May 6, 2010

Sisters explore Santa Barbara

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Travel, Women at 4:21 pm by dinaheng

When my sister Linda and I travel together, we look for things to do that will satisfy her culinary curiosity, my scientific interests, and our common love of comfort on the road.

Recently, we took a two-day trip to Santa Barbara, hoping to go on a whale watching cruise. Wanting to be near the beach, we stayed at the Harbor View Inn, a lovely boutique hotel at the foot of Sterns Wharf. The rooms were large, the beds were comfortable, and parking was included, which isn’t always the case with beach hotels.

The location was great, particularly since we just had to walk across the street for a tour on the Land Shark, a Hydra Terra that offers a fun 90-minute tour through Santa Barbara’s streets and onto the waters of Santa Barbara Harbor through Land and Sea Tours.

The vehicle rides eight feet above the ground on land, so the wind blowing through the open sides made things a tad chilly that day.  But the shift from land to sea was totally seamless and the wind stopped blowing once we were on the water.

“If it was stormy, we wouldn’t run,” says Capt. Andre Manoux, who carries both a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license and a commercial driver’s license with passenger endorsement. “We have windows and a roof, but if it’s really windy, we wouldn’t go out.”

Luckily for us, the wind cooperated and we were able to sail around the harbor, getting close to sea lions (or were they harbor seals?) sunning themselves on a buoy, rent-free. What a life…

That evening, we strolled through the Farmer’s Market on State Street, looking at luscious strawberries, home-made pies, and garden-fresh vegetables grown in the area. All that food made us hungry, so we dropped into Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro for dinner.

Linda, who is a foodie at heart, pointed out the fresh taste of the cucumber slice in the water, before ordering the confit of duck with butternut, asparagus and mushroom risotto. I chose the stave roasted salmon, which came with a lentil ragout and golden baby carrots.

Our waiter explained that the salmon was cooked on a sterilized plank from the barrels of Lafond Pinot Noir at the Santa Barbara Winery, an interesting variation of cedar plank salmon.

Exploring new places is a wonderful way to learn about the world, and enrich the soul. You experience new things, meet new people, and learn what it is you really value in life. When you make that journey with a friend or family member, the trip becomes part of your collective memory, strengthening the bond between you.

The next morning, we got disappointing news that our whale watching cruise had been canceled because of the strong winds. With any luck, the winds would die down and we could go out the following day.

Since we were landlocked, Linda and I decided to visit as many museums and historical spots in town as as we could. The first stop was Mission Santa Barbara, at the edge of town.

It was fun to imagine what life was like back in 1786, when the church was founded by the Franciscan Order. The chapel is still used for worship today, and the cemetery holds the grave of Juana Maria,  the real-life young Native American woman who served as the inspiration for the character Karana in the novel, “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”

Driving back downtown, we stopped at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art to peruse the exhibits. My favorite was a collection of 40 works from the Walters Art Museum, which featured paintings by French, British, Spanish and American artists.

From Delacroix and Monet, we moved to the Ty Warner Sea Center on Sterns Wharf. While the facility is small, its hands-on approach is a great way to learn about marine life in the area. Docents let us touch a small shark, and we watched a decorator crab try to camouflage itself in a tank.

When it was time for dinner, we tried Elements, a restaurant near the Courthouse downtown. The bar was bustling, and the dining room had the a trendy, yet cozy,   neighborhood feel.

This time, Linda chose seafood, and I had a meat entree. Her crispy skin Arctic Char was delicious. My grilled double cut pork chop was somewhat ordinary, but the accompanying wild mushrooms, sweet onion mashed potato and homemade apple sauce were wonderful. Both of us were too full to even try dessert.

The next morning, the winds continued to blow strong gusts, and the whale watching cruise was canceled yet again. So we swung by the Museum of Natural History before leaving town. I loved the Spanish Mediterranean complex of buildings, which house exhibitions on topics ranging from minerals and gems to mammals. The nature trail in back is beautiful and well worth the walk.

For two sisters who love to eat and explore, Santa Barbara made a perfect getaway. Maybe next time, there will be whales to watch, as well.

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