Go There: Santa Barbara, California

The American Riviera

Rincon doesn’t have to have twelve feet of swell at seventeen seconds to be good. Dane Reynolds takes full advantage of an “average” day at the Queen Of The Coast. Photo: De Roulet

Words: Michael Kew

Where: Santa Barbara is a south-facing city of 88,000 people in Southern California, roughly 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

What: A whole lot of cruel inconsistency. Santa Barbara has some shapely reefs, beachbreaks, and refined right-hand pointbreaks, but besides Rincon, they rarely break, requiring large west-northwest swells. The big problem with S.B. is it faces due south (even a bit southeast in some parts), which is the opposite direction of the prevailing swell, so most winter pulses are sheared by Point Conception, and southerly summer swells get blocked by the Channel Islands. In S.B., swell angle is everything, and with a place this sheltered, you can grow old between surf sessions.

Every once in a while a harbor can create a good wave. Sandspit, from above. Photo: Puu

When: Strictly wintertime (November to February), and if you’re hoping to surf a spot like Campus Point, El Capitan, or the elusive Sandspit, you’ll have to plan your trip around one of those big, over-hyped west swells. Rincon is far more consistent, however. If you come during summer, you won’t get wet unless you bring a SUP or a skimboard.

Why: Because it’s the lovely resort town of Santa Barbara—the name alone evokes images of multimillion-dollar homes, celebrities, beach parties, tourists, warm sunshine, and, yes, even that cheesy 1980s-era soap opera. It’s a nice place with lots of shiny, happy people. Heck, even Kelly Slater calls S.B. home in the wintertime. The waves can get good, and the city’s southerly exposure usually provides clean surf (unless a shitty south wind is blowing). And if you manage to arrive during a consistent winter swell, you might be able to sample Rincon with 200 of your best friends. You do want to see where Tom Curren grew up shredding, right?

Kelly Slater warming up for the Superbank with some winter Rincon. Photo: Wolcott

How: You can fly into Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA, flysba.com), but most flights are routed via Los Angeles (LAX), and they can be a bit costly. It’s much easier to just fly into LAX, rent a car there, and drive the 90 miles up to S.B., which is reached via U.S. Highway 101. The Santa Barbara Airbus (sbairbus.com) is a good LAX shuttle option, too. Amtrak (the train) has several daily lines from SoCal and San Luis Obispo into the Santa Barbara station; check amtrak.com. Once in S.B., you could also use the bus (sbmtd.gov) to get around. You will definitely need a car to get to the surf spots, though.

Places to stay: If you want to focus on surfing Rincon, you might consider staying in Carpinteria, which is about twelve miles south of S.B. Check out Motel 6 or the Sandyland Reef Inn (sandyland.com). You could also post up in the campground at Carpinteria State Beach (parks.ca.gov). If you want to try and score waves around Santa Barbara proper, there are dozens of choices for slumber, everything from hostels to five-star inns. S.B. is a major tourist destination, and so many hotels might be fully booked, especially around the holidays.


Places to eat: Like the accommodation, there are dozens (hundreds?) of restaurants in Santa Barbara, providing almost any kind of food you want, from Vietnamese to Mexican to Greek to Cajun. Walking distance from Sandspit is the Brewhouse (brewhousesb.com), a great place for food, drinks, and live music. Also, check out the new Esau’s Cafe (esauscafe.com) on Chapala Street. In the harbor, go to Brophy Brothers (brophybros.com) and the Endless Summer Bar-Cafe (endlesssummerbarcafe.net). If you’re down with healthy, organic fare, the Natural Café (thenaturalcafe.com) and Sojourner Café (sojournercafe.com) are pretty epic.

Rincon too much for ya? Try Little Rincon, then. Photo: Puu

Dudes and babes: Like its SoCal neighbors L.A. and O.C., Santa Barbara is definitely holding in both gender fields, thanks in large part to the two main colleges (UCSB and SBCC), a year-round influx of tourists, and many attractive, sun-kissed residents. Pick a warm, sunny day, and just look around. The nightlife on lower State Street is pretty dang hoppin’, too. You’ll be impressed.

Crowd factor: Santa Barbara is Southern California’s northernmost bastion, but it’s been said that while surfing in Santa Barbara, you might as well be surfing in Orange County. Yes, Santa Barbara gets crowded—very crowded. Why? Because the spots don’t break for the majority of the year, so when they’re on every surfer in S.B. and seemingly half of the surfing populations of SoCal and Santa Cruz flock here.

Sandspit will put sand in places you never even knew you had. Photo: Puu

Stuff to bring: There are several surf shops in town, so if you forget something, don’t fret. Since you’ll likely go in the winter, pack some chilly-weather (S.B. rarely gets truly cold) clothing and a 3/2mm fullsuit (maybe some booties also—the water can dip into the mid 50s at times, so you might prefer a 4/3 to a 3/2). Hiking shoes are good if you want to explore the mountains and their many trails.

If the surf is flat: There’s lots of stuff to do, really. Since you’ll be near the harbor, take a sailing lesson with Santa Barbara Sailing Center. On land, the zoo is an interesting spectacle, and the harbor itself is rich in maritime history. Over on East Beach you can join a match of volleyball or go skateboard at the waterfront skate park, or relax on the white sand and get a tan. The mountains above the city are good for hiking and scenic vistas. Stroll along State Street for window-shopping and people-watching. Go wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley. Last but not least: pray for surf.

Sandspit is an option when the surf is huge. If you plan on catching more than two waves though, better start a squat regimen now, ’cause your quads will be burning. Yadin Nicol. Photo: Dorsey

More information: The Insiders’ Guide To Santa Barbara (3rd edition, amazon.com) is chockablock with good information, but the Internet is also loaded—check out santabarbaraca.com, santabarbara.com, santabarbaraca.gov, and sbchamber.org. A good surf-oriented site is santabarbarasurfing.com.

Of course you don’t have to surf the big-name spots. There are some very good ones that aren’t visible from the road, where you can launch without the fear of landing on two longboarders and a kneeboarder. Tarik Khashoggi. Photo: Glaser