Adventures in Santa Barbara -- If You Dare

Adventure Activity Santa Barbara

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With the Sierra Madre Mountains on one side and the crashing Pacific Ocean on the other, the city of Santa Barbara is a place of extremes. Folks who live in this small piece of paradise tend to live life to the full rather than watch others have all the adventures. If you're looking to join in the fun, pick an adventure activity in Santa Barbara from the list below.

1. Duck into Scorpion Cave -- in a kayak!

One of the most dramatic outdoor activities in Santa Barbara -- kayaking around Santa Cruz Island's sea caves -- involves getting very wet, so if you like to stay warm and dry then look for another adventure.

Santa Barbara's local Chumash legend states that the world began on Santa Cruz Island: the god Hutash built a rainbow bridge from Devil's Peak to the mainland for the Indians to cross. When travelers looked down and lost their balance, she turned them into dolphins -- plentiful here -- rather than letting them drown.

The island, twenty miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, is home to Prisoners Harbour (named for prisoners once left there to fend for themselves) and the abandoned remains of Humphrey Bogart's prohibition-era haunt, Eaton Resort. The hundred sea caves riddling the volcanic rock cliffs of the island's north side can only be explored by kayak.

If you aren't intimate with the ins and outs of these caves (or don't know the "pre-cave slouch"), don't risk bonking your head (or worse) and travel with a trained guide. As the guides at Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara say, sea cave kayaking is not an everyday experience -- except for them.

Full-day excursions including three hours of adventure kayaking leave from nearby Ventura and provide all the gear you'll need to avoid being stung in Scorpion Cave. Prices start at $165 per adult (group and senior discounts available).

Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara, 117B Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, 805-899-4925

2. Be charmed by a snake

Most of us are at least a tiny bit afraid of snakes -- and why not? Snakes are so scaly, yellow-eyed, forked-tongued and, well, slithery, that we bet you've never wrapped a five-footer around your neck like a Hermes scarf.

Now's your chance to be daring in Santa Barbara. After you've filled your shopping bags with glam and glitz, right before you drop into a State Street café for an afternoon snack, look for the snake folks from Santa Barbara Snake Rescue. On weekends, they hang out with their snakes in front of Paseo Nuevo shopping area. To spot them, just listen for the nervous giggles of kids wearing a giant python's little brother. The parents are the ones hanging back, saying, "That's okay, let the children have the fun."

Go ahead, be adventurous, step right up and slip one on. Turns out they're not slimy and cold. Just the opposite: they're soft and warm. Snakes are just misunderstood, like the little devil in us all. Wearing a snake might not figure in your top ten list of fun activities in Santa Barbara, but it does make for some great vacation snaps.

Santa Barbara Snake Rescue, 700 block of State Street (Paseo Nuevo side)

3. Get high on a grassy hillside

The sun is warm on your face and you're holding your arms up high, grinning into the freshening breeze, squinting at the bright sea stretching out beyond the palisades. You feel so at one with the universe that you think you might be able to fly. You take one last gulping breath and run down the hillside and suddenly ... the ground falls away under your feet. You're flying.

No, it's not a dream, you're paragliding, experiencing a truly exhilarating adventure activity in Santa Barbara. You've learned how to control the lines that hook you to the bright parabola of silk billowing above you. You've practiced letting the wind catch the sail, stopping before it lifts you off the ground. You've watched the others go before you, soaring over the slope. At last you're ready -- in that terrified kind of way that makes life worth living. It's the stuff dreams (and travel adventures) are made of.

Lessons (with parasail provided) start at $200 through Fly Above All.

Fly Above All, 2550 Cliff Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, 805-965-3733

4. Be a star

Your heart tells you that Beyonce and Kanye (or James Taylor and Carole King, pick your generation) have nothing on you. Although not usually classified as an adventure activity in Santa Barbara, karaoke can still be intimidating. But if your friends are all there and you're afraid, you'll look like an idiot. Well, here's your chance to let your song take flight.

The Santa Barbara Farmers Market (
showcases not only fresh strawberries and rutabagas, but wannabe superstars. Singers and musicians young and old, talented and not so talented, warble before open instrument cases sprinkled lightly with coins and bills. Guitar, harmonica, or bongos, no matter the instrument of choice, everyone has fun.

Best of all, no identification is required to play, so you can enjoy the heart-pounding rush of being adventurous in Santa Barbara without sacrificing your anonymity.

If you're a dreamer, here's the place to get discovered. Santa Barbara and its neighbor, Montecito, are a popular playground escape for Los Angeles power hitters. Imagine yourself singing among the cantaloupes when someone from American Idol comes forward from the crowd and says, "Hey, you've got talent!"

The Santa Barbara Farmers Market takes place Tuesdays from 4PM-7:30PM between 500 and 600 blocks of State Street; Fridays 8AM-11:15AM between 1100 and 1200 blocks of Coast Village Road, Montecito; and Saturdays from 8:30AM-1PM on the corner of Santa Barbara and Cota. There are also Thursday (3PM-6:30PM) and Sunday (10AM-2PM) markets at Camino Real, Goleta. Hours and locations vary according to the season, so be sure to check the website before you start tuning your guitar.

5. Surf -- and stairs -- are up!

Surfing is a very common adventure activity in Santa Barbara, but are you daring enough to try the Thousand Steps Beach? This little strip of secluded heaven is nestled between Santa Barbara's public swimming beaches (Ledbetter and East Beaches) and the local favorite Hendry's (officially called Arroyo Burro Beach). Despite being named one of the most beautiful beaches in the country, this stretch of sand is often so empty that you'll have the whole place to yourself. Paddle out, wait for a good wave, and see if you can stand and ride.

Be sure to check the tide tables before you go, or you might float your way up a few of those steps, if you don't smash into the palisades first. Santa Barbara Seals can help you get started, with lessons starting at $60 per person, including gear.

Insider tip: Bring a wetsuit -- this is not your grandmother's bath water. Don't leave all your energy in the waves, either. It's not actually a thousand steps back to civilization, but it is 241, and everyone carries their own boards.

Santa Barbara Seals, Thousand Steps Beach, end of Mesa Lane (off Cliff -- look for the blacktop path), 805-687-9785

You'll find more than just beautiful beaches and historic missions during your Santa Barbara adventure vacation -- so if you're feeling daring, try a few of these travel adventures or seek our own fun activities.

McCord Clayton is a writer living in Palo Alto, California. Read his blog on Red Room.

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