Santa Barbara is known for luxury, but it can be done cheaply with some advance planning

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — If you believe the glossy travel magazines, Santa Barbara drips money, and any visitor had better be ready to have their wallet leak all over the place, too. Touted as "the American Riviera," it's up there with Palm Beach, the Hamptons and Martha's Vineyard as playgrounds for that top 1 percent that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are talking about.

True to form, some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country are filled with $400-and-up per-night bed & breakfast spots and wine-snob restaurants with $25 appetizers.

I've indulged over the years, from self-financed splurge weekends at El Encanto and the Four Seasons Biltmore to a bust-the-budget stay on the company dime at San Ysidro Ranch (owned by Ty Warner, the Beanie Baby magnate). My dog's name was etched into a shingle hung outside my San Ysidro Ranch unit as part of the welcome to the hideaway where JFK and Jackie had their honeymoon.

But I know another Santa Barbara, from my poor-boy days as a college student and twentysomething newspaper reporter. Motels that take dogs (no etched shingle included), fantastic cheap taco stands and all that sand free for the strolling. I've also moved midmarket on some trips with hotels around $150 to $200 a night — still reasonable, by Santa Barbara standards.

I returned to that Santa Barbara recently to try to navigate a less-expensive path through town. With our still-lurching economy, it was a good time to check out old budget haunts and find new places easy on the budget.

My frugality began with getting there. I left my car at home and paid $35 each way to take the Pacific Surfliner up and back. I had the unfair advantage of a friend who would drive me around, but 90 percent of the places I visited were within walking distance of downtown, and the rest were served by regular shuttle service that runs up and down State Street.

If you book at most Holiday Inn Express hotels around the country, you end up in a rectangular box suitable for a quick night's sleep before heading somewhere else. In Santa Barbara, the Holiday Inn Express is on the National Register of Historic Places. It's the resuscitated Hotel Virginia, built in 1917, featuring small but cozy rooms with exposed brick walls. The lobby has a tiled fountain, and the sidewalk out front is painted a rusty orange to match the Southwestern earth tones that now decorate the landmark. Unfortunately, the hotel gained some buzz (a cool Holiday Inn Express!) and prices are up.

The Holiday Inn Express is part of an attempt to revitalize lower State Street that has gotten some traction, though the recession has left shuttered storefronts scattered around the area (a phenomenon not unknown to the rest of more upscale Santa Barbara).

While in the area, check out Antique Alley, one of the most eclectic secondhand stores in the state. It has everything from East German Exa cameras to Royal Deluxe typewriters to 1934 California license plates. I bought a 1950s, bright yellow Civil Defense radiation meter for $25. The nearby Santa Barbara Museum of Art shop is a good place to pick up intriguing gifts like a rainbow-colored South African safety pin bracelet or Chinese brush-painting kit.

There are a number of hotels near the beach. Castillo Inn and Franciscan Inn are small motels, but they occasionally have reasonable rates, especially if you plan well ahead. Finally, there is the orange-hued Motel 6, which was the first of the bottom-rung budget chain built in the United States. You'll pay more for less by the beach, but for most people, it's the Santa Barbara they came to experience.

Those looking to save money, or who try to book at the last minute, often end up at the far end of State Street. The area has more of a strip-mall character but cheaper accommodations than downtown or at the beach. I've stayed at all of the "three trees" — the Best Western Pepper Tree, The Orange Tree and The Lemon Tree. The Pepper Tree is the nicest and priciest, the Lemon Tree has had some intriguing modernist touches, while the Orange Tree is an older motel for those not looking to spend a lot of time in their room.

Wherever you stay, you will likely be disappointed by what you get for what you pay. But that is the price of Santa Barbara.

It's easy to spend more than $100 per person at dinner in Santa Barbara, but finding enjoyable inexpensive spots isn't hard. Just think tacos. Santa Barbara has great, inexpensive Mexican food, though the best spots are over on Milpas Street, away from the tourist areas.

Start with La Super Rica, the much-heralded Mexican restaurant that was a favorite of Julia Child, who lived nearby, and has been hailed in The New York Times and British newspapers. It's famous for its small tacos filled with fresh meat and melted cheese — asada and carnitas are here, but chorizo is the real star. Sit out on the covered patio (if you can find a seat). If the lines are too long or you want something more conventional, try Los Agaves, a Mexican place nearby.

If it's hard to get out of downtown, then my trifecta of Mexican spots ends with Lily's Tacos, a decidedly down-market joint just north of the 101 and a short walk from lower State Street. It has great, cheap street tacos. With all the money you save, consider a splurge visit to Brophy Bros. for seafood. I'm partial to fried calamari with a beer. It's always jammed, so bring your patience.

