Carpinteria: Surfer's Paradise

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on January 27, 2002

If the American Indian woodworkers of more than 200 years ago from around Carpinteria, Calif., were still working today, they might be making surfboards instead of oceangoing canoes.

The seaside oasis of Carpinteria (pop. 14,194), just a few miles south of Santa Barbara, came by its name in 1769, when the Gaspar de Portola expedition from Spain saw local Chumash Indians building large, seaworthy fishing canoes. De Portola’s soldiers called the village “La Carpinteria,” or the carpenter’s shop. Today, Carpinteria is more noted for its famous surfer’s paradise, lush avocado and flower fields, high-tech companies, and diversity of rich sea life, birds, and native plants. Tree-lined Linden Avenue, Carpinteria’s main artery from Highway 101 to the beach, also boasts a covey of antique, collectible, and resale shops.

“The beauty of its natural setting—the mountains, the ocean, and the best climate in the world—makes this town a standout,” says Carpinteria Valley Museum of History director and curator David Griggs of the town’s balmy locale below the Los Padres coastal mountain range. “It’s the classic small town. You can’t run an errand in 10 minutes because everyone stops to talk.”

The area truly claims a part of surfing legend. Nearby lies Rincon Point, eulogized by the memorable Beach Boys hit of the 1960s, Surfin’ Safari. “Rincon Point is still queen of the surfing spots on the California coast,” says Matthew Roberts, director of Carpinteria’s parks and recreation.

The town has its lesser-celebrated claims to fame too, having once produced North America’s first commercial lima bean as well as the first offshore oil well in the Carpinteria Valley.

“Carpinteria is a farming and beach town, where agriculture is still number one,” says Griggs. “We are one of the last small towns along the coast.”

The beach is an obvious source of pride. Protected by an offshore reef with little or no rip currents, Carpinteria’s sandy stretch of oceanfront has been called the world’s safest beach.

Not far from the shoreline sands lie abundant avocado growing fields (Santa Barbara County is North America’s third-largest avocado producer). Last year marked the city’s 15th anniversary of the California Avocado Festival, which honors the avocado as king. More than 140,000 festivalgoers annually meet on Linden Avenue the first weekend in October to enjoy food, music, arts & crafts, and entertainment, while munching avocados.

“People come for the food,” says Lin Graf, president of the festival and executive director of the chamber of commerce. “All our food for the festival has to have avocado in it. We even have avocado ice cream.”

Amidst the mix of seaside and avocado, a 20-year-old software company—QAD—thrives as Carpinteria’s largest employer. But Eric Christianson, QAD’s global travel manager, admits working from his office can be tough. “I look out over the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands from the bluffs of Carpinteria. I have to turn my back on the view or I’d be mesmerized. We have employees who surf on their lunch break.”

More town abundance comes in the form of nine city parks, three county parks, and one state park—all within city boundaries. “I like to think of Carpinteria as a park with a community inside, as opposed to a community with parks,” Roberts remarks.

Among the gems in Carpinteria’s crown is the community-driven effort to purchase 52 acres of bluff land previously held by private owners. The grassroots endeavor, comprised of every kind of donation—from children’s piggy banks to sizeable personal checks—raised a staggering $4 million to preserve one of the last remaining coastal open spaces between Goleta and Rincon Point.

“Citizens for the Bluffs got together to buy it and keep it from being developed,” says Andrea Adams-Morden, a volunteer. “The bluffs now belong to the town and must be left as open space forever.”