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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Kathy A. McDonald takes us on a tour of one of Southern California’s most scenic and accessible destinations. Nicknamed the “American Riviera,” where the Pacific Ocean meets the Santa Ynez Mountains, we are heading to Santa Barbara, California.
WHAT TO DO
A pleasure to visit, Santa Barbara is a preferred weekend getaway spot for Southern Californians – hence weekends are super busy, particularly in summer and early fall when the weather stays just right due to the ocean’s cooling influence. Visitors of all ages can find much to do in this beautiful city, which sits between the rugged, chaparral-covered Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Water sports, museum and gallery visits, shopping (weekend Farmers Markets are a foodie and photographer bonanza), wine tasting, dining, biking, hiking, yoga and fishing can be on the agenda, as can chilling out at one of the area’s glamorous oceanfront resort hotels.
At the end of State Street (the city’s main thoroughfare), Stearns Wharf is a good vantage point to look back and get a sense of Santa Barbara’s geography. Families will want to check out the Ty Warner Sea Center for a close-up look at the marine life found in the Santa Barbara Channel, or take a quick trip across the harbor via a bright yellow water taxi. Locally caught shrimp and rock crab are on the menu at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company at wharf’s end. Despite the touristy-vibe, the restaurant is a reliable source for well-prepared, local seafood. Sit outside on a picnic table for the best view.
For first-timers, a visit to the iconic Santa Barbara Mission is a must. Founded in 1786 (and since restored several times), the influence of early Spanish settlers and padres remains visible in the city’s Spanish Revival architecture. Just off State Street, the whitewashed El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park was founded in 1782 by the Spanish and was once a frontier fort.
Opened in 1929, the Santa Barbara County Historic Courthouse is another landmark, and is decorated with Spanish tiles and murals that capture the region’s history, celebrated annually during the Old Spanish Days Fiesta. From the top of the courthouse tower (which is open most days), notice that there are no high rises in the city that interrupt the skyline. At six stories high, Kimpton’s Canary Hotel is one of the tallest buildings in town and boasts a rooftop pool with breathtaking views. When a 1925 earthquake destroyed much of downtown, planners kept development in check afterwards, resulting in a picturesque collection of low-rise buildings (no billboards or oversized signage clutter the streetscapes either).
Outdoor activities are a must for any trip to Santa Barbara. The best surfing spot, Rincon State Beach, is south of town, close to the Santa Barbara-Ventura County line. There are many places to rent equipment for water sports, such as Channel Island Outfitters for surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and more. Further north, the Gaviota Coast’s three state parks, including El Capitan State Beach, are ideal swimming and bodysurfing spots. Many hotels have bikes on site for loan or rent, so why not take advantage by riding the waterfront bike path and stop in at the East Beach Grill for a hearty breakfast of huge, fluffy blueberry pancakes.
The Spanish and Mexican influence is still profound in Santa Barbara and reflected in the restaurant scene. On the high-end, there’s Cielito offering begin sumptuous ceviche and oysters or dozens of premium tequilas. Milpas Street is home to a row of less pricey taquerias. La Super Rica is the most well known, look for the aqua and white stand, which has a line outside most days. Although much of Santa Barbara’s seafood bounty is shipped overseas (especially the local spiny lobster), the Hungry Cat’s raw bar stocks fresh uni (sea urchin roe), harvested near the Channel Islands.
Drop in for a taste of the latest releases and library vintages at one of the 19 tasting rooms on the Urban Wine Trail. Riverbench and AVA Santa Barbara are the most recent wineries to open tasting rooms in the city’s happening Funk Zone close to the beach. Famed vintner Jim Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat is next to the Wine Cask’s Intermezzo Bar + Cafe, where chic bar bites and wine-on-tap are an excellent finish to a busy day in Santa Barbara.
To promote Amtrak train travel, hoteliers and restaurants are participating in Car Free Santa Barbara that offers train travelers discounts. There’s a lot of fine print to the promotion but if a visit will keep you in the main downtown area, the city is compact enough so that car-free is a workable option.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Santa Barbara Airport (SBA) is located eight miles northwest of downtown Santa Barbara in Goleta (home to the University of California Santa Barbara). Five major airlines service the airport including American Eagle, which uses their LAX hub for the quick flight to Santa Barbara. US Airways (daily flights to Phoenix) and United Airlines via United Express (flights to LAX, Denver and San Francisco) have limited service.
Other carriers that fly into Santa Barbara daily are Alaska and Frontier. There are six non-stop destinations from here: Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland (as of July 4, 2013), San Francisco and Seattle. For cheaper flight options, consider flying into Burbank Bob Hope Airport or LAX, which are approximately 1.5 hours away but require a drive north on the heavily trafficked 101 Freeway. Alternatively, Amtrak runs a train service from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Prices for a single adult ticket on the Pacific Surfrider start at $26 each way in July and the picturesque journey takes 2.5 hours.
