Parents’ insider guide to family travel: Four Seasons Santa Barbara

Thanks to Laura Gosselin

Top things to do with kids in Santa Barbara

With bright pink splashes of bougainvillea crawling up Old World Spanish-style stucco, to call California’s coastal city of Santa Barbara picturesque is an understatement. When we’re there, it’s like the scattered puzzle pieces of our hectic lives come together and suddenly, everything falls into place.

At Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, we stopped worrying about the stuff we tend to worry about—like how many tattoos our daughter will get when she hits her teens—and instead, spent time relishing the simple things: palm trees, beach sunsets and the joy of wearing flip flops.

Our four-year-old daughter, Molly, was unsure of what to expect in Santa Barbara—or, “Santa Booba,” as she called it. Like most kids her age, Molly’s brain is basically a dedicated checklist of things she likes verses things she doesn’t. Luckily, with the beach at the top of her list, Santa Booba instantly became a Molly-approved destination. As a bonus, we were bringing Molly’s grandpa, Fred, along with us. Visiting from his small town in Fort Qu’Appelle (Saskatchewan, Canada), Fred doesn’t indulge in extravagances. And we thought it would be fun to blow his mind with Four Seasons five-star service at this stunning waterfront property.

This trip also taught us that Molly really likes to bathe beneath her name.

Why go?

*The beach. Butterfly Beach, adjacent from the property, is a low-key beach perfect for romantic strolls and kid-frolicking.

*The casual California attitude. For us, it’s almost impossible to have a casual attitude when we’re wrangling our monkey-child… but here, we tried to adopt it.

*The grounds. This property is simply breathtaking. A long driveway, ensconced in trees and flowers, leads up to an expansive, charming building circa 1927. As we drove up rounding the corner to the resort, the beach came into view—a fantastic, vast stretch of deep blue water and Channel Islands views.

As we pulled up to the property, Molly began frantically undressing in her carseat, demanding we pop the trunk (while driving) to retrieve her bathing suit. Things got ugly when we told her she’d have to wait until after we checked in. Her back arched. She let out a moan of disappointment, and then blew a raspberry to really drive home her disappointment that we wouldn’t be jumping from a moving vehicle to the beach.

However, once in the lobby, the gentleman at the front desk quickly turned an impending tantrum into a smile when he handed her a stuffed animal. Her face turned from angry red to pleased pink. Her extended lower lip retreated. Disaster averted. Thank you, man behind the desk. You have no idea.

What the kids will love

*Santa Barbara Zoo: The coolest part about the Santa Barbara Zoo is not only its oceanfront location, but also the fact that it’s small and accessible. In Santa Barbara, the zoo isn’t the all-day affair it tends to be in other cities. We did it in just a few hours and felt like we had the afternoon to explore more of the city. Molly’s favorite part? Feeding the resident giraffe, Michael.

(Can I go on the record to say I think that Michael is a bogus name for a giraffe?)

*State Street: State Street is the perfect activity for both parents and kids. Although Molly isn’t a huge fan of shopping, we can buy her interest by putting a few dollars in her purse and telling her she can spend it on whatever she wants. Thus, we meandered through Santa Barbara’s downtown’s Historic Arts District, brimming with fine dining and world-class shopping in outdoor paseos along brick-lined sidewalks. The only downside was explaining to Molly that a few dollars wouldn’t buy her a bike.

*Swimming at the Coral Casino: The resort gives guests access to the private club, The Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club, directly across the street. There’s a large pool for adults, and a small kiddie pool for children to splash around in. After our swim, we dined at the Coral Cafe, where Molly had ice cream and I treated myself to a coffee and a crème brulee. Calories burned swimming: 60. Calories in a crème brulee: probably 6,000. (It’s vacation.)

*The garden: During the summer, children can plant their own ingredients in the resort’s herb garden. Accompanied by a Kids For All Seasons* staff member, children join the chef on a guided tour of the garden, where they learn about herbs and then get to create their own herb-infused olive oil.

*Ready, set, grow! Every Saturday, kids gather on the resort’s lawn for gardening and art-making fun. Staff help children plant their own native California poppy in a miniature terracotta pot, which they then paint and decorate. Kids learn about the growing cycle and how to care for their poppy at home as they watch it bloom. We’re coming back for this one!

What you will love

*Romance. Aside from being situated in the perfect place for endless ocean views and spectacular sunsets, the Spanish-Colonial architectural style of the property itself makes it one of the most romantic places we’ve ever been to. Everything has an ornate charm… from the rooms furnished with antiques, to the Ty Lounge adorned with rustic timber beams.

*Strolls. In the evening, pour a glass of wine and wander the meandering trails and gardens throughout the property. See if you can spot the resort’s famous Moreton Bay Fig tree, which dates back to the 1800s.

*Wine. Speaking of wine, did I mention Santa Barbara is wine country? If you have a sitter on-hand (a babysitting service can also be arranged through the concierge), the best way to see the wine country is via an all-inclusive tour. Coastal Concierge leads tours in a luxury SUV. Coastal Concierge gets you access to by-appointment private and semi-private wineries.

If you prefer to do your own wine tour, minutes away you’ll find the Urban Wine Trail, an area where you can sample some of the county’s finest wines in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara.

If you’re feeling adventurous and want lots of “likes” on your Facebook page, take a 45-mile drive north to check-in at the Hitching Post, the restaurant featured in the vino-fixated indie hit, “Sideways.”

Look for:

Whales. Diners at Four Seasons’ Bella Vista often spot dolphins and whales off of Butterfly Beach. From February to May, gray whales pass through the Santa Barbara Channel to northern feeding grounds. My husband Jake spied a dolphin while he was paddle boarding!

