Less than a two-hour drive northwest of Los Angeles and blessed with an ideal setting along a south-facing stretch of the Pacific Coast, upscale Santa Barbara has become increasingly more popular - and correspondingly more pricey - as a vacation destination. That said, especially if you avoid summer and holiday weekends, it's possible to find reasonably priced chain and independent motels both in the city proper and in nearby coastal communities. You'll find fewer accommodations up in the Wine Country, but still a nice range of options, from romantic upscale country inns overlooking rolling vineyards to less spendy motels, especially in northern Santa Barbara County's larger communities, Santa Maria and Lompoc.
If you're game for a splurge, or seeking a lovely pad to indulge in a grandly romantic special-occasion getaway, you've chosen the right part of the world. Santa Barbara and tony, celeb-adored Montecito are home to several of the cushiest coastal resorts in California, many of them designed in the style of historic colonial haciendas and castles you might find in Mediterranean Spain. There are also a handful of discerning boutique inns and B&Bs in the area.
Here's a guide, in alphabetical order, to some of our favorite hotels for LGBT visitors to Santa Barbara and the nearby Wine Country.
Part of the stylish and hip Kimpton boutique lodging brand, the centrally located Canary Hotel (31 W. Carrillo St., 805-884-0300) ranks among the most inviting, artfully decorated, and sophisticated properties in downtown Santa Barbara. The 97 suites and rooms in this six-story Spanish Colonial-style hotel just off bustling State Street are decorated in gorgeous Mission- and Moorish-style patterns and colors. All are larger than 300 square feet, and design touches include polish hardwood floors, four-poster beds with soft Frette linens and pillowtop mattresses, elegant desks, and elegant bathrooms with TVs, top-of-the-line Atelier Bloem soaps and shampoos, and stunning tile work. Some rooms have French doors leading out to balconies, and the swanky suites have additional comforts, such as separate seating areas, and soaking tubs and separate walk-in showers.
However much you may wish to relax in your room for hours, the hotel's spectacular rooftop pool and bar area is the place to go when the sun is out, or in the evening to admire the twinkling lights of the city - you can see the ocean in one direction, and the soaring foothills in the other. The rooftop bar is also the site of a monthly LGBT mixer held in conjunction with the Pacific Pride Foundation (the organizers of Santa Barbara Gay Pride), and it's a popular spot for same-sex weddings. The handsome ground-floor lobby is a lovely place to work or mingle with friends, and just off the lobby, Finch & Fork restaurant serves every meal of the day (including a fantastic weekend brunch) - the farmers market-driven contemporary West Coast cuisine is superb, and the bar is a sceney-y spot for cocktails. The hotel is a pleasant 20-minute walk down State Street to the beach and Stearns Wharf, and an even shorter distance from the urban wineries and gourmet food scene in the Santa Barbara Funk Zone, and the countless fine restaurants, cafes, and retailers elsewhere downtown. Other reasons to stay here:use of bikes to zip around town, evening wine hour and morning coffee in the lobby, access to the excellent Bay Club Fitness Center, yoga on Saturday mornings (and you can request a yoga mat for free to use in your room), and pet-friendly accommodations.
Note that in the nearby town of Goleta, a short drive from the beach and UC Santa Barbara, you'll find Kimpton's sister property, the hip Goodland Hotel.
Exemplary as even as Four Seasons resorts go, the Four Seasons Biltmore Santa Barbara (1260 Channel Dr., 805-969-2261) shines among luxury coastal hideaways. It's not only one of the swankiest properties in the city, it's among the finest in the country. Deft, helpful service coupled with a spectacular oceanfront setting in the old-money enclave of Montecito make this classic study in Mission Revival architecture a richly relaxing retreat. The 207 rooms are spread among a low-slung main building and a dozen secluded cottages. The hotel faces a perfectly manicured lawn, across the street from which lies a blissful stretch of sandy Butterfly Beach. It's a 10-minute walk north along Olive Mill Road, crossing the 101 Freeway, to reach Montecito's bounty of shops and restaurants along Coast Village Road. Just bear in mind that the hotel is a 10-minute car or taxi ride from downtown Santa Barbara.
Rooms are done with tasteful, understated Spanish Colonial furnishings and color schemes - many have cathedral ceilings and working fireplaces, and most have private patios or balconies. Landscaped paths wend through the property, and guests enjoy use of a top-notch fitness center, handsome pool, three tennis courts, a 12,000-square-foot full-service spa with 11 treatment rooms, and three restaurants, including indoor-outdoor Bella Vista, which serves acclaimed California-Mediterranean fare. Across the street, the exclusive, restored Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club, which was built in 1937, contains a smart cafe overlooking the water and famously beautiful Butterfly Beach, as well as an expansive pool and fitness facilities (guests of the resort are afforded admittance during their stay). The Biltmore manages a remarkably balance between highly personal attention and luxe trappings with a happily low-keyed and even rather informal ambience - exactly what fans of the property have come to love about it over the years. And those devotees include plenty of celebrities bivouacking from nearby Los Angeles (pop star Katy Perry is a frequent guest).
