Cyclists ride on Stearns Wharf at sunset in Santa Barbara. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Santa Barbara — I pulled aside the curtain and peered out the motel window. Palm trees swayed gently in the breeze. A cyclist pedaled along the oceanfront. Beyond him, the Pacific stretched out calm and blue as far as the eye could see.
Nice view, I thought, given that my room rate was $79. Especially considering that I was in Santa Barbara, where hotel tariffs usually fetch a king's ransom. And my overnight stay even included a hearty free breakfast.
Impossible, you say? Not with our travel-secret guide to Santa Barbara. Our penny-pinching tips for a winter's respite include five great little motels where you can stay for $100 or less, 10 awesome cheap-eats restaurants where you can dine for $10 or less and 15 free or low-cost things to do to keep you and the family deliriously happy.
Now you can spend a few days in Santa Barbara pretending you're part of the platinum-credit card crowd. Just don't let anyone know how little of your hard-earned cash you're actually spending. (All locations are in Santa Barbara unless noted otherwise.)
5 hotels under $100
(Rates will increase in the spring)
1. Agave Inn
If you're looking for a cool and casual vibe, the Agave should be at the top of your list, along with its nearby sister property, the Presidio. Both Midcentury Modern motels have been redone as boutique hipster haunts and offer a breath of fresh air in this sleepy city. The Agave, about a mile north of downtown Santa Barbara, features Mexican pop colors and décor. Its 13 rooms are small but stylish, with comfortable beds, flat-screen TVs, free use of bicycles and continental breakfast.
3222 State St.; (805) 687-6009, http://www.agaveinnsb.com
Weekday rates from $79; weekend rates from $99
2. Blue Sands Motel
This 11-room motel a half a block from the beach will roll out the grass carpet if you're traveling with a canine companion, and it's one of only a few dog-friendly places we found in the super-budget category. Small pool, tidy rooms, free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Some rooms have been nicely upgraded with gas fireplaces and tile baths, but you'll pay extra.
421 S. Milpas St.; (805) 965-1624, http://www.thebluesands.com
Weekday rates from $79; weekend rates from $129
3. Cabrillo Inn at the Beach
Location, location, location. We had to blink twice when we found this deal. The Cabrillo, which has been in the same family since 1976, is oceanfront, offers a free continental breakfast and has prices that start as low as $79. The 40 rooms are plain-Jane but clean and efficient, and there's a heated pool and landscaped patio.
931 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; (800) 648-6708, http://www.cabrillo-inn.com
Weekday rates from $79; weekend rates from $119
4. Presidio Motel
The 16-room Presidio, more than a half-century old, was transformed by the team of Chris Sewell and Kenny Osehan, who sought out art students to add playful murals to the walls of each room. Like its sister property, the Agave, rooms are small but clean and chic with comfortable beds, flat-screen TVs, free use of bicycles and continental breakfast. Close to downtown.
1620 State St.; (805) 963-1355, http://www.thepresidiomotel.com
Weekday rates from $79; weekend rates from $110
5. The Sandman Inn
This 112-room motel in uptown Santa Barbara advertises "a tradition of value for over 50 years," and few would argue. It has the most attractive grounds of any of the hotels in our budget category, with 41/2 acres of trees, vines and lovely landscaped pool areas. Rooms are efficient and clean; continental breakfast, flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi are included.
Weekday rates from $85; weekend rates from $100
3714 State St.; (805) 687-2468, http://www.thesandmaninn.com
10 restaurants for $10 or less
1. Breakwater Restaurant
You'll find lots of tropical-paradise ambiance at this patio restaurant overlooking the Santa Barbara yacht harbor. Try the Breakwater for breakfast (or later in the day) and watch power boats and sailboats bobbing in the water just beyond your table. Nice atmosphere on the patio, booth seating indoors. Omelets, egg dishes, salads and sandwiches available for less than $10.
107 Harbor Way; (805) 965-1557, http://www.breakwatersb.com. Tab: $4.95-$12.95.
2. East Beach Grill
This laid-back coastal winner sits right on the sand in a converted historic building, the Cabrillo Bath House. It's basically a beach café with a walk-up counter and a forever-and-a-day view that encompasses the Channel Islands. Extremely popular at breakfast; ride a bike or walk to avoid parking problems. Sandwiches, burgers, omelets.
1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd.; (805) 965-8805. Tab: $4-$11
3. Gelson's Market
Not much atmosphere here, but the deli, the Wolfgang Puck Express, has great picnic potential. Choose from pizzas, oven-baked sandwiches, breakfast items, pastas (we like the Pennette Bolognese and Caesar salad side for $7.99), as well as grab-and-go sandwiches. Then visit a beautiful beach or park.