Steps From the Sand

Sometimes, on a Friday night as I climb the stairs to my apartment after work, I think fleetingly of packing a bag and driving up the coast to this small, sophisticated town that holds such a special place in the hearts of Southern Californians. I'd visit Santa Barbara's 18th century Spanish mission, tour its farmers market, shop on State Street, bike along the waterfront, build sandcastles at the beach, eat seafood on the wharf. It's all just a hundred miles away.

Then I wonder where I would stay. Alas, the best-known places are luxurious beachside resorts like Bacara and the Four Seasons Biltmore, where the least expensive room in the summer high season costs about $400 a night. So I stay put, pay bills, clean house.

There are plenty of good reasons not to act on impulse. But the high price of accommodations shouldn't automatically be counted among them when the impulse is getting away to Santa Barbara. Never mind the Biltmores and Bacaras, or other pricey hotels and bed-and-breakfasts farther inland, like San Ysidro Ranch, El Encanto or the Simpson House Inn. Who can afford them?

I recently checked out nearly three dozen less expensive, less glamorous places to stay around the Santa Barbara waterfront; after all, much of the appeal of a getaway here is to get as close to the beach as possible. Many have welcome touches like free continental breakfasts, driven in part by the large number of Europeans who visit Santa Barbara. And some of these little inns, comfy bed-and-breakfasts and mom-and-pop motels have been there for decades and are family-owned, says B. Corkery, executive director of the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau.

Of course, nothing comes cheap in this soigné town. The least expensive of these little hotels, very basic and a few short blocks away from the beach, are priced from about $50 to $200 a night. The most expensive aren't all that fancy either but charge $200 and up simply because they're on Cabrillo Boulevard, which runs along the beachfront.

Moreover, rates fluctuate wildly at each hotel depending on the time of year you visit and whether you book for a weekend or a less expensive weeknight. Tariffs are highest and a two-night minimum stay is generally required on weekends in peak season, from late May through September.

When I was there in late April, rates were on the low side and there were plenty of vacancies. I spent my time pounding the pavement, touring inns, chatting up hotel managers and snooping in rooms when the chambermaids were cleaning. I focused solely on the beach area, excluding big chain hotels (with one notable exception), and, admittedly, stayed (always anonymously) in only three of the places listed below. The rest I toured, limiting my ability to make detailed assessments. Without spending the night at a place, you simply don't know how noisy the corridors are at midnight, whether the hot water is sluggish and if it's really worth it to pay premium prices for rooms with ocean or partial ocean views. But I love the variety and personality of little hotels, have a practiced eye and sussed out the 11 I liked best, from East Beach to West Beach.

Location, Location

A few chain resorts, such as Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort and the Radisson Santa Barbara, and very comfortable medium-size inns occupy a place of pride on busy Cabrillo Boulevard, which makes them expensive and, in some cases, noisy. My favorites were the 71-room Santa Barbara Inn, overlooking West Beach, and Oceana, a stylish 122-room boutique hotel that opened this spring.

Santa Barbara Inn: The Santa Barbara Inn is about a 15-minute stroll from State Street and Stearns Wharf. There's a small but attractive heated pool and hot tub on the ocean side of the inn, and an elegant restaurant, Citronelle, upstairs. If it weren't for the fact that the mid-century modern look is currently chic, it would be an unexceptional '60s motel with three stories, a porte-cochere, valet parking and an airy lobby that needs more cheerful decor. If it were at a highway exit instead of on the ocean in Santa Barbara, you'd never pay $249 to $359 for a room, the rates in summer.

But the rooms are large and quite pleasant, done in beige and wicker with beachy prints on the wall, marble baths and little bar areas equipped with coffee makers. Some have balconies and full ocean views. The one I rented on the ground floor ($299 in high season, $209 in late April) had a sliding glass door yielding to the pool area, two double beds and a low cottage cheese ceiling.

Citronelle, which features the California-French cuisine of chef Michel Richard, is in a picture window-lined room on the top floor. I invited some of my family to drive up, and we had a memorable dinner there of appetizers such as Richard's signature porcupine shrimp and entrees like sea bass in a delicate mushroom polenta crust, accompanied by a bottle of Vouvray. The next morning I ordered mixed fruit, fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee from Citronelle, which provides room service meals at the hotel and is easily its most winning amenity.