Coffee is the most important part of my breakfast, so I keep things cheap by eating at coffeehouses like the Coffee Cat or bakeries like Renaud's or Jeannine's. All serve a great espresso — the most basic coffee drink, but also one whose quality cannot be masked by milk, sweetener or foam.

My favorite Santa Barbara stroll is the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour, which covers a 12-block area encompassed by Victoria, Chapala, Ortega and Santa Barbara streets. The best stop is the over-the-top design of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, with its wrought iron, its tile floors that echo every footstep, a spiral staircase, painted scenes of Old California and courthouse designations spelled out in calligraphy on the walls. Finished in 1929, just as the stock market was about to crash, it's an exuberant symbol of city pride. In the summer, it's always cool inside. The walking tour also passes historic adobe homes and the El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, which includes the original military outpost built by the Spanish in 1782.

For more than two centuries, the center of Santa Barbara's identity has been the Old Mission, the 10th built in California. It was founded on the Feast of Santa Barbara, Dec. 4, 1786. Unlike some of the other sites along the El Camino Real taken by Franciscan friars, the "Queen of the Missions," is well-preserved. The gorgeous setting, with the brown-gray Santa Ynez Mountains behind it and the Pacific Ocean in the distance, is popular with wedding photographers.

You can finish your Spanish-themed architectural wanderings with a few evening hours at the Arlington Theatre, a genuine picture palace whose walls are lined with Mission scenes backlit to give a wonderful golden glow, as if in perpetual sunset. It holds more than 2,000 people and is often used for concerts, ballet, comedy and other live events in addition to films.

Santa Barbara was once known as a "city of books," where a page-turning tourist could spend days prowling the stacks of small and large stores. The massive Earthling Bookstore was the progenitor of the bookstore-as-meeting place style later embraced by the chains. It was one of the first to fall victim to the big-box bookstores (though perhaps overly optimistic expansion plans had as much to do with its collapse).

While I don't want to cheer the demise of any business during a recession, I had to admit there is an upside to the recent closing of the Borders and Barnes & Noble stores downtown. It has given breathing space to the few surviving independent stores.

Today, the largest downtown bookstore is the Book Den, which has been on Anacapa Street near the courthouse since 1933. It has moved into slightly smaller quarters next to its former location. Of its 25,000 books, only 20 percent are new.

For book lovers, a trip to Santa Barbara has to include a few hours in Chaucer's Bookstore on the downmarket uptown portion of State Street. Owner Mahri Kerley has kept the focus on books since she started her first bookstore in Santa Barbara in 1974. Seemingly every inch of the 6,000-square-foot store where she's operated since 1990 is given over to books. No coffee bar. No lounge chairs. No big music section. The once-scruffy Loreto Plaza shopping center has been given a Spanish stucco makeover, but inside, Chaucer's is still the same — the place to go for hard-to-find titles. It has one of the best history sections of any bookstore in the Western U.S. Travelers can find plenty of titles beyond the usual Frommer's, Fodor's and Lonely Planet guidebooks found at the big-box stores back home. There are travelogue books from authors other than Bill Bryson and Tim Cahill.

A few doors down is the national retail shop of online travel products giant Magellan. A good place to stop in to plan your next trip to Santa Barbara or beyond.

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IF YOU GO:

GETTING THERE: The Pacific Surfliner train runs directly between Orange County and Santa Barbara four times a day in each direction. Station stops include San Juan Capistrano, Irvine, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton. One train a day stops in San Clemente. One train a day goes to San Luis Obispo. There are other options, including connecting trains, train-bus and using Metrolink to Los Angeles and then transferring to Amtrak. Fares run about $35 one-way from Orange County to Santa Barbara. Business-class seats cost an additional $15. Check for discounts for seniors, children, AAA members, military and others. The Santa Barbara station is at 209 State St. For more information, call 800-872-7245 or go toamtrak.com

WHERE TO SLEEP: The less-expensive hotels are the first to sell out in Santa Barbara. Plan well ahead or be ready to pay more. Rates shown here are for midweek in May. Weekend rates are usually higher.

—Holiday Inn Express, 7 W. Haley St., 805-963-9757. Rooms from $165 per night.

—Franciscan Inn, 109 Bath St., 805-963-8845. Rooms from $155 per night.

—Castillo Inn, 22 Castillo St., 805-965-8527. Rooms from $116 per night.

—Best Western Pepper Tree, 3850 State St., 800-338-0030. Rooms from $162 per night.

—Orange Tree, 1920 State St., 805-569-1521. Rooms from $85 per night.

—Lemon Tree, 2819 State St., 805-687-6444. Rooms from $115 per night

—Motel 6, 443 Corona del Mar, 805-564-1392. Rooms from $90 per night.

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Gary A. Warner: travel@ocregister.com

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