Santa Barbara, once upon a fine time
The flat-panel TV, the DVD player, the hand-painted bathroom tiles -- the details were meant to impress.
But when I entered Room 215 in the new Hotel Andalucia, my eyes scanned for something else. Sure enough, beside the billowy bed turned down for the evening, underneath the Sharper Image book light, there it lay: a paperback.
A book was one of the amenities that charmed guests at Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar, two landmark Santa Monica hotels whose management company recently opened the Andalucia. At Shutters, guests are greeted by “The Old Man and the Sea.” Casa del Mar has varied its titles, but its initial offering was “The Little Prince.”
The Andalucia borrows a page from those hotels’ success by furnishing the nightstands with Chris Stewart’s “Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain,” the comic 1999 memoir of the misadventures that plague an English sheep shearer who starts life anew in southern Spain. The cover blurb likened Stewart to half a cup of Bill Bryson, 3 tablespoons of Peter Mayle with a pinch of Monty Python. The recipe, as it turned out, would be a far better reflection of my weekend than the heroic Hemingway or fanciful Saint-Exupery.
To start, storm clouds chased me up the coast to Santa Barbara. I tried, like the sheep shearer, to see the sunny side: Rain provided plenty of motivation to skip the city’s golden sands in favor of its downtown museums and historic sites.
The Andalucia opened in mid-December in an increasingly competitive region. Orient-Express Hotels, which bought El Encanto Hotel & Garden Villas, announced plans for $10 million in improvements. San Ysidro Ranch, Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort and the Four Seasons Resort have embarked on renovations too.
A newcomer needs a hook, and Andalucia has many. The first for me was a $195 introductory rate that included an upgrade to a junior suite, space permitting. Room 215 was probably the least desirable of the hotel’s 20 suites -- on a low floor, its sole window overlooking the valet station -- but on a rainy weekend I appreciated the small living room.
The hotel’s interior evokes a comfortable Spanish-style home, a casa grande of handsome ironwork and carefully crafted corbels. Thematic decor can come off as garish or gimmicky, but the Andalucia’s design is wisely muted. Its personality emerges from details such as the intricate stenciling on the ceiling and above archways, all hand-painted in rich golds and reds.
My only complaint came early Saturday morning when my hibernation was interrupted by a shrieking baby in the adjacent room. The front desk suggested I switch rooms for the next night. Hours later -- after my bag already was packed -- a clerk said the party next door was checking out, and I didn’t need to move after all. Before I could get grumpy, though, the optimistic sheep shearer of “Lemons” sprang back into my mind; throughout the weekend I began to view unexpected roadblocks as serendipity.
Case in point: When I checked in at 10:30 p.m. Friday, a desk clerk said my late dining options were Denny’s and Carrows. Searching for something more satisfying, I found L’Ombretta, a Venetian wine bar on Chapala Street that opened in September.
Andrea and Susanne Gros serve 130 wines by the glass (more than 200 by the bottle) and a long menu of small plates until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Wild boar prosciutto and fish flown in from Venice are among the specialties. In a phone interview later, Andrea said, without a hint of pompousness, that comparing local sea bass to his imported blue-nose variety was like racing “a Geo Metro against a Ferrari.”
I tried an aromatic baked tomato stuffed with rice and herbs, then Niman Ranch pork loin crusted in fresh fennel and garlic and served with white polenta. I’m not sure how those translate into cars, but I’d drive either again.
I tested the Hotel Andalucia’s restaurant the next afternoon. Michael Reardon, formerly executive chef at Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, developed a menu that included a hearty penne dish that I liked, full of caramelized winter squash and crunchy anchovy bread crumbs.
Tempted by the subsiding showers, that night I set out on foot toward a third new restaurant on De La Vina Street, a decent taco joint called Los Gallos that had been praised in the Santa Barbara press. Halfway there, of course, a sprinkling of rain turned into a waterfall from the heavens, and one miscalculated jump from a curb landed me ankle-deep in water. “What would the sheep shearer do?” I wondered. Ditch his umbrella and walk in the rain, pleased that he could trudge through any puddle and not possibly get wetter.
So that’s what I did.
In fact, no amount of rain could spoil the weekend.
Saturday was spent ducking into the historic sites that pepper downtown. At the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, an offbeat amalgam of Moorish, Italian and Spanish Colonial styles, volunteer guides lead free tours at 2 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The highlight for me was the eclecticism of it all: the lancet windows reminiscent of a medieval castle, the 3-inch decorative floor tiles imported from Seville, the beamed ceiling painted by the same artist who did those at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A.
I moved on to El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, where the Spanish first settled in 1782. El Cuartel, the soldiers’ quarters, is the oldest building in town and the second oldest in California.
A few blocks away were Casa de la Guerra, the 1820s-built adobe home of Presidio commandant Jose de la Guerra, and the Santa Barbara Historical Society Museum, where century-old photos showed men in top hats outside Santa Barbara’s first two grand hotels, the Arlington and the Potter.
Sunday I found shelter from the rain inside the free Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, one of seven nationwide exhibiting Marsha and David Karpeles’ private collection of rare documents. Again, eccentricity reigned. I started with an artist’s renderings of the Captain Hook costume for the original 1904 theatrical production of “Peter Pan” and ended with Page 340 of the 17th century second folio to Shakespeare’s “Othello,” the title across the top of the sheet accidentally printed with “The Tragedy of Hamlet.”
The weekend’s last stop was the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (free on Sundays), where an 18th century Japanese color woodblock print by Suzuki Hiroshige caught my eye. It showed kimono-clad women precariously perched atop geta, shoes that I can only describe as platform flip-flops. Despite the driving rain and wind that had inverted their bamboo umbrellas, the women still tried to look fashionable. Now that, I thought, was optimism.
Back in my hotel room, I called the front desk to ask if I could take “Driving Over Lemons” home. “I’ve only read half of the book, and I’d like to know how it ends,” I said. “I’d be happy to pay for it.”
The clerk put me on hold briefly, then returned with a cheery response: “Because you had a few glitches during your stay -- the baby and the unpacking and all -- we’d like you to have the book with our compliments,” she said. “No charge.”
The book sits on my nightstand at home still half-read, so I don’t know how the itinerant sheep shearer ultimately fares. But if my weekend in Santa Barbara is any indication, I imagine there’s a happy ending.
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Budget for one
Expenses for this trip:
Hotel Andalucia, two nights with parking, tax $460.80
Hotel Andalucia $23.40
Los Gallos $9.70
Barcliff & Bair $15.90
State park admission $3.00
Other meals $20.34
Final tab $571.13
Hotel Andalucia, 31 W. Carrillo St.; (805) 884-0300, www.andaluciasb.com.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse, 1100 Anacapa St.; (805) 962-6464, www.sbcourts.org.
Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, 21 W. Anapamu St.; (805) 962-5322, www.karpeles.com.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St.; (805) 963-4364, www.sbmuseart.org.