Hotel Oceana: The Oceana is a total renovation and banding together of four beach-area motels, three facing the ocean and another on the far side of an alley. Sambo's restaurant squats in the midst of them, a Santa Barbara fixture since it was founded as the first eatery in the chain in 1957. The spread-out nature of the Oceana keeps the bellhops running, but they look young and able. There are two pools, a fitness center and lots of pretty patios with overflowing planters and umbrella tables, all very Santa Barbara.

The trouble is, rooms in the same price category vary dramatically from building to building. I looked at three or four--cramped or too noisy or without a locking bathroom window--before settling on a modest double in the rear. It was a partial ocean view room, priced at $225 during the week and $275 on the weekend. You could see the Pacific from the main window, an azure wash behind Sambo's. Better choices in the building housing the lobby were already taken.

All the Oceana's rooms were decorated by interior designer Kathryn Ireland, who favors cheerful yellow, green and red checks and prints against white walls. Upholstered headboards and benches at the foot of the beds, pretty prints on the walls and mostly blond furniture give the rooms a feminine air. But when you settle in, you find that some expense has been spared. The comforters are thin, the bottles of Aveda toiletries in the baths are minuscule, the rooms are underfurnished. I'd have been happier if my room at the Oceana had an easy chair.

Back From the Beach

The intersection of Bath and Mason streets, just behind the Oceana on the West Beach side of the waterfront, is a good place to start if you're looking for a modest place to stay in Santa Barbara. I liked all four little inns at this crossroads, from the perfectly neat Marina Beach Motel, which lacks only a pool, to the comfortably modern Franciscan Inn; antique-filled, 10-room Harbor House Inn; and Casa Del Mar, my favorite.

Casa Del Mar: This intimate 21-room inn, which has the feeling of beach apartments, occupies a series of small, close-set buildings from the '20s, with all the trademarks of the Mediterranean style, like red tile roofs, white stucco walls and arches. The buildings are separated by narrow walkways lined with flowers and palm trees, leading to gurgling fountains and a little deck with a hot tub facing quiet Mason Street--all a block back from the beach but surprisingly secluded.

The rooms and suites are large, some with fireplaces and kitchenettes. Though more functional than stylish, they have a freshly redecorated look, tiled entryways and floral bedspreads and are priced from $129 to $224.

The lobby has a small dining room where wine and cheese are served in the evening and a big breakfast buffet is spread in the morning. Such touches give Casa Del Mar the hospitableness of a B&B without impinging on its very private air.

Tropicana Inn and Suites and Colonial Beach Inn: These two attentively refurbished vintage motels are across Castillo Street from each other, near the band shell and ball fields of Pershing Park, halfway between the highway and Cabrillo Boulevard. So naturally they lack a waterfront feeling, though they're just a short walk from the beach.

Both shine with tender loving care, have little pools and charmingly decorated rooms with patterned wallpaper, overstuffed chairs and Laura Ashley quilts on the beds.

The two inns were started by David and Pamela Webber, who moved from Plymouth, England, to Santa Barbara in 1956. Pamela needed a job that would allow her to care for her daughter, Jeanette, so she went to work in a hotel. Over the years the Webbers began buying hotels, now a home-grown chain run by their children, consisting of the Colonial, the Tropicana, the Inn By The Harbor around the corner and two Best Westerns in town.

A high level of upkeep, personal attention and pleasing details, like milk and cookies served in the late afternoon, recommend the Webber hotels. The Colonial has 24 rooms ($146 to $196 weekend, $126 to $176 weekdays), cherry wood furnishings and reproduction Lincoln-era beds.

A dolphin fountain marks the entry to the bright pink Tropicana, which has 31 chambers, half of which are big suites ($152 to $162 weekend, $132 to $142 weekdays).

Montecito del Mar: The location of Montecito del Mar isn't prime. It backs onto U.S. Highway 101 three blocks from the beach. It would be just another basic courtyard mom-and-pop motel were it not for recent renovations and a refurbishing, which have given the 23-room inn the handmade charm of Mexican folk art.

There are several styles of rooms and suites, set in a U shape around the parking lot (with two hot tubs at the rear). The least expensive, priced $95 to $145, are small and a little dark, with simple pine furniture and tile floors. Rooms in the next category up, at $145 to $225, are much more enticing. They have wrought-iron, gauze-canopy beds, settees, baskets, patterned pillows and colorful hand-painted Mexican basins that serve as bathroom sinks.

