SUMMERLAND, Calif. — There's something contradictory about a weekend escape in Summerland. The Inn on Summer Hill is so honeymoon-in-the-Poconos cutesy that you think you really should be there with a man. And then you realize that it takes a girlfriend to browse all of Summerland's antique shops in a leisurely, respectful manner.
My friend Cynthia and I decided that the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village off the freeway five miles south of Santa Barbara would be perfect for a getaway focused on antiquing and gabbing. I had recently overheard dealers at a flea market say that they sell their best stuff to the Summerland antique shops. Then I read in one of my favorite decorating books that Summerland is among the author's haunts--she being Rachel Ashwell of the much-copied "Shabby Chic" (country cottage) look, shops and books.
Since I'm used to paying flea market prices for my treasures, I wasn't sure I'd buy anything on Summerland's antique strip. But I would get inspiration, at least. Cynthia, a longtime Summerland shopper, already had a favorite shop there, so she was the perfect traveling companion. As a bonus, she's almost as big a fan of PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" as I am.
Summerland was founded in 1889 by Henry L. Williams, who was searching for a place to develop a spiritualist community. Williams and his family lived in what is now the Big Yellow House, a Victorian wowser that houses Summerland's best-known restaurant. The town has about 2,400 residents. In the '60s and '70s it was mainly hippies and surfers, but now the area is yuppified and boasts many expensive homes.
Poor Summerland hasn't been the same since U.S. 101 came right by it in the 1960s. Everything we did, from sleeping to eating to antiquing, was within two blocks of the roar of the freeway. Maybe you get used to it after a while.
The Inn on Summer Hill seemed like the right place to stay. Its weekend two-night-minimum policy is occasionally waived when there's a room available for Friday night only. (Rates at the inn are $160 to $325.) So we waited until we could book a single night. The other place to stay in town is the Summerland Inn ($90 to $160).
We had Room 3. It's the only room in the inn with two double beds, so the guest book in the room contained deeply felt testimonials from mother/daughters, sisters, best buds since sixth grade and couples celebrating their 30th and 35th anniversaries.
The decorating sense at the inn is horror vacui. This is a term I learned at UCLA from an art history professor who said the ancient Egyptians had it--fear of undecorated spaces. That was our room: every surface covered with floral wallpaper, floral fabrics and floral pictures and bows, though expensively done. I counted 19 lighting fixtures, including in the bathroom. But it was all cozy and filled with good cheer and little treats--the cassette player speaker in the bathroom, cranberry water in the fridge, magazines (inspired!). I peeked into Room 2, and it looked slightly less goopy. But this is a more-is-more place, from dining room to lobby to guest rooms. Minimalists: Book at your own risk.
Cynthia had to meet me at the inn because she's an actor and she got a last-minute audition. So I drove up alone and had a great, cheap BLT at Shacky's Seaside, a low-key, vine-covered roadside cafe that seemed to function as a town square for the locals.
Cynthia arrived in time for the inn's afternoon snacks, which were several notches above what was needed to get by. We filled up little plates with prosciutto and blue-cheese-stuffed mushrooms, tapenade on crostini and cheeses and brought them back to our too-cute-by-half room.
By accident, we stumbled on Summerland's big thing to do at sunset--dog-walking on the beach--when we went to Lookout Park to watch the sun go down over the ocean. Hey, this isn't Vegas. The park even has a machine that dispenses free "pick-up mitts" for dog walkers; everyone grabbed one on the way down the incline. Nice touch.
We had dinner at the Big Yellow House, which has kept its original room configuration and grand woodwork. We were shown to a table in an upstairs bedroom but it seemed too confined, so we pressed for a table on the enclosed sun porch. Much better. The menu is traditional--filet mignon with bearnaise, chops--with some updated dishes such as coconut shrimp, Cobb salad and Chinese chicken salad.
The best meal we had in Summerland was breakfast at the inn, again far beyond the call of innkeeper duty. Our choices: eat in the dining room (too small and hot and too many teapots on the shelves), order room service for $5 extra, or bring the floral room tray to the buffet, serve ourselves and return to our room. We did the latter. The chef had prepared piping-hot potato, onion and turkey sausage quiche sprinkled with diced tomatoes. We piled our side plates with pumpkin/chocolate pudding, crumb cake, raspberry crumble and chocolate chip scones.