Santa Barbara has many quaint bed-and-breakfasts and independently owned hotels, however, these do not offer any point redemption opportunities. Fortunately, most of the major hotel chains have properties in Santa Barbara for you to take advantage of.
The Fess Parker – Santa Barbara: A Doubletree by Hilton Hotel and Resort: The 24-acre, 360-room Fess Parker resort is located across from the beach, harbor and bike path and a short walk to Stearns Wharf. Welcoming to families and pet owners, the hotel also has tennis courts, a large pool, hot tub, spa and busy conference center. Rooms are spacious, with balconies or private patios, WiFi (for an additional charge), a flatscreen TV and complimentary fresh-baked cookies upon arrival. Beachfront view rooms face a broad expanse of well-kept lawn, the four-lane Cabrillo Boulevard, an oceanfront park, bike path, beach and then the harbor and ocean beyond. Room rates start at $387 per night in July. This is a Category 8 hotel requiring 70,000 HHonors points for a free night. (The hotel has a charming sister property in Los Olivios: The Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa).
Hampton Inn Goleta: Close to UCSB (and a 10-minute drive to downtown Santa Barbara), the 92-room Hampton Inn Goleta has complimentary WiFi and breakfast. The hotel is clean, fresh and basic, but a remodel is planned for fall 2013. Current amenities include a fitness center, pool and business center. Room rates start at $219 per night in July. This is a Category 7 hotel requiring 30,000 to 60,000 HHonors points for a free room night.
Hyatt Santa Barbara: This 171-room, Spanish Revival-style hotel is across Cabrillo Boulevard from the beach and bike path. Updated in 2011 (and converted to a Hyatt), each room is unique, and as the Points Guy previously reviewed, some views are better than others. The Hyatt Bed is always a perk; some rooms have shower/tub combos and balconies and all have WiFi and Portico bath amenities. The hotels also features a pool, fitness center, the OLEASTRO Spa and Bistro 1111 restaurant. Be warned, parking can be a hassle at this location, so plan ahead accordingly. Room rates start at $294 per night in July. The is a Category 4 hotel requiring 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for a free night.
Hotel Indigo: A recent revamp of a vintage hotel, the Hotel Indigo has 41 contemporary-styled rooms with platform beds, flatscreen TVs, Aveda bath products, European-style wet bathrooms and colorful murals on the walls. Many also have private patios and ergonomic workstations. The boutique and eco-friendly property has a lively restaurant, the Anchor Woodfire Kitchen, located on the ground floor, where the menu changes seasonally and most dishes are made from scratch. There’s a second floor deck that overlooks the hotel’s neighbor: the train tracks and Amtrak train station. The renovation included double-paned windows but ask for rooms facing the beach for a quieter stay. Room rates start at $199 per night in July. This is a Category 7 hotel requiring 40,000 IHG Rewards Club points for a free night.
Courtyard Santa Barbara Goleta: This 104-room, 11-suite Courtyard hotel opened in 2012 and is close to UCSB and Santa Barbara Airport. There’s complimentary WiFi, free parking and a laundry room. Room rates start at $329 per night in July. This is a Category 6 hotel requiring 30,000 Marriott Rewards points for a free night.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels and Resorts is a hotel program specifically for American Express Platinum and Business Platinum cardholders. By booking through this portal, you receive added perks and benefits thrown in with your stay – sort of like you would with elite status or by booking through a travel agent with great contacts at a hotel. The area’s three top hotels, Bacara Resort & Spa, the Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara and El Encanto by Orient-Express, are in the program.
Bacara Resort & Spa: Late checkout, daily breakfast for two and $100 credit towards spa service are added perks when booking a room at the Bacara Resort & Spa through Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts. Under new ownership (Pacific Hospitality Group) and management via the Meritage Collection as of April 2013, the 78-acre, 360-room full-service resort sits on the relatively undeveloped Gaviota Coast north of Santa Barbara in Goleta (approximately five miles north of the airport). Each room has its own balcony, and the ocean and coastal views are stunning. It’s hard to leave the property once you’ve checked in because of the resort’s full array of amenities, such as a full-service spa with excellent staff, four clay tennis courts and tennis pro, two pools (though the outdoor hot tubs are small considering the size of the resort), saline spa pool, daily fitness classes and endless beach activities. In season, it’s possible to book surfing and paddleboard lessons plus kayak tours. The resort’s casual dining spot, the Bistro re-opened in July; Miro is the fine dining option with ocean views and a lavish Sunday brunch. Because of Bacara’s proximity to the Santa Ynez Valley, there’s a real connection to Santa Barbara’s wine country. Miro has a famed wine cellar and Fridays feature wine tasting in the lobby. As of April, Foley Family Wines has a tasting room just off the front entrance. Room rates start at $299 per night in July, plus a $25 resort fee, which includes free WiFi and use of spa facilities and other amenities. Valet parking is $30 per day.
Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara: Lauded for its service and oceanfront location, the 207-room Four Seasons The Biltmore Santa Barbara is arguably one of the most appealing resorts in California. Although the Points Guy noted the slow WiFi in an earlier review, the meticulously restored and maintained property (the owner is toy manufacturer and businessman Ty Warner) has plenty of charms and guests have access to one of the most spectacular outdoor pools in all of California, which is across the lane at the Coral Casino, an exclusive private club also owned by Beanie Babies tycoon Warner. The hotel is lushly landscaped, with clay tennis courts discreetly tucked away at the back. On-site is an old school-style wood and tiled bar off the lobby and Bella Vista, offering Italian specialties and an extensive California wine list. The spa is top-tier – some treatment rooms open to an ocean view. Overall the design is Spanish Revival, each of the hotel’s rooms has a singular layout and décor. As expected at a Four Seasons, the beds are extremely comfortable. At bedside there are earplugs as trains do rumble through noisily, although they are more of a momentary distraction than anything else. Room rates start at $845 per night in July.
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
El Encanto: Luxury hotel and travel adventure firm Orient-Express completely re-made the 92 suites and bungalows of El Encanto during a seven-year closure. Since it originally opened 1918, the hotel has been popular with Santa Barbara’s social set and Hollywood’s elite. Although charming, the hotel – which is set into a hillside overlooking all of Santa Barbara and the ocean beyond – had gotten a bit tired. Not so anymore. The property recently reopened following a multi-million-dollar renovation and now has a high-gloss, with modern luxuries such as an infinity-edged pool, full-service spa and rain showerheads in the new bathrooms. Bungalows are done up to the nines with custom-made furniture, original art and fine linens. The beloved outdoor terrace restaurant was rebuilt and the menu updated by the restaurant’s classically trained chef. A long brick pergola is the hotel’s signature architectural element and it has become the favorite photo spot for brides and visitors. The one downside is that the hillside location means a trek to the beach. Room rates start at $375 per night in July.
Simpson House Inn: Located on a quiet sidestreet, the 15-room Simpson House Inn is precious and private. Part of an 1874 estate, the B&B is within walking distance of Santa Barbara’s downtown but feels a world (and era) away, secluded behind hedges and surrounded by gardens. Room rates start at $255 (weekends), $230 (weekdays) per night in July and stays come with a sumptuous breakfast.
The San Ysidro Ranch: Known for its privacy and posh bungalows tucked away on a perfectly landscaped hillside, the San Ysidro Ranch in nearby Montecito is owned by Ty Warner (who also owns the nearby Four Seasons Biltmore). A member of The Leading Hotels of the World (and its loyalty program), each “cottage” is decorated with antiques, Persian carpets, a flatscreen TV, Nespresso coffee maker and heated floors. Creekside cottages even have private patios with outdoor rain showers and hot tubs. The hotel is a favorite for romantic getaways – John F. and Jackie Kennedy famously honeymooned here in 1953 and there’s a cottage named in their honor. Room rates start at $595 per night in July. Beyond its loyalty programs, LHW also has partnerships with airlines including Delta, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, JAL and Jet Airways – giving additional point and reward opportunities for members of those frequent flyer programs who can earn bonus miles for LHW stays.
The Canary Hotel: Located right off State Street, this Kimpton property has 97 contemporary rooms and a fun rooftop pool scene for guests, which provides the perfect place for a sunset cocktail. As of April, the hotel launched a new in-house restaurant, Finch & Fork, that features locally sourced ingredients (there’s a twice-weekly Farmers Market blocks away) and modern American comfort food. Unlike other hotels in town, the Canary is a city hotel – walk outside and you’re in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Rooms are carefully appointed with Frette linens, 42-inch flatscreen TVs and deluxe down comforters. For the health-conscious, there is a state-of-the-art fitness center (partnered with the Spectrum Club), the FLOAT Spa, yoga on the roof and a “Run with the GM” program thoughout the summer. The hotel is pet-friendly (with no size restriction or fees) and has its own loyalty program, InTouch, previously reviewed by The Points Guy. Complimentary WiFi is just one of the InTouch perks, however rooms must be booked through the Kimpton site. Room rates per night start at $295 in July.