If you believe the glossy travel magazines, Santa Barbara drips money, and any visitor had better be ready to have their wallet leak all over the place, too. Touted as "the American Riviera," it's up there with Palm Beach, the Hamptons and Martha's Vineyard as playgrounds for that top 1 percent that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are talking about.
True to form, some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country are filled with $400-and-up per-night bed & breakfast spots and wine-snob restaurants with $25 appetizers.
I've indulged over the years, from self-financed splurge weekends at El Encanto and the Four Seasons Biltmore to a bust-the-budget stay on the company dime at San Ysidro Ranch (owned by Ty Warner, the Beanie Baby magnate). My dog's name was etched into a shingle hung outside my San Ysidro Ranch unit as part of the welcome to the hideaway where JFK and Jackie had their honeymoon.
But I know another Santa Barbara, from my poor-boy days as a college student and twentysomething newspaper reporter. Motels that take dogs (no etched shingle included), fantastic cheap taco stands and all that sand free for the strolling. I've also moved midmarket on some trips with hotels around $150 to $200 a night -- still reasonable, by Santa Barbara standards.
I returned to that Santa Barbara recently to try to navigate a less-expensive path through town. With our still-lurching economy, it was a good time to check out old budget haunts and find new places easy on the budget.
My frugality began with getting there. I left my car at home and paid $35 each way to take the Pacific Surfliner up and back. I had the unfair advantage of a friend who would drive me around, but 90 percent of the places I visited were within walking distance of downtown, and the rest were served by regular shuttle service that runs up and down State Street.
If you book at most Holiday Inn Express hotels around the country, you end up in a rectangular box suitable for a quick night's sleep before heading somewhere else. In Santa Barbara, the Holiday Inn Express is on the National Register of Historic Places. It's the resuscitated Hotel Virginia, built in 1917, featuring small but cozy rooms with exposed brick walls. The lobby has a tiled fountain, and the sidewalk out front is painted a rusty orange to match the Southwestern earth tones that now decorate the landmark. Unfortunately, the hotel gained some buzz (a cool Holiday Inn Express!) and prices are up.
The Holiday Inn Express is part of an attempt to revitalize lower State Street that has gotten some traction, though the recession has left shuttered storefronts scattered around the area (a phenomenon not unknown to the rest of more upscale Santa Barbara).
While in the area, check out Antique Alley, one of the most eclectic secondhand stores in the state. It has everything from East German Exa cameras to Royal Deluxe typewriters to 1934 California license plates. I bought a 1950s, bright yellow Civil Defense radiation meter for $25. The nearby Santa Barbara Museum of Art shop is a good place to pick up intriguing gifts like a rainbow-colored South African safety pin bracelet or Chinese brush-painting kit.
There are a number of hotels near the beach. Castillo Inn and Franciscan Inn are small motels, but they occasionally have reasonable rates, especially if you plan well ahead. Finally, there is the orange-hued Motel 6, which was the first of the bottom-rung budget chain built in the United States. You'll pay more for less by the beach, but for most people, it's the Santa Barbara they came to experience.
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