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Santa Barbara's Canary hotel an odd duck

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Santa Barbara

Keeping track of all the new hotel names is getting tougher. As iconic properties throughout Southern California are bought and sold like trading cards, some of the new monikers are mouthfuls: the Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa, Pasadena, or Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara.

Thankfully, the latest new hotel in Santa Barbara is simply the Canary Hotel.

Simple, yes. Understandable, not really. The Carrillo Street hotel, a block from the State Street main drag, is still developing its identity and mission. It's had several.

The Canary is a remodeled and renamed version of the Hotel Andalucia, a five-story downtown boutique hotel that opened in 2004. It was built for $32 million after its developers demolished the 74-year-old Hotel Carrillo, a onetime senior housing residence that stood on the site.

Now, courtesy of an extensive renovation by the Edward Thomas Collection (operators of Santa Monica's Casa del Mar and Shutters on the Beach), the Canary is the seaside city's newest downtown luxury hotel.

The new name had me and several locals I queried scratching our heads: What do the caged yellow finches have to do with Santa Barbara? Here's a hint: The hotel's interior design and marketing theme are riffs on the Canary Islands, an archipelago under Spanish control off Morocco's coast.

The décor by L.A. interior designer Michael S. Smith seems an eclectic homage to the islands' layered history, what with the hand-painted Spanish tiles in the guest-room showers, the inlaid Moroccan side tables, the Indonesian ikat-upholstered chairs and the showstopper: the four-poster beds of spiral-carved walnut. The mixed motifs blend well with Santa Barbara's own Spanish heritage.

The hotel aims to reinforce the cute bird associations with a yellow bird logo, bird-watching guides and binoculars in the room and a new name for the rooftop poolside bar, the Perch.

The name question aside, people probably want to know whether it's worth $405 to $1,900 a night (the brochure rates) for the 97 rooms and suites, a small pool and a four-person hot tub but no on-site fitness center or spa.

Yes and no.

If looks are important, you get your money's worth. The historic-looking building is so convincing that I was surprised to learn it was only 4 years old. Though the guest rooms feel fresh and modern, with serene blue-green paint, nearly soundproof French doors to the balconies and wide rugs on wood floors, the smaller rooms have the snug proportions you find in historic properties. It must have been tricky to outfit the small bathroom with a TV, tub, makeup mirror, bench and funky star pendant lamps.

I paid an introductory rate of $284 a night, including taxes, for a king superior room in early April. My two-day visit was a mixed bag of beautiful décor, awkward and absent service and hit-and-miss meals at the in-house Coast Restaurant & Bar.

For example, I got the lunch menu at dinner, incorrect prices at the bar, waited more than an hour for a sewing kit to be delivered to my room and suffered through an unexplained, and endless, accidental fire alarm one afternoon.

I correctly predicted that the hotel would be a good place from which to explore downtown Santa Barbara on foot, so I booked Amtrak and headed north from downtown L.A. My $34 one-way business-class ticket entitled me to 2 1/2 hours of changing, stunning scenery.

The bucolic Central Coast offers many delights, but upscale lodgings aren't generally among them. The Canary should be poised to fill the gap by offering expansive wine lists, guidebooks, maps and ample packages to lure guests.

During my visit, however, the hotel guest rooms and public areas offered little to no information about wine country tourism and, worse, no in-room information about, for example, the cross-town shuttle, nearby museums or the downtown neighborhood, which is filled with entertainment, dining and shopping options.

If you want expertise in some of those areas, you can get it -- in extra-cost package deals. The Canary staff never uttered a peep.

At check-in, no one offered to usher me to my room to explain its features, which included a yoga mat, yoga DVD, in-room spa services, iPod player, single-serve coffeepot, two flat-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi.

If I hadn't been on a professional mission, I doubt I would have found the DVD player hidden in a drawer or taken the initiative to ask whether the hotel offered day passes to the Spectrum Athletic Clubs next door. (It does, at $15 a day, billed to your room.)

I did try out a few yoga poses in the 340-square-foot room and invented a few new ones, including Craning Neck to See TV and Shin Crashing Bed Frame.

In contrast, the mini-bar lineup of organic snacks, performance drinks and products from philanthropic manufacturers came with a detailed, explanatory mini-bar menu.

If you can tear yourself away from the electrolyte-enhanced jelly beans to search the neighborhood, it's not hard figuring out what's nearby. The outdoor State Street mall, El Paseo Nuevo, has movie theaters, restaurants, Nordstrom, Macy's and, in case of mascara emergencies, Sephora.

All I could see from my third-floor window was a Greyhound bus station, perhaps the only one to border a Saks parking lot.

I needed a drink after my experience in mass transit and found it at the hotel lobby's Coast Restaurant & Bar. Happy hour!

Its stools and low-slung couches were packed with locals and hotel guests nibbling discounted shrimp cocktails, red snapper tacos and tortilla soup and sipping some of the list's dozen Central Coast wines for as little as $6 a glass.

A local woman on the bar stool to my right confessed she brought her husband here when she didn't want to cook. A pair of adventurous Alaskans to my left were working up a pre-concert buzz with $13 shots of Patrón.

The Chicagoans sharing guacamole poolside at the Perch offered a pithy and accurate assessment: lovely lodgings, great breakfast, great happy hour. The San Franciscans with two children under 7 said the hotel was moderately child friendly, but the kids' menu offered the same five fried items found worldwide.

The hotel is a good addition to downtown Santa Barbara, and its cozy restaurant will surely continue to draw visitors and residents alike. But this Canary's service has yet to sing.

valli.herman@latimes.com

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