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Road Trip (II): Santa Barbara and Malibu

This is part II of a series on my trip home to Australia for the US winter break (see part I here).

Santa Barbara is a city of close to 90,000 people just a couple of hours north of Los Angeles. The area is known as the "American Riviera", partially thanks to its pleasant climate. The city draws heavy influence from Spain, with its original inhabitants being Spanish missionaries and soldiers, and even today much of the architecture is Spanish Colonial Revival in style. It did not become a part of the United States until the mid 1800s, after which its growth was driven rapidly by expanding transport links and the discovery of offshore oil. The city also has the distinction of being the first US mainland target fired upon in over a century when a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast in 1942 and fired at the offshore oil rigs.

We pulled into Santa Barbara in the evening, and following a tasty Thai dinner, we headed to bed tired after a long day on the road. The next morning, we went to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, recommended for the views of the city from the clock tower and sometimes described as one of the most beautiful public buildings in the United States. The advice certainly did not disappoint. The rain held off in the morning, and we caught Santa Barbara in a rare moment of sunshine (at least for this trip). The city is very flat, such that the five story high courthouse was sufficiently tall to grant an excellent view.

One of the most notable holdovers from the Spanish era of the city is the Mission Santa Barbara. Founded by the Franciscan order, the Mission was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, and further damaged by a 1925 earthquake. It was rebuilt and restored following each disaster, with the interior going almost unmodified from the 1820s till today. It remains an active place of worship, with tourists being charged to enter the rest of the historic site.

As a seaside city, the Stearns Wharf is another popular tourist attraction in Santa Barbara. Featuring the requisite overpriced seafood restaurants, the wharf juts out into the Pacific Ocean, granting lovely views of the distant oil rigs and ships. Sadly, by the time we made it to the wharf, the clouds had settled over the sun and the day had turned overcast, dampening the mood somewhat.

Forgoing the expensive seafood on the pier, we had lunch at a British restaurant back in the town proper, where they served very tasty fish and chips in newspaper, along with mushy peas if you so desired. One of my friends also picked this delicacy for dessert: a deep fried Mars bar smothered in cream and chocolate sauce. Properly unhealthy and disgusting.

Santa Barbara is home to another campus of the University of California system. Perched on a cliffside over a beach some 20 minutes out of the city proper, scuttlebutt pins UCSB as being the "party campus" of the UCs. Make of this what you will, but the university is wonderfully spacious and flat (Berkeley's positioning on a steep hill drives me bonkers every single day), and a lovely place to wander around.

We left Santa Barbara after two days to continue our trip south to Los Angeles. By now, Highway 1 had become the Pacific Coast Highway, and our next stop arrived quickly. Lunchtime saw us roll into Malibu, a "city" of 12,000 people that extends along a 34km stretch of the highway. Famous for its beaches and Hollywood star inhabitants, the city is one of the most affluent in the local area. Strangely enough, most residents of the town live within shouting distance of the highway, making the city very long and very skinny.

By now the sun was back out, but the water temperature was quite icy. There were very few people on the beaches and in the water, despite the illusion of sunshine. As it was a weekend, there was also very little open. We were expecting the famous Malibu Pier to be a hive of activity, but it was deserted as well.

We ate lunch at the Jack-in-the-Box across the road from the Malibu Pier. Jack-in-the-Box is just another generic American fast-food chain serving burgers and fries. Notably, this marked possibly the first time I had fast food in the United States - California in general is quite big on eating organically and eating healthily, and I couldn't even tell you where you could find fast food in Berkeley. There's just always a better option, and never a worse one.

Leaving Malibu in the early afternoon, we arrived quickly at what was my last stop of the trip: Los Angeles. There'll be more on that next time.

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