The Old Yacht Club Inn: The Old Yacht Club Inn, on a quiet residential street just off East Beach, was started by two schoolteachers in 1980, the first B&B in Santa Barbara. The main building, which briefly served as the headquarters of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club, is a classic California Craftsman-style house with a deep front porch, wainscoting and burnished wood floors. The inn is now owned by Eileen Bruce and Vince Pettit, who knew a gem when they bought it two years ago and wisely did not change a thing.

The front sitting area and breakfast room has a fireplace, Oriental rugs, lace curtains, doilies and multitudinous knickknacks. There, a full gourmet breakfast is served, evening social hour is held and the owners lend bicycles and dispense beach towels and chairs to guests.

To the rear on the first floor of the main house is one of the least expensive rooms, priced at $140. There are four guest rooms upstairs and six more in the Mediterranean-style annex next door, all with private baths and fluffy, pretty decorations like swag curtains, flowered bedspreads and Victorian mirrors, tables and chairs. The inn is homey and not too formal, giving guests a taste of what it must be like not just to visit but to live in Santa Barbara.

Inn at East Beach: A recent renovation and an exceptionally friendly staff make the 33-room Inn at East Beach one of my favorite places to stay near the Santa Barbara waterfront. It's a block off Cabrillo Boulevard, with the Radisson in front of it. But from the balcony in No. 17, I had a full ocean view without craning my neck.

The inn, a '60-style motel with a shingle roof and green wood siding, provided accommodations for members of the White House motor pool, Secret Service and communications staff when President Reagan visited his Santa Barbara ranch. It occupies three banks of buildings that climb down a hill, ending at a little park and the Santa Barbara Zoo. There's a well-maintained pool in the middle and a deck with umbrella tables. A continental breakfast is served in the lobby, and coffee and tea are always available. Co-manager Frank Santana is usually sitting at the front desk in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, telling people what to do in Santa Barbara, a town he loves.

The rooms are large and have durable carpets, plain spreads, pine furniture, the occasional wicker chair and thoughtful details like ironing boards, mini-refrigerators, microwaves and coffee makers. There is nothing extraneous in them, but they are shipshape, comfortable and a good buy at $180 to $270 on weekends, $119 to $199 weekdays.

Bare-Bones Basic

If you just want a place to sleep and dry your bathing suit, there are options in Santa Barbara. Soap may be the only free toiletry you get, and the towels may be thin at these inexpensive inns, but you can count on a neat room and easy access to the beach.

Motel 6: Yes, it's part of the budget hotel chain, noted for cheap sleeps along the highway. Its rooms, in a pair of two-story concrete block buildings, are small, with no pictures on the wall; plain, functional baths; and a few sticks of unadorned furniture. There's no restaurant or room service, the pool lacks the charms of landscaping and it's standing room only in the little lobby.

But this Motel 6 is a block off East Beach in Santa Barbara, with 51 clean, perfectly acceptable rooms. Some on the second floor even have ocean views. In summer, the price is $85.99 weekends, $75.99 weekdays (plus $6 for a second adult in the room). If you combed the Santa Barbara coast from Carpenteria to Goleta, I doubt you could do better.

Hotel State Street: The 52-room Hotel State Street is in an old three-story building with a Subway sandwich shop on the ground floor. It is near the train station and exactly 176 steps from the beach (as measured by co-owner Serb Topalski's feet). Friendly, tidy and recently refurbished, it caters chiefly to European tourists.

The rooms have shared baths (except No. 35), though all have in-room sinks and some have toilets. There are TVs but no phones, and the furniture is almost as spartan as at the Motel 6. But I liked it better because guest chambers are roomy, with big windows and high ceilings. Besides, sharing a bath doesn't sound so bad at $69 to $79 weekends, $49 to $69 weekdays.

Cabrillo Inn: This breezy little white frame motel occupies one of the best spots on the shore, just across the street from East Beach. It has 39 rooms in four two-story buildings, connected by meandering walkways and sundecks. There's almost no landscaping, the two pools are surrounded by plastic chairs and the rooms are small and characterless. But the price is about as low as you're likely to find on Cabrillo Boulevard, $139 to $199 weekends, $109 to $169 weekdays. And all the rooms have full or partial views of the glorious Santa Barbara waterfront.