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Weekend Escape: Santa Barbara

A Motel to Wait for

Ways to to get around with a thin wallet in an expensive town

January 11, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — I recently consummated a May to September relationship in a Motel 6, and I don't care who knows it.

No, it wasn't what you think. My wife and I (separated in age by 364 days, if you must know) thought we could stand a weekend in Santa Barbara, but we wanted to keep it cheap. And so one day back in the spring, I called Motel 6--not just any Motel 6, mind you, but the original Motel 6, which opened in the summer of 1962 near East Beach, prime shore-strolling and volleyball territory.

As Santa Barbara's reputation as a pleasant retreat has widened, the first Motel 6 has taken on another distinction. It is the most expensive Motel 6 west of the Mississippi: $63 per night for a double room in peak season. But by Santa Barbara's upscale standards, of course, this is a low number. And it apparently is no secret. The motel's weekends, the reservations agent told me on that May day, were booked up more than three months in advance. The next opening, he told me, was in late September. We took it. (May to September. See?)

The appointed Friday evening finally arrived, and Mary Frances and I headed up U.S. 101. First we alighted downtown for dinner on the upstairs balcony of the Zia Cafe, an old favorite of ours that looks down on State Street and offers New Mexico cuisine (I had the green chile chicken enchiladas) at no more than $9.95 per main course.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 18, 1998 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Santa Barbara--Due to a reporting error, a Weekend Escape story ("A Motel to Wait For," Jan. 11) described the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden as a 60-acre preserve. It is the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and it covers 65 acres.

After dinner, we drove in confused circles for about 15 minutes along the Santa Barbara waterfront (I was sure I could find the place without actually consulting the address; I was wrong), and about 11, we pulled into the busy parking lot of our Motel 6. Yes, the light was on.

There were 51 rooms on two floors and a handful of independent budget motels up and down the street. There was a small fenced-in pool, elbow-shaped; lap swimming might require sonar equipment. Also, though its location is described in the Motel 6 directory as "beach," the property is actually separated from the sand and sea by two streets and a large Radisson hotel.

Room 122, ours, was bereft of character: bare walls, no shampoo in the bathroom, TV remote control bolted to a bedside table. But hey, $63 a night, and free local calls. And the place was spotless; the property was renovated less than two years ago. In the proper frame of mind (a few beers at dinner helps), the relentless standardness seems mildly magical.

*

The company, founded in Santa Barbara and bought in 1990 by the hospitality conglomerate Accor, now has 760 motels. Until 1986, all Motel 6 locations maintained the same price year-round--$19.95 per night--and until 1996, every property was owned and managed by the parent company, and every manager was a Motel 6 employee. Now, like most other chains, Motel 6 sells franchises, and motel rates vary, beginning at about $25 (Midland, Texas), stopping at the most expensive: downtown Chicago at $89.99 nightly. Then we got down to embracing affordable Santa Barbara. First, banana wheat germ pancakes at the East Beach Grill ($6.75), which stands beside the sand, a one-block stroll from the Motel 6. Then out to the mission (founded 1786), where we strolled through the adjacent rose garden, around the fountain, under the big pink facade and through the gift shop, buying nothing and paying no admission.

We headed a few blocks north, parked, brushed off our casual shirts and shorts, and stepped into El Encanto, an 82-year-old garden-villa-style hotel (brochure rates: $150 nightly and up) with wide views toward the sea and Old Santa Barbara gentility hanging in the air. We had come for lunch on the veranda.

No, this wasn't a bargain-basement meal--El Encanto's lunch entrees go as high as $13.50--but it was good value. The free bread was terrific (bits of olive and walnut), and the $6.75 salads we had as main courses (organic baby greens, blue cheese, pears, balsamic vinegar) were hearty and tangy.

Next stop: The Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, just a few blocks away, where visitors pay $3 a head to linger along 60 acres of vegetation-lined paths. From reasonably close by, we saw a hawk spread wings and take flight. We ogled cactuses. Sat by a creek. Patrolled the gift shop. Then walked around downtown.

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