Cheapest Best Place on the Coast

Los Angeles Times Travel
July 23, 1995

MONTECITO, Calif.

On this weekend trip to Santa Barbara we wanted to stay right at the beach, spend less money than usual and give Sean somewhere safe to expend her 5-year-old energy. We found it all, at an unexpected place.

On the drive up we stopped for provisions at Seaside Banana Ranch, our favorite ocean-view rest stop in La Conchita, the little Ventura County community where homes were inundated last winter by an oozing mountain of mud. The exotic banana groves seemed unharmed and we picked up some stubby green Brazilian and ice cream varieties, as well as a bag of blood oranges and tropical guavas.

Then it was back on U.S. 101 for the last leg to San Ysidro Road in Montecito. If cost were no object we would have steered inland through the oak-covered hills to the secluded San Ysidro Ranch. Instead, we hooked left across the highway and onto the frontage road where our compromise destination awaited, bathed in freeway noise.

Like anyone who has driven the coast route all their lives, we have noticed the Miramar Resort Hotel's blue-shingled roofs and formed an opinion. We figured it was probably worn-out and depressing. But friends who stayed there recently by chance -- it had vacancies on a busy holiday weekend -- said it was worth taking a chance, so we did.

First thing we discovered is that the Miramar is more of a complex than a hotel. Rooms and cottages spread over 15 landscaped acres laced with paths, driveways and a street. Next thing we noticed is that the grounds are cheerful and attractive, with flower-lined walkways and lawns, tall palms and stately eucalyptus that look old enough to have been planted shortly after the hotel was established in the 1880s.

The Miramar's landmark blue roofs sit atop the crisply painted white cottages, which have as many as four bedrooms, some with fireplaces and kitchenettes. Rack rate for these ranges from $125 to $315 a night with a two-night minimum in warm months. Our newer motel-style room in a building across Miramar Avenue from the main cottages cost $90 a night with a view of mountains and a pristine blue pool.

Given its age and low rates by Santa Barbara beach standards, we expected the room to be tired. We were pleasantly surprised to find firm queen beds and furnishings. Still, the decor is basic cottage cheese -- large curd on the ceilings, small curd on the walls. A sliding louvered door separates the main room from the sink and dressing area, and there is no door between the dressing area and the bathroom, so privacy is not something you should count on.

Each morning the sky turned to overcast by 11 a.m., but Sean still found the smaller pool by our room warm enough to swim in. At other times of day, she played on the mostly private beach a short walk away and enjoyed the swing sets on a lawn beside the four tennis courts. We checked out shuffleboard and Ping-Pong gear from the clubhouse for 75 cents each.

We had been warned about the Miramar's most notable feature: noise. Not just from the freeway, but from Amtrak and freight trains that rumble through the grounds about half a dozen times a day. And night. The trains are such a fixture that the times for the regular Amtrak runs are posted in every room.

The freeway noise didn't bother us -- even when we sat around the pool, the roar faded into the background the way a breaking surf does. More annoying were the mysterious phone calls that woke us twice the first night and again on the second night. The callers, inexplicably, were looking for phone numbers. Once we figured out why they reached us, I would pick up the phone blurting instructions about dialing 9 to get an outside line, and vow never again to accept the keys to room 411.

The rumble of the trains would probably be a large bother only in the $145-a-night rooms that face the beach, only a few dozen feet away from the tracks. For Sean, though, the trains were an amusement.

The tracks must be crossed to reach the beach and are open territory for exploring. Her favorite souvenir of the weekend is a smashed penny put out on the tracks one night and retrieved the next morning. Some parents may feel the unguarded track crossing is a hazard. Although the trains pass at less than top speed and a warning bell sounds, children should be watched around the rails.

The Miramar has turned the trains into a plus. At the main pedestrian crossing the hotel has erected a replica of a flag station that greeted guests who arrived by railroad around the turn of the century. Beside the tracks an old Amtrak dining car has been turned into a coffee shop, serving breakfast and light lunches inside or on a deck outside.

We didn't want to spend the entire weekend at the Miramar, so for our first dinner we drove to Pane e Vino, the older sister to the hyper-Hollywood hangout on Beverly Boulevard. We like the Los Angeles version, and this room in a casual shopping center in upper Montecito is smaller, more intimate and even more enjoyable.

The next day, friends joined us for several hours at the Santa