Weekend Escape: Santa Barbara : VICTORIAN CHARMER, XLNT LOCATION : To a resort town they longed to go, except for lack of a certain cash flow. Friends' advice saved the day: The key is where you stay.

Greene is a free-lance writer based in Thousand Oaks

When Steve and I moved from the East Coast last year and plunked down just about everything we owned on our own piece of California real estate, we figured we'd never be able to afford to take a vacation again, especially in a pricey resort town like Santa Barbara.

We were bemoaning our fate one day to some friends, who offered a partial solution--book a room at the Upham Hotel. It's right in the center of Santa Barbara, they said, and with rooms ranging from $105 to $325 (for a one-bedroom suite with private yard), it's generally less expensive than such icons as the Biltmore or San Ysidro Ranch. And we would love the hotel's bed and breakfast ambience, they promised.

At first I was skeptical. Steve and I aren't really B&B; kind of people. We like to have a television set and telephone in our room, and we're not too keen on sharing our breakfast table with strangers.

But on a lovely Friday afternoon, we loaded up the Jeep, left our two young children behind and headed north, arriving in Santa Barbara just in time to watch the sun dip below the horizon. We managed to find our way to the Upham, which is just two blocks from the main shopping and entertainment strip on State Street and the 25-cent shuttle that takes you to the ocean, about a mile and a half away. We pulled around the front of the building at the corner of De La Vina and Sola streets and knew immediately that we had made the right choice.

From the outside, the Upham looks like something out of a Wild West movie set. The hotel was built in 1871 and, with its wraparound veranda and white Adirondack furniture, it would not have been incongruous to see men in bowler hats and women in layered skirts and parasols parading through the front door. Once we pulled the car into the hotel's driveway, we found ourselves in another world not visible from the street--of cottages, manicured gardens and gazebos.

It took us awhile to find our way to the main building--not because the property is so large but because the walkways and buildings are a veritable maze. As we circled the grounds, we imagined what our room would be like: Perhaps it would be in one of the cozy cottages, some of which had private patios and gas-burning fireplaces.

We finally found the lobby, which resembled an English parlor, and the reception desk, which sported an old-fashioned--now completely decorative--telephone system, the type that required an operator plugging in wires to make the connections. It was easy to believe that the Upham is, as it claims, the oldest continuously operating hotel in Southern California.

The older rooms are far from glitzy, but they're clean and comfortable. The newer rooms in the Carriage House (behind the main buildings), our friends had told us, are more updated and decorated in a sort of Ralph Lauren-horsy style. As it turned out, our $120-a-night room was in the main house and seemed a bit claustrophobic. Fortunately there were still some choices left. Although a small cottage room with a private porch near the parking lot could have been had for $100, we opted to spend $135 a night for a larger room in the Lincoln House, a two-story, olive-gray building adjacent to the main building. (Since our visit, the hotel has raised all its room rates by $5.)

Our second-choice room was decidedly better: somewhat dark and with a bathroom on the small side, but with a huge armoire with a television set, a desk, two chairs and a table, a dresser and a queen-size bed. After unpacking, I sent Steve back down to the lobby to relax while I showered and dressed. Thrilled with his banishment, Steve staked out a place in an easy chair beside the fireplace, from which he could survey the comings and goings of the clientele and bask in the hotel's Old World charm. In fact, by the time I reclaimed him, he had attained a kind of "lord of the manor" attitude.

Steve did try some of the complimentary wine and cheese served in the lobby before dinner. Since the wine was your basic standard, he opted for a glass of house red from the bar of Louie's Restaurant, right off the lobby but privately operated. It was one of the few mistakes of the weekend. He declared that wine, at $6 a glass, not much better than the free stuff.

Although we had heard that the food at Louie's was quite good, we wanted another venue for dinner, so we drove up the hill to the vintage California-style El Encanto Hotel. The grounds were so lovely that we asked about room rates, and were told that cottage suites could be had for $220 to $480 a night, cottage rooms for $140 to $220. Perhaps next time, we mused as we entered the dining room with its stunning view of the city below. Steve's salmon looked more like art than food, and my fettuccine with shrimp was so good that I had to protect it from his wandering fork. The restaurant was moderately pricey, but for two people in need of ambience it was well worth the expense.

We slept late Saturday morning, thanks to shutter-covered windows that kept the garden sun out. The Upham was still serving its complimentary continental breakfast, so we grabbed some coffee and orange juice from a sideboard in the lobby and some pastries from an outside table on the porch, and then retired to the courtyard. It was hard to leave the serenity of the garden, but we finally decided it was time to get out and explore. Heading north, we drove 25 miles to the Santa Ynez Valley "wine triangle"--seven vineyards open for wine tasting--that begins where California 246 crosses 154.

We chose the closest one, and after tasting four wines for $2.50 at Gainey Vineyards, decided to have lunch five miles away at the Side Street Cafe in Los Olivos. We left Los Olivos at about 3:30, aiming to meet the only deadline we had set for ourselves: to be on the beach at sunset.

We stopped along Cliff Drive, right near the Brown Pelican restaurant, stuffed a bottle of champagne and two glasses in my son's Mickey Mouse backpack and tromped along the beach until we found a comfortable piece of driftwood to sit on. (Next time we bring beach chairs or a blanket.) For two hours, we watched a parade of people and their dogs slowly change to a parade of black silhouettes against the spectacular orange and blue sky.

Back at the hotel, Steve started calling around to make a dinner reservation, but most of the restaurants along the waterfront were booked. On impulse, he called the Bay Cafe, a fish market and restaurant tucked away on a back street right near the water. It was a wonderful discovery. The service and food were excellent, the atmosphere ideal. We asked for and got a table tucked in the corner and feasted on the best clam chowder I've had in a while and some great fresh fish.

The next morning, I was willing to settle for another quick hotel breakfast, but Steve convinced me we needed one last leisurely meal. We reluctantly checked out of the hotel and drove to the nearby Cajun Kitchen on De La Vina Street. As we read the Sunday newspaper and basked in the warm sunshine on the patio, Steve and I for the first time began to actually feel like Californians.

Budget for Two Gas to Santa Barbara: $23.95 Upham Hotel, two nights: $296.80 Wine tasting: $11.00 Dinner, El Encanto Hotel: $79.47 Lunch, Side Street Cafe: $15.84 Dinner, Bay Cafe: $58.29 Brunch, Cajun Kitchen: $14.17 FINAL TAB: $499.52 Upham Hotel & Garden Cottages, 1404 De La Vina St., Santa Barbara 93101; tel. (805) 962-0058.

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