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A Central California Weekend Road Trip

Last month, my husband, son and I had the chance to test drive the Toyota RAV4. We were headed on a California weekend road trip from San Diego to Santa Barbara for my husband’s birthday weekend. Only 95 miles from Los Angeles and about 200 miles from San Diego (about four hours) it’s a perfect weekend getaway.

Toyota RAV4 Crossover SUV

SUV’s are no longer an upgraded mini-van. In fact, they are my favorite car for travel, for so many reasons including space for luggage and legroom. I might be a bit biased, as we are a Toyota family because we loved the RAV4 (my husband has the dependable Corolla and I drive a Scion XB which is made by Toyota).

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You can check out some of our adventure in this video:

Some of what I look for in a road trip car are; built-in navigation, comfortable seats, leg room and plenty of room for luggage. I  have to admit, we don’t pack light. There is usually a suitcase per person, plus a backpack for each of us. I also bring along a few bags of munchies and drinks or water bottles. It’s great for us, because the RAV4 cargo space is ranked among the highest in the class.

RAV4 in Santa Barbara

The Toyota RAV4 Crossover SUV model we tested starts at $24,510. Forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking are standard. For any of you into towing capacity and other stats, I’m not that kind of car girl. I’m looking for a car that is safe, fun to drive and has some cool features. For any of you who want to know about towing capacity, braking stats and crash test results you can check them out at Consumer Reports.

The RAV4 Crossover SUV is solid and well-built. I also really liked the higher ground clearance. It’s one of the few things I don’t like about my Scion and I have to be careful about bumps and driveways with the lower front end.

Bottom line is the RAV4 offers lots of room for passengers and cargo. It makes an excellent family hauler as well, and US. News & World Reports give the Toyota RAV4 an excellent in safety credentials.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara beach

Santa Barbara is one of our favorite California towns to visit. Just four hours from San Diego, it’s a perfect weekend getaway. We left San Diego at 9:30 a.m., so we would miss the morning traffic and make it through Los Angeles before Friday afternoon traffic.

We also wanted to make it to Santa Barbara to enjoy some of the daylight. Once you pass through Oxnard, just north of Los Angeles, you’ll begin to hug the Pacific Ocean for much of the remaining drive on highway 101. Once you hit Ventura, the drive becomes incredibly beautiful and there are expansive views of the gorgeous ocean for the remainder of the drive.

We visited in mid-February and found the mornings and evenings a bit cloudy and overcast. The afternoons cleared and brought lots of California sunshine. Don’t expect the Pacific Ocean to be comfortable for swimming this time of year.

In fact, it’s fairly cold compared to the water temperature of locations like Florida. If you are visiting in the winter, dress in layers. Mornings and evenings can get a bit nippy, but if the sun peeks out in the afternoon, you’ll be quite comfortable in shorts or summer clothes.

What to do in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is located on the central California coast and what makes this beach town unique is that it is also a mountain town. The Santa Ynez Mountains offer beautiful hiking trails and a dramatic backdrop to this beach town. Some of the most beautiful houses in Santa Barbara are located in the mountainous section and it adds to the diversity of the town.

Another distinct section of Santa Barbara is the Downtown area filled with Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings that personify the city’s Spanish colonial heritage. State Street in downtown Santa Barbara offers lots of upscale boutiques and restaurants.

There are so many things to do in Santa Barbara, and here are a few ideas based on our California weekend road trip :

Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786, this is the 10th of 21 missions built in California. Mission Santa Barbara is one of the prettiest of all of the California missions and is known as the “Queen Of The Missions.” This is a beautifully maintained working church, museum, and mission, operated by the Franciscan Friars. Plan for at least two hours to explore the grounds. There is a self-guided tour that explains the complete history of the mission.

Natural History Museum is only about a mile from the mission. Founded in 1916, the Natural History Museum offers interactive activities, nature walks, and animal exhibits. Highlights included the planetarium, insect station with live insects, bird room, and a room dedicated to early life in the Santa Barbara area. A pygmy woolly mammoth was discovered on a nearby island!

The Santa Barbara Botanical Garden is 1.5 miles from the mission and located in Mission Canyon, which is a beautiful drive on its own. The botanical gardens sprawl over 78-acres and contain over 1,000 species of rare and indigenous plants.

Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara

Stearns Wharf is the oldest working pier in California. Stearns Wharf is also the number one tourist spot in Santa Barbara. It might be touristy, but it is a must. There are lots of shops and restaurants along the pier. It’s also a great place for a stroll and to watch all the water sports.

Sea Life Aquarium in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center (operated by the Natural History Museum), is located on Stearn’s Wharf. The Sea Center is a small aquarium packed with lots to explore. Many of the exhibits are a hands-on experience such as live tidepool animal encounters including sea stars, urchins, limpets, manta rays, and sharks. The staff is very knowledgeable, sharing great information about marine biology and the different sea animals on display.

Hit the Beach 

There are miles and miles of gorgeous beaches in Santa Barbara. Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro Beach) is the best dog-friendly beach, Butterfly Beach faces west, making it the best beach to watch the sunset, Main Beach (East Beach) is a wide beach located next to Stearns Wharf.

There are lots of places to rent bikes, stand up paddleboards, kayaks and more. There is also a nice boardwalk for walking, running or biking.  Here is a great overview of all of the beaches in Santa Barbara.

Brunch in Santa Barbara

 Boathouse on Hendry's Beach in Santa Barbara

You can’t go wrong at the Boathouse located on Hendry’s Beach. Beachfront restaurants at tourist hot spots can often be hit-or-miss but is not the case for brunch at the Boathouse.

The location can’t be beat, offering panoramic ocean views of the Pacific Ocean.  The boathouse signature breakfast is house-made crab cakes topped with poached eggs and covered with chipotle hollandaise. Make sure to order the Bloody Mary, which is served with shrimp and bacon.

Dinner in Santa Barbara

Our favorite restaurant is Via Maestra 42. It’s a small Italian deli, a great cafe, and a proper restaurant all in the same small space. It’s a local’s favorite and can fill up fast, especially on weekends. Like many small venues that are popular the tables are close together, but that’s part of the charm.

The food is authentic and they also offer a surprising amount of gluten-free dishes. The pumpkin ravioli is to die for, as is the bruschetta, and many other dishes and specials. Basically, you can’t go wrong with anything you order.

Desserts are traditional and fabulous, including the gelato, cannoli, and tiramisu. In fact, they import the gelato and other frozen desserts from Italy.

Read More About California

While we were provided the Toyota RAV4 for this road trip, this article is a totally independent and honest review based on my experience.

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