Santa Barbara — The flat-panel TV, the DVD player, the hand-painted bathroom tiles -- the details were meant to impress.
But when I entered Room 215 in the new Hotel Andalucia, my eyes scanned for something else. Sure enough, beside the billowy bed turned down for the evening, underneath the Sharper Image book light, there it lay: a paperback.
A book was one of the amenities that charmed guests at Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar, two landmark Santa Monica hotels whose management company recently opened the Andalucia. At Shutters, guests are greeted by "The Old Man and the Sea." Casa del Mar has varied its titles, but its initial offering was "The Little Prince."
The Andalucia borrows a page from those hotels' success by furnishing the nightstands with Chris Stewart's "Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain," the comic 1999 memoir of the misadventures that plague an English sheep shearer who starts life anew in southern Spain. The cover blurb likened Stewart to half a cup of Bill Bryson, 3 tablespoons of Peter Mayle with a pinch of Monty Python. The recipe, as it turned out, would be a far better reflection of my weekend than the heroic Hemingway or fanciful Saint-Exupery.
To start, storm clouds chased me up the coast to Santa Barbara. I tried, like the sheep shearer, to see the sunny side: Rain provided plenty of motivation to skip the city's golden sands in favor of its downtown museums and historic sites.
The Andalucia opened in mid-December in an increasingly competitive region. Orient-Express Hotels, which bought El Encanto Hotel & Garden Villas, announced plans for $10 million in improvements. San Ysidro Ranch, Fess Parker's DoubleTree Resort and the Four Seasons Resort have embarked on renovations too.
A newcomer needs a hook, and Andalucia has many. The first for me was a $195 introductory rate that included an upgrade to a junior suite, space permitting. Room 215 was probably the least desirable of the hotel's 20 suites -- on a low floor, its sole window overlooking the valet station -- but on a rainy weekend I appreciated the small living room.
The hotel's interior evokes a comfortable Spanish-style home, a casa grande of handsome ironwork and carefully crafted corbels. Thematic decor can come off as garish or gimmicky, but the Andalucia's design is wisely muted. Its personality emerges from details such as the intricate stenciling on the ceiling and above archways, all hand-painted in rich golds and reds.
My only complaint came early Saturday morning when my hibernation was interrupted by a shrieking baby in the adjacent room. The front desk suggested I switch rooms for the next night. Hours later -- after my bag already was packed -- a clerk said the party next door was checking out, and I didn't need to move after all. Before I could get grumpy, though, the optimistic sheep shearer of "Lemons" sprang back into my mind; throughout the weekend I began to view unexpected roadblocks as serendipity.
Case in point: When I checked in at 10:30 p.m. Friday, a desk clerk said my late dining options were Denny's and Carrows. Searching for something more satisfying, I found L'Ombretta, a Venetian wine bar on Chapala Street that opened in September.
Andrea and Susanne Gros serve 130 wines by the glass (more than 200 by the bottle) and a long menu of small plates until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Wild boar prosciutto and fish flown in from Venice are among the specialties. In a phone interview later, Andrea said, without a hint of pompousness, that comparing local sea bass to his imported blue-nose variety was like racing "a Geo Metro against a Ferrari."
I tried an aromatic baked tomato stuffed with rice and herbs, then Niman Ranch pork loin crusted in fresh fennel and garlic and served with white polenta. I'm not sure how those translate into cars, but I'd drive either again.
I tested the Hotel Andalucia's restaurant the next afternoon. Michael Reardon, formerly executive chef at Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, developed a menu that included a hearty penne dish that I liked, full of caramelized winter squash and crunchy anchovy bread crumbs.
Tempted by the subsiding showers, that night I set out on foot toward a third new restaurant on De La Vina Street, a decent taco joint called Los Gallos that had been praised in the Santa Barbara press. Halfway there, of course, a sprinkling of rain turned into a waterfall from the heavens, and one miscalculated jump from a curb landed me ankle-deep in water. "What would the sheep shearer do?" I wondered. Ditch his umbrella and walk in the rain, pleased that he could trudge through any puddle and not possibly get wetter.
So that's what I did.
In fact, no amount of rain could spoil the weekend.