Eat this:

Dine in—I was lucky enough to have a chat with Executive Chef Alessandro Cartumini. Chef Alessandro told me all about his farm-to-table approach and how he’s swapped heavier wine country fare for a pure, lighter California-Italian menu. He was also very excited about his pasta machine—which he had championed—and finally got after a year of coercing. This magical $18,000 machine is paying off with guests enjoying the fresh, house-made pasta.

That night, we enjoyed the sunset from the patio of Bella Vista. We started with a bottle of delicious zinfandel and shared the Antipasto Per Due—a delectable array of salami, grilled vegetables and California cheeses. For our main courses, Fred devoured a melt-in-your-mouth halibut, while Jake wanted to test chef’s pasta machine with the Spaghetti Neri. When I asked Jake whether he thought the machine was worth the investment, he nodded wildly with noodles hanging from his mouth. For me, I was in the mood for steak: cutting into the Grilled Tenderloin Bistecca was like slicing into cake.

As for Molly, her picky palette was accommodated with fresh pasta in a creamy butter sauce. This child, who usually takes two bites then announces she’s ready for dessert, was eerily quiet for a good 20 minutes as she polished off the entire bowl. Bravo, Chef Alessandro. Bravo.

Dessert, anyone?
What’s the point of having one bottle of wine when you can have two? While Molly was deeply engaged in her “build-your-own sundae,” we shared a delicious chocolate soufflé along with another bottle of zinfandel as the sun disappeared into the horizon. Bliss.

For breakfast: Drink your morning coffee and indulge in the breakfast buffet on the patio of Bella Vista. There’s nothing more invigorating than a morning ocean breeze coupled with a café latte. Oh, and Molly feasted again. I’ve never seen her put away so much food. We may have to move in permanently if this is the only place she’ll eat.

Dine out—Have you ever had a dish somewhere that’s so good, you just can’t seem to replicate it anywhere else? For me, this dish is Brophy Brothers’ clam chowder. When we booked our trip to Santa Barbara, I knew I had to scratch my clam chowder itch with a bowl of Brophy Brothers’ original. Was it as good as I remembered? Yes. Maybe better.

For breakfast: A local staple for 25 years, Jeannine’s Restaurant is a 10-minute stroll from the resort. The place is such a local hotspot, if you take a moment to hem n’ haw over the menu, you’ll lose your place in line and will be shuffled to the back. When this happens, you will feel shame. We know this from experience. My suggestion? Read the menu online so you know what you want when you get there. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, people. Preparation is everything.

5 family to dos:

1. Mission Santa Barbara was the 10th of the California missions to be founded by the Spanish Franciscans and is just a short drive from the resort. If you like history, you should visit. (Molly doesn’t… so we didn’t.)

Picnic at the Mission! Since the Mission overlooks a large grassy park with a rose garden, it’s popular for families to pack some lunch and let the kids can run around on the grass. Arrange for a gourmet picnic basket to-go prepared by the Four Seasons’ kitchen.

2. Butterfly Beach is located literally a hop, skip and a jump across the street from the resort. With smaller waves and a beautiful stretch of golden sand, it’s perfect for little ones.

3. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History connects kids to the science of nature through interactive displays and play areas. Kids will love skeleton of blue whale as well as the new Tinkertoy exhibit!

4. The Spa: OK, so this isn’t exactly a family activity per se, but as a parent, the spa at Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara will make you happier, which in turn, will make you a better parent. So go ahead: indulge in one of the 11 personalized massages, body treatments or facials. It’s for the children, after all.

5. Paddle boarding: perfect for older kids and adults, paddle boarding gives you one of those rare moments alone with nature. Organized through the hotel’s concierge, Jake and Fred set out to paddle board, but a dolphin frolicking beside them unnerved Jake because dolphins have fins. Thanks for ruining what could have been a great experience, Mr. Spielberg.

Kid fun by age group. Best for…

*Babies: The kiddie pool at The Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club is just the right size and temperature for mama and baby.
*Toddlers: The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden offers small visitors a place of beauty to learn about plant life and nature conservation.
*Kids 5-10: From surfing, to kayaking, fishing, whale watching, Channel Island Tours and even kayak surfing – there’s something for all types of young adventurers!
*Tweens & teens: Stearns Wharf is California’s oldest working wharf and Santa Barbara’s most visited tourist attraction.

The best part:

Molly and Fred have this special grandfather-granddaughter relationship we as parents dream of for their child. Since he lives a plane ride away from us, we cherish the times they spend together. Our trip to Santa Barbara gave us rare time away from the distractions of life so that Molly and her “papa” could create some treasured memories together. And boy, did they ever!

*Kids For All Seasons (KFAS) is a Four Seasons complimentary recreational and educational program for children of resort guests. Most KFAS clubs are designed for youth four to 12 years old, and open daily from 9 to 5. (Younger children can often join KFAS with a nanny or parent, or resorts can arrange for babysitting.) But details vary from property to property, so check the resort’s website for more information. 

Kids can go all day or just for an hour or two. Activities inside and out include games, sports, music, treasure hunts, swimming, arts and crafts, cultural education, environmental preservation work and yoga. Not your average camp, the VIP offerings are pretty extraordinary—for example, at Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, there’s a Dive-In Movie Night where kids watch a film from inflatable seats floating in the pool with the screen suspended between two palm trees. The fun roster includes Spanish lessons, mini golf, pizza making with the chef and—on special occasions—traditional Costa Rican nights with live Merengue and Salsa, stiltwalkers, traditional garb, acrobats and drumming.

Read more about Santa Barbara in Four Seasons Magazine

Read our “Concierge Recommendations” for Santa Barbara in Four Seasons Magazine.