
If you've suddenly found yourself with this California port on your itinerary, here's some key information to help you plan your day ashore.
A Brief Overview
Located about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is called the American Riviera. While that moniker might sound like tourist-bureau puffery, it's a fact that the well-heeled of Los Angeles choose to journey north for long weekends away from the smog and bustle of the city. Celebrities have been attracted to this destination for decades.
In 1910, the American Movie Studio was built in Santa Barbara and produced more than 1,000 films in its short ten years of operation. Charlie Chaplin built the Montecito Inn for his Hollywood friends. The San Ysidro Ranch was purchased by Ronald Coleman and a partner in 1935; it's not only still going strong as a luxurious resort hotel, but it's also a haven for those who require peace and privacy on their vacations. Jack and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned there in 1953. Deborah Messing's wedding was at the Bacara Resort, which was also closed down for awhile in anticipation of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's wedding.
The seaside town may be recognizable from the movie "Sideways," and it's also the locale (albeit, renamed) for the Sue Miller mystery novels, featuring Kinsey Milhone.
Where You're Docked
Although Santa Barbara has a gorgeous pier that extends well into the Pacific, it isn't suitable for cruise-ship docking. Passengers will be tendered in to Sea Landing, a short walk from Stearns Wharf -- a long wooden pier with shopping and dining.
The center of Santa Barbara is definitely walkable and is not too far from the tender's drop-off point. You can grab a cab from there to the center of town. You can also take advantage of the hop-on, hop-off trolley, which goes to Stearns Wharf and all over the city -- just wave and they'll stop for you. Tickets for adults are approximately $19.
If you want to go off on your own, perhaps to explore the nearby wine country or California's own Danish village (Solvang, about 40 miles away), you might consider renting a car for the day. Hertz has a location at the Fess Parker Doubletree Hotel; they will pick you up with advance notice, but that location closes at 3 p.m. Avis also has a downtown office, but it closes at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and at 4 p.m. on Sundays.
Just in case a car rental doesn't work out for you, Princess is offering shore excursions to Solvang and the wine country.
What to Do
Guests who arrive on Star Princess' May 2 call and Sapphire Princess' May 3 call in Santa Barbara are lucky: they might not be going south of the border, but Santa Barbara's Cinco de Mayo festivities will be in full swing both days. Also, both of Sapphire Princess's calls fall on Sundays, when an Arts and Crafts Fair sets us shop at the beach.
Those who choose to just wander freely will enjoy the shops and restaurants along State Street and the many paseos (passageways) leading into charming courtyards that are filled with boutiques and galleries. Music pours from the sidewalk cafes; you can dine on everything from gourmet California "slow-food cuisine" and handmade tortillas to tamales and fresh seafood.
The Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara (you'll see them as you enter and leave), attract whales -- even this late in the season. It's not unusual to see pods of humpbacks frolicking in the waters offshore. In fact, you might be lucky enough to see them from the ship. But, if not, there are several companies that offer whale-watching (as well as fishing) tours, right from the tender pier.
And, of course, there are the beaches. Though sunny, Santa Barbara doesn't really get hot at any time of year, and early May might be a bit chilly. But, the beaches are deep and beautiful and are perfect for nice, long walks or flying kites. Just remember, the Pacific isn't the Caribbean: It's a cold, cold body of water. It's wild and beautiful with big, sweeping waves (great for surfing at Goleta), but be prepared for chilly water if you dare to go swimming.
--by Cruise Critic contributor Jana Jones, who has also written for a variety of publications, including Vacation Agent, U.K.'s Travel Holidays and Ocean Drive Magazine