Bargain Santa Barbara

Article excerpt

TRAVEL VALUE VACATION

A little bit of Italy, some vintage beach culture, and a touch of Mexico

The last time my wife and I spent a weekend in Santa Barbara, we went all-out: a wedding dinner for 80 with an R&B group and three nights at the Four Seasons Resort Santa Barbara, among other extravagances. Of such nights are lifelong memories and long-term debt made.

With the bulk of the wedding party coming in from out of the area, we wanted a location that delivered the best that Southern California can offer. And without a doubt, Santa Barbara is that place.

Backed by the towering, almost purple Santa Ynez Mountains and fronted by a south-facing shoreline (the coast here runs west to east), Santa Barbara is blessed with one of the most striking urban settings anywhere in the world. Towering palm trees line its waterfront drive, Cabrillo Boulevard, and the most beautiful California mission looks out over the city from the hills near downtown. Compact and easy-to-navigate, the city also proved to be hassle-free for our guests-except for my college roommates, who managed to lose their rental car downtown one night.

Becky and I love Santa Barbara and were eager to get back. Our newfound fiscal responsibility gave us the impetus to search out bargains around town. And for all of Santa Barbara's glamour, you don't need to be Oprah (who I imagine isn't counting pennies at her nearby Montecito estate) to experience one of America's most distinctive cities. Go offseason midweek and you can enjoy three days for less than $400-far cheaper than an ocean-view room at the Four Seasons.

Day one: A weekend day at midweek prices

In college, Wednesday night was the beginning of the weekend. In the hotel world, Sunday night is considered midweek, so we got a deal on a garden room at the small Mediterranean-style Casa Del Mar inn, half a block from the beach, for $124 a night (with 12 percent tax, $277.76 for two nights). We later learned that, depending on availability, we could have saved another 15 percent by booking over the Internet. The area off Cabrillo, near our hotel, is packed with nice, inexpensive lodging, including the Franciscan Inn ($85 and up).

Our Sunday arrival gave us a taste of weekend Santa Barbara. We walked down the oceanfront to the weekly Santa Barbara Arts & Crafts Show (free) along Cabrillo. We ran into our wedding photographer, Thomas Styczynski, who, shockingly, was not exhibiting our smiling faces, opting instead for his large-format landscape photography.

After perusing the booths of painters, jewelers, and wind-chime makers, we returned through Chase Palm Park (free). Created from a onetime industrial area, the park features a small wetland and a historic carousel.

On the way back to the hotel, we turned down Helena Avenue, an easyto-miss block near State Street. Because of our limited budget, we merely gazed longingly at the platters and bowls at the Italian Pottery Outlet. Then, because admission is free the first Sunday of every month (and every Thursday), we headed for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art to check out the recently unveiled David Alfaro Siqueiros mural.

Art shopping, vintage California beach culture, a hint of Italy, and a touch of Mexico. Talk about the consummate Santa Barbara afternoon. After sampling the hotel's complimentary evening spread of wine and cheese, we considered dining on cioppino at Brophy Bros. Clam Bar & Restaurant but instead watched the light fade over the harbor from the Endless Summer BarCafe. The albacore was fresh and the fish tacos delicious ($29.62, including tax and tip), and then it was back to the hotel for a hot tub under the stars.

Day two: Into the hills

After a quick early-morning stroll down the beach, enlivened by the honking of a low-flying great blue heron, we indulged in the hotel's deluxe continental breakfast buffet (free), notable for its freshbaked blueberry muffins. …