That's a tough question. There are, as you say, quite a few great places to live along the coast. Finding a place within walking distance of shops and restaurants could prove to be a bit of a challenge. While there are a number of walkable cities and towns, finding suitable property close by is another matter. All I can do is throw out some suggestions I think might work for you.
I don't know anything about the current real estate market, and nobody knows what it will be like in 4 years. Right now, prices are still down from the bursting of the real estate bubble, and they could very well stay down for the next 4 years, which would be a good thing for you, but who knows.
At any rate, a good place to start your research is with Places Rated Almanac
and Retirement Places Rated
. These books give you a lot of data and information and can help you focus on the things you care most about so you can whittle down your list of possibilities. I wish there were books like these that focused specifically on California, but you can also find lots of information online from local Visitor Centers and Chambers of Commerce. Some Chambers offer relocation guides that might be helpful.
Since you're interested in Santa Barbara, I'll start by suggesting places with similar qualities: mild climate, charming ambiance, great beaches, upscale shops and restaurants, and cultural amenities.
- Coronado: This "island" in San Diego Bay is really a peninsula. It's a charming small town, very upscale, with plenty of shops and restaurants. Plus, downtown San Diego is just a ferry ride away. You don't even have to get in the car. Coronado has beautiful white sandy beaches, and the San Diego area has a climate as close to perfect as you're likely to find.
- Laguna Beach: This artist's colony in Orange County has great beaches, a small, walkable downtown and lots of shops and galleries. Heisler Park is a beautiful place to take a stroll and enjoy the view, and there are a number of lovely homes near the park. On the downside, it can get crowded in the summer when the annual arts festival is in full swing.
- Corona del Mar and Newport Beach: These cities in Orange County have lots of upscale properties close to the beach. They don't have quite the charm of Santa Barbara, with its Spanish Colonial architecture, but they do have lots of warm sandy beach, upscale shops and restaurants, and walkable neighborhoods.
I've assumed you're looking for something similar to Santa Barbara, but if smaller, quieter towns appeal to you, there are even more choices.
- Seal Beach: A small beach town in Orange County, this is the kind of place that has a Main Street. Situated between Long Beach and Huntington Beach it offers a quiet lifestyle with plenty of access to big city amenities.
- South Orange County: Places like Dana Point and San Clemente have lovely beaches and offer a quieter lifestyle than the more popular beach cities to the north.
- North County San Diego: There are a number of smaller communities in this region that have beautiful sandy beaches as well as upscale restaurants and shopping. Places like Carlsbad, Solana Beach, Del Mar and La Jolla might be just what you're looking for.
I hope this helps you with your research. Have fun exploring!