Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Santa Barbara’s Best (Tucked-Away) Picnic Spots

July may be National Picnic Month but here in paradise, AKA Santa Barbara, it’s almost always time for a picnic. But finding the best and coolest picnic spots may be a little harder than you think. Everyone knows the obvious choices: Leadbetter Beach with its numerous tables, Tucker’s Grove with its family amenities and also numerous tables, Shoreline Park and such, so I scoured the beach, the mountains, and parks to find five less known but still classic Santa Barbara picnic places with diverse views but which are more secluded. So pack your picnic basket and discover some al fresco undercover gems of Santa Barbara.

 Andree Clark Bird Refuge

What was once considered a viable place to build the harbor in the 1920s has become something of a rarely visited respite. Set in a riparian woodland there are three small wood platforms with benches on them jutting out over the water, the last one being over a small bridge near the Santa Barbara Zoo. These wood platforms are accessed by a flat path that circumscribes part of the lake. You can sit directly above the water; the cool breezes from East Beach washing over you and you can have a modicum of privacy and quietness though these are not shaded. As the water laps up at your feet you’ll probably see diverse birds here including white pelicans on occasion. Located close to Coast Village Road in Montecito, food and restrooms are a short drive away.

Elings Park

Though it’s a popular spot for weddings, Cedric Grove atop Elings Park has easy car access, not to mention serene views back towards the city. There are restrooms nearby, plenty of picnic tables and a circular lawn surrounded by large mature oak trees. There is no food available here and they charge for parking on weekends, though weekday parking is free. Take the road all the way to the top and turn left on George Bliss Rd. The Wells Fargo Amphitheater offers the best views of the city not to mention plenty of graded seating. There are benches that flank both sides of the hill one to the city and other with views towards the park and out towards the ocean.

Lookout Park


You probably drive past this spot all the time and may not know it’s here. Located in Summerland right off Highway 101, Lookout Park is a small grassy bluff above the beach. There are benches, picnic tables and barbecue stands across the narrow park with plenty of parking available. The grass however is very uneven so watch your step. There is also a children's play area with swings and slides, a volleyball net on a sand base, restrooms, horseshoes and beach access. Dogs are allowed but must be kept on a leash. This is an ideal spot for a family picnic or large groups. Lillie Avenue is just two blocks away should you need to purchase food.

Sand Spit

Located at the termination of the breakwater at the harbor, there are a few whale tale benches in which to sit and watch Santa Barbara splayed out in front of you. You can also bring your own chairs and head across a short rock outcropping directly to the sand itself. To the right is Sterns Wharf, to the left are the boats moored in the harbor, in front of you is the city, and behind you is the majestic Pacific; it’s the best of all worlds. Take it all in, feel the gentle ocean breezes and hear the sea lions on the green buoy marker, but bring a hat as there is no shade. Restrooms, food and parking are all at the main buildings at the harbor. 

Franceschi Park
For the absolute best views of the city, this under the radar park located on the Rivera has unsurpassed vistas to downtown, the harbor, the ocean and islands, and is flanked by large eucalyptus trees. Part botanical garden, part city park, this is fairly secluded and quiet, set in a residential area and there is no food available near here. There are a few picnic tables and a few benches facing the ocean, and you also have the dilapidated but wonderfully odd Franceschi house nearby with its unusual embellishments, though the house is not open to the public. The park is open sunrise to sunset; there is limited parking and a restroom on site.  

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Only in Ojai: Of Deer, Hikes & Ancient Wisdom

Ojai in Ventura County, just south of Santa Barbara has long been considered a spiritual, grounded place, a Mecca for the artistic crowd, and those seeking something just left of center. A hub of meditation, spiritual retreats and teachings and simply an off the beaten path retreat paradise it was used as the backdrop for the 1937 movie “Lost Horizon.” These days the once secluded town is anything but hard to find. Summers see flocks of tourists shopping and dining along Ojai Avenue, doing yoga, getting in touch with their inner core or just escaping the hectic pace of somewhere else. Ojai built its current Spanish Colonial Revival diminutive downtown appearance because of a fire that decimated much of the town in 1917, and it’s a metaphor of the rejuvenation people feel when they come here. So here then are a few detox ideas, even for a place as sedate as Ojai.

The views from the Valley View Preserve


There is more rugged hiking in the Sespe Wilderness, but right near town the Valley View Preserve is a very moderate fire road hike perfect for an easy run or to take the dogs and burn a few calories. It runs its course along the north mountains looking out to the Ojai Valley on your right. Splayed out is the verdant greenery of the trees, orchards and parts of the town with views across the valley. There is no shade here so make sure you bring water and a hat. For a more strenuous hike you can pick up the Fox Canyon trail which will take you up the mountain side right off the main trail. Either way, to get there head up Signal Ave. towards the mountains and it will terminate at the trail head. There is minimal parking so early is better.
The library at Krotona
Also tucked into Ojai just like the trails, the Krotona Theosophical Institute is hidden away just off the main road into town on a 115-acre wooded site. Krotona moved to Ojai in 1926 when it had to abandon its Los Angeles home because of the construction if the Hollywood Bowl (back when admission to the Bowl was just $.50), however the Theosophy movement started in the 1870s on the east coast. First off, what is theosophy you ask? In their own words they, “encourage open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation.” Works for me. What makes Krotona unique, aside from the fact that hardly anyone knows it’s there, is the 8,000-volume library relating specifically to theosophy, the occult, reincarnation, astrology, yoga, metaphysics and all things of paranormal nature. The library itself is intimate, a slightly Art Deco ambience. There is also a meditation school, and bookstore for anyone who wishes to visit, not to mention classes. The mirror pools behind the library are contemplative in themselves, as are much of the quiet grounds. You needn’t be a theosophist to visit and everyone is encouraged to stop in: it’s all free.
There are no shortages of terrific places to eat, most clustered onto the main drag, but for a unique taste of Ojai (literally) the Deer Lodge is just three miles from downtown and since 1932 this rustic, log cabin looking wood toned, animal-head-on-the-wall joint has been making people feel great. There’s live music, lots of beef and games dishes, cornbread and every Sunday they have a roasted pig. Yeah, a whole pig! But it’s their buffalo burgers and tri tip on the outdoor wood grill which is their calling card. There are a lot of bikers who come here on the weekends and it’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of Harleys out front, but don’t let that stop you. There’s plenty of indoor seating on old wood furniture and a back outdoor patio.