A handful of mostly mid-price motels and hotels lie between the beach near Stearns Wharf, at the foot of State Street, and the rail tracks and U.S. 101 Freeway, just south of downtown shopping and dining and very close to the city's trendy Funk Zone, with its many wineries, art galleries, and creative spaces. The neighborhood is a convenient base for exploring, and most of the properties in this area have more reasonably rates than the luxury resorts elsewhere around town and nearby Montecito. One of the best of these hotels is the gay-friendly Franciscan Inn (109 Bath St., 805-963-8845).
The handsomely retrofitted 53-room motel (i.e., many rooms - and their windows - open onto outside corridors set around a parking lot) has large accommodations with Ralph Lauren textiles and country-house-inspired furnishings. Some suites have kitchenettes, Continental breakfast is included, and rooms have Wi-Fi and iHome entertainment systems, and come with free parking. There's also a small but pleasant pool and on-site laundry. It's nothing fancy, but for a comfy and very well-kept accommodations that's just steps from one of the city's prettiest beaches, this is an excellent choice.
Other mid-priced properties in the same neighborhood worth considering if you're unable to book a room at the Franciscan include the Avania Inn (128 Castillo St., 800-455-4647), which is a bit drab looking from the outside but has nicely refurbished rooms, and the Hotel Milo Santa Barbara (202 W. Cabrillo Blvd., 805-965-4577 or 800-965-9776), a more upscale resort comprising six different buildings. The Oceans has a terrific location and also underwent a significant makeover in recent years, but it can still be a bit pricey considering room size and overall amenities.
With its abundance of swish resorts and upscale hotels, Santa Barbara may seem like the unlikely birthplace of the ultra-budget Motel 6 chain. But here in this upscale beach city, you'll find the very first property in the chain (opened in 1962). The Motel 6 Santa Barbara Beach (443 Corona Del Mar, 805-564-1392), close to the beach, zoo, and the U.S. 101 freeway. Like the other Motel 6 properties in Santa Barbara, this one has undergone one of the brand's very cool new remodels, which impart a vaguely Scandinavian-modern sensibility.
If you haven't stayed in one of these reinvented Motel 6 properties, and especially if you're fairly used to the creepy-feeling bedspreads and threadbare look of many of these motels, you're in for a surprise here. For the record, I've stay in plenty of Motel 6's in my travels, especially when road-tripping and seeking a clean, convenient, and consistently decent if very basic place to overnight - I think even the old-school Motel 6 properties are a decent value. But as evidenced by the downright stylish "Phoenix" look (so-named by Motel 6), the new take on this value chain is impressive - note the multi-media panel with 32-inch flat-screen TV and access for laptops, MP3s, and video games, pictured here. Other features include eco-friendly laminate floors and high-tech climate control, beds with simple earth-tone duvets, and bathrooms with black-granite counters. Overall, these are still low-frills rooms with basic linens and cozy dimensions, but the look is eye-pleasing and the value impressive. This is still Santa Barbara, however, so keep in mind that rates at this original property on the beach are a bit higher than what's typical for the chain - $120 nightly and up during popular periods and around $80 during the quieter winter season.
There are several other Motel 6 properties in the Santa Barbara area - upper State Street, Goleta, Carpinteria (north and south), Ventura (beach and south), and up in the Santa Barbara Wine Country in Solvang/Buellton.
If you're a devotee of the cult Pinot Noir flick Sideways, or you're just looking for an inexpensive if unremarkable motel in the heart of the Santa Barbara Wine Country, you might consider booking a room at the Sideways Inn Buellton-Solvang (114 E. Hwy. 146, Buellton, just off U.S. 101, 805-688-8448). As is true to movie form, it's just a short walk (albeit on a very busy road) from the acclaimed Hitching Post restaurant, and the windmill in front of the lobby is kitschy and fun (a tribute to Solvang's Danish heritage and quite enjoyable windmill fetish).
I confess that I never got the chance to actually explore any of the rooms, but if you're curious, the hapless Sideways characters Miles and Jack are said to have stayed in Room 234 of this motel (formerly known as the Days Inn Buellton-Solvang, and still part of the Days Inn chain) that receives pretty middling reviews on TripAdvisor. Hey, it's a generic chain motel once you get past the movie lore. That being said, on TripAdvisor, with specific reference to this motel, I did come across one of my favorite opening lines to a hotel review: "Had we not gone searching for the rat we heard, we would have never found the used condom..." (credit for this gem belongs to a user named "Vernazzagal").