We arrived at 10 a.m. and the line for parking was down the street. Little kids were sitting on their parents’ shoulders and the ocean breeze was flowing through the air, making it the perfect day for a festival. The Santa Barbara Harbor and Seafood Festival started decades ago but has gradually changed over time. Its latest incarnation has been happening since 2002. The original purpose of the festival was to celebrate the fishermen of Santa Barbara, complete with a parade of boats decorated for the community’s amusement. It later became a fundraising effort for unwed mothers and in the 1990s the idea of a festival arose.
From the moment we walked onto the boardwalk, the walkway was flooded with local vendors and creatives selling everything from paintings to jewelry, homemade candles to organic sunscreen. I’ve never witnessed a market scream “Santa Barbara” as aggressively as this one did. My roommates and I decided to buy a candle from the Way Cool Candles booth that was made out of a gel and that had shells and flowers set inside.
The dock was covered in food trucks and stands as far as the eye could see. There was Pearson’s Cajun Food with a line that never seemed to lighten up (which made sense when you saw the incredible po’boys leaving their windows). Lobster Rolls SBYC also held strong crowds with their classic lobster roll, and the Santa Barbara classic Brophy Bros. impressed, as usual, selling their famous clam chowder for $4. Everywhere we looked, there was a plethora of food that dared us to try it. I could feel my wallet aching in my backpack and I held out as long as I could, finally giving into Brophy Bros. and getting a clam chowder that was worth every penny. The broth was thick but not floury, with large, firm potato chunks and clams that, by their smell, were clearly fresh. The chowder overall was well seasoned and was not too hot for the sunny day but still warm enough for maximum flavor retention.
There was music in the air no matter where you went and the festival had a stage set right in the middle of the harbor with a stream of bands playing music to keep the crowd dancing. Both young and old took to the dance floor to show off their moves.
Further down the harbor, vendors were set up selling fresh seafood: oysters, urchins and of course lobsters. The SB Harbor and Seafood Festival was originally created to celebrate the beginning of lobster season and this year was no different. Several tents had pools full of live lobsters that patrons could buy and take home. Crowds gathered to see them, kids were allowed to pick them up and they sold as quickly as they were put into the pool. According to the official SB Harbor and Seafood Festival website, the SB Harbor houses over 100 fishermen, produces 10 million pounds of seafood a year and brings $30 million dollars to the local economy. It is no wonder why they created a festival meant to honor the industry and amplify it to the local community.
One of the best parts of the whole festival was the free boat rides through the SB Harbor. Though standing in the line became agonizing due to its location right under the sun, the experience was all worth it. This is my fourth year living in Santa Barbara and I’ve never had the chance to experience the American Riviera as I did on that boat ride. From waving to strangers on the pier, witnessing sea lions napping and watching the sun glittering on the ocean, the SB Harbor and Seafood Festival accomplished its job of creating a moment for appreciation. At one point, a woman on the boat turned to the man sitting next to her and remarked, “This is the best vacation ever.” At this moment, I felt renewed astonishment that for me and my roommates, this was not a vacation, this was home.