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Weekend Escape

Back to the Beach in Carpinteria

With an understated sensibility, this town beckons with its comfort foods, gentle surf and a sanctuary for seals.

July 15, 2001|DAVID B. GOLDMAN | David B. Goldman is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara

CARPINTERIA — I can't figure out what exactly makes this place seem like one of Southern California's last old-fashioned beach towns.

Maybe it's the Spot's spicy hamburgers, with their crisp onions and doughy buns, or that long beach walk down to Rincon Point early on a foggy morning. Or maybe it's the seal sanctuary, the Chumash history or the small-town shops and restaurants along Linden Avenue, all of which make for a quiet, low-key weekend along the coast.

I live in Santa Barbara, just 15 minutes north. But I've never spent much time in Carpinteria, a sliver of land between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea, so last month I set off to explore the town.

I figured if I'm going to be at the beach, I might as well be on the beach. In nearby Mussel Shoals, I checked into the 24-room Cliff House Inn, one of the few hotels between Ventura and Goleta that's actually on the sand. (Visitors who want to stay in Carpinteria proper can try Prufrock's Garden Inn, where weekend rates are $129 to $269 per night.)

My room (on weekends, $130 a night plus tax) could have used some refurbishing; the dim lighting and stale air didn't help either. But the ocean views were unbeatable, and I could fall asleep to the sound of waves. The 60-foot swimming pool was another plus; morning laps let me feel physically virtuous even on vacation.

The inn's restaurant, the Shoals, turned out to be pretty good. My first night, I ordered a seafood stew steaming with garlic and saffron.

The next morning, I drove out toward the east end of Carpinteria Avenue, turning onto a dirt road by a golf driving range. I parked next to a grove of eucalyptus still dripping with moisture from the early summer fog. Across railroad tracks, a short trail took me to the bluffs above the Carpinteria seal sanctuary. I stood there for a while, watching the seals lazing on rocks below, then took a steep path down to the strand.

I picked my way along the base of crumbling cliffs, past shelves of uplifted rock and piles of driftwood. Outside the breaker line, patches of kelp floated with gulls perched on top. Every so often I stopped to dip a toe gently into the soft grip of a sea anemone.

It's easy to get confused about direction here, since this stretch of coast faces south, not west. This orientation, together with the protection provided by the Channel Islands, makes the surf gentle along most of Carpinteria's shore.

After walking a mile or so west, I came to the open, sandy part of the beach that some visitors treat as clothing-optional. Nudity isn't legal here, but authorities rarely crack down. That morning apparently was too cold for nudity to be anyone's option.

In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to explore Alta California, anchored offshore near here. The land was, ship journals say, "very beautiful and filled with people, a level country with many trees."

The people were the Chumash, who paddled out to Cabrillo's ship in large plank canoes, called tomols, bearing fish.

Later, Gaspar de Portola's land expedition received the same sort of hospitality, as did Juan Bautista de Anza on his trek to establish San Francisco.

Father Juan Crespi, traveling with Portola, named the site after the Spanish word for "carpenter's shop" because the Chumash built canoes here. They caulked the planks with tar-like asphaltum deposits, which remain near the Carpinteria State Beach campground.

The campground has 261 sites and is popular with families. If I were to camp, I'd prefer a bit more privacy. But the beach here is a lovely stretch of uncluttered sand, shallow water and gentle waves.

From the beach I walked up Linden Avenue, the town's main drag, to the Spot. I hadn't been to this hamburger joint for years. It hasn't changed much--a small white building with blue trim and plastic tables outside, cooled by the ocean breeze. Six husky sheriff's officers from Ventura pulled up on motorcycles and got in line. They told me the burgers were worth the trip--and they were right.

The rest of downtown is walk-able, with eucalyptus-shaded streets lined with older homes. Avocado, walnut and lemon orchards still cover parts of the city. Despite the spread of housing tracts and light industry on the inland side of U.S. 101, Carpinteria still feels not-so-suburbanized.

That evening I dined at Clementine's (with a stop first for a drink at the Palms restaurant) on Linden Avenue. The decor--mauve linens, fake flowers--wasn't as appealing as the hearty American fare on the menu, basics like steak and fried chicken.

The chicken I ordered was OK, but I really loved the big relish tray that starts every dinner, and the tart rhubarb pie.

In the morning, I enjoyed the Cliff House's modest continental breakfast (included in the nightly rate) on the inn's lawn overlooking the ocean.

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