SANTA BARBARA is a fabled, verdant oasis, renowned for its opulence. Could this magnet to the rich and famous also be a bargain hunter’s paradise?
The American Riviera, as the croissant-shaped, coastal enclave is billed, offers more affordable possibilities than the French Riviera, given the diminishing dollar. While the area’s exclusive resorts can reach $1,000 a night, and a $500 dinner at a top restaurant is not unheard of, I was able to pull together three days in Santa Barbara for under $700.
Santa Barbara lazes between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific, 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It is home — away from other homes — to Angelina Jolie, among other celebrities with deep pockets. But college students, fixed-income retirees and regular working stiffs live there, too. How do they do it?
I put my thrifty skills to the test. I have managed to travel globally on an income that should have kept me within walking distance of my apartment. But my dollar pinching has its limits. I want clean hotels and delicious food. Camping I won’t even consider, including on couches.
Weekenders from Los Angeles tend to drive up the ocean-hugging Highway 101, but I used frequent-flier miles to fly in from the East Coast, through Los Angeles. I landed at the small Santa Barbara airport on a warm, sunny day last month, typical for a city that claims over 300 days of sunshine a year.
I rented a Ford Focus for $32 a day and stood firm when the Avis agent at the airport advised me to upgrade. She was impressed that I was heading to the Montecito Inn and thought I needed something flashier to drive. But that was proved wrong when the valet at the hotel was as welcoming to me as if I’d given him keys to a Bentley.
The Montecito Inn opened in 1928, largely bankrolled by Charlie Chaplin, who enjoyed his escapes there from Hollywood. Just in case there is any doubt about Chaplin’s involvement, a life-size statue of the Little Tramp greets you at the elevator. His image is imprinted on the soap and the chocolate on your pillow. Chaplin movie posters ornament the lobby and hallways.
Hotels can make or break a budget. The difference between a $100 room and a $200 room is enormous when you are trying to curb expenses. Sticker-shock lodgings, like San Ysidro Ranch and the Bacara Resort, were out of the question for me.
I scoured Web sites for deals. For my own edification, I decided to switch hotels each of the three nights of my visit. Other than enthusiastic reviews, my requirements were location, free parking and free breakfast. The Montecito Inn, on the eastern edge of town, met them all (my compact and elegantly furnished $149 room was apparently only minutes from Oprah’s multimillion-dollar compound) plus had free wireless and a heated swimming pool, perfect for my morning laps.
I dropped my luggage and drove down shady, working-class Milpas Street, bypassing the famed cult favorite La Super-Rica Taquería (gushed over by bloggers, and, years before, by Julia Child), in favor of El Bajío. Local friends raved to me about this under-the-radar taquería. I had a cheery reunion with them and some members of my family at a picnic table on the sun-splashed patio and filed inside to order at the counter.
El Bajíio is a tidy, brightly lighted hole-in-the-wall, but its sensational seafood soups, fresh moles and well-seasoned, slow-roasted meats belie its modest trappings. The quesadilla adobada ($8.55), a flour tortilla filled with shredded pork, Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese, onions and cilantro, radiated heat and juicy sweetness. I wish I hadn’t felt compelled to eat so much of it (sharing is highly advised) because I could barely muster more than a few spoonfuls of the delicious caldo de camaron ($11.49), a spicy, tomato-hued soup bobbing with shrimp and avocado.
I walked it off on State Street, the city’s main drag, lined with clothing and book shops, restaurants, bars and vintage movie theaters. Bougainvillea scrambles over the golden adobe buildings and Spanish Colonial Revival archways. On the street was a mix of sun-kissed beauties and sun-beaten characters playing guitar.
It is certainly possible to roam Santa Barbara and savor its broad, sandy beaches without a car. But parking never posed much of a problem. Several garages offer free parking for the first 75 minutes. I parked free in front of the gorgeous, lushly landscaped Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and in a garage across the street from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The small, wonderful collection of antiquities and American, European and Asian art merits inspecting (and on Sundays, admission is free).
I also enjoyed driving around lovely Spanish-Mediterranean neighborhoods profuse with flowers and greenery. Another scenic route I relished wound past the majestic, pink sandstone Mission Santa Barbara and up the foothills to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Every day, a docent leads an hourlong tour (2 p.m. on weekdays, 11 am on weekends) that is included in the $8 admission.
The public is welcome to picnic or wander through the gardens all day, but it was worth timing my visit for the tour to learn about the native American plants and wildflowers ablaze in a meadow, a dream of what the Central Valley looked like before farming took hold. We examined jojoba, Joshua and redwood trees, and the California fan palm, fatly draped in dried fronds. Tooling back down the hillside for dinner, I beheld the ocean and the Channel Islands in the distance. My appetite for seafood was amply met at the nautical-themed Enterprise Fish Company, a couple of blocks from the wood-planked Stearns Wharf. During a noisy, crowded happy hour, my friends and I had to use some muscle to capture a table. And why wouldn’t it be popular, with $1 oysters and $3.25 gin and tonics? We also snacked on crisp lobster chicken taquitos ($3.95), meaty crab cakes ($3.95) and Cajun popcorn shrimp ($4.95).
THE next day, I checked into the retro Inn at East Beach, a three-minute walk from the beach. My $100 room was spacious, with a king-size bed, six pillows, a kitchenette and 74 TV channels. The walls were thin and what the décor lacked in style was more than made up for in friendliness. The manager, Frank Santana, gets so involved in his guests’ well-being that he mockingly rubbed his fists in his eyes when I checked out.
Around the corner from the Inn at East Beach you can hop on the Downtown-Waterfront shuttle, an open-air electric trolley that costs 25 cents and runs every 10 minutes along the beachfront, framed by towering palms. I got off close to the harbor and found a lunch spot, Brophy Bros., that’s hard to beat for views of the ocean, mountains and marina, alive with fishing boats and yachts.
This busy clam bar and restaurant takes no reservations, so I felt lucky to get a table on the outside deck. I started with a bracing oyster shooter ($2.75) and matched my mug of thick clam chowder ($4.25) with a glass of local Kalyra sauvignon blanc ($6.50). A basket of sourdough bread was so chewy and flavorful it was a revelation.
Several well-regarded wineries, like Kalyra, are rooted downtown and open to the public for tastings. The heart of Santa Barbara wine country is 45 minutes away in the Santa Ynez Valley, made famous in the 2004 movie <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="296117">“Sideways,”</object.title> but if you stay in town you can walk instead of drive.
I visited the oldest, the Santa Barbara Winery, started in 1962, two blocks from the beach. For $5, I got tastes of six wines, bread sticks to clear my palate, and the wine glass wrapped up to take home. I particularly enjoyed the rich, dark-berry negrette, an obscure grape from Southwest France, and the primitivo, a plump, dense red that’s a clone of zinfandel. These wines retail for $22 and $23 respectively, so those mouthfuls were a bargain.
My brother, Keith, is more into beer, so our group made a point of regathering at the Brewhouse, a casual, rambling hangout with happy hour specials seven days a week. For $3.95 you can get a hot dog with all the trimmings plus a cold pint of beer handcrafted on the premises. We passed around pints of Nirvana pale ale, Lobotomator Dopple Bock, West Beach I.P.A. and 10.W.30 Stout, all deemed well executed by our resident beer hound. In pursuit of further savings, we frantically hailed our waiter for another round at 5:55, last call for happy hour.
Not ready for the night to end, we moved on to Los Arroyos, a bustling taquería downtown with the same do-it-yourself spirit as El Bajío. We ordered at the counter, took a number and squeezed around a wood table inlaid with colorful Mexican tiles. A design effort was made here, with frescoed walls of palm trees and parrots.
Los Arroyos is justly famous for warm, freshly cut chips and creamy guacamole ($4.25) heaped in a molcajete. At the salsa buffet, I scooped samples of varying hues and hotness. I splotched them on my rajas con queso ($8.50), two soft tacos with grilled pasilla chiles and onions, Monterey Jack and queso fresco on homemade corn tortillas (the smoky chipotle was the winner).
My last night was spent at the Bath Street Inn, a bed-and-breakfast a few blocks northwest of downtown that would be the perfect filming location for a Miss Marple mystery. In the parlor, tea and cookies are served in the afternoon followed by wine and cheese. My snug room, with lace-edged sheets, fluffy towels and velvet throw pillows, was $123 for a double.
The homemade breakfast was superb: freshly squeezed orange juice, granola with sweet farmers’-market strawberries, and pancakes with maple butter. Morning sunlight filtered through the windows and the day was full of cultural and culinary possibilities.
All in, my three-day getaway totaled $666.82. For all its presumed exclusivity, Santa Barbara opened its arms to a humbler traveler and showed that you don’t need a fortune to have a rich time.
Montecito Inn, 1295 Coast Village Road; (805) 969-7854; www.montecitoinn.com.
The Inn at East Beach, 1029 Orilla Del Mar; (805) 965-0546; www.innateastbeach.com.
Bath Street Inn, 1720 Bath Street; (805) 682-9680; www.bathstreetinn.com.
Taquería El Bajío, 129 North Milpas Street; (805) 884-1828.
Enterprise Fish Company, 225 State Street; (805) 962-3313; www.enterprisefishco.com.
Brophy Bros., 119 Harbor Way at the Breakwater; (805) 966-4418; www.brophybros.com.
The Brewhouse, 229 West Montecito Street; (805) 884-4664;
Los Arroyos, 14 West Figueroa Street; (805) 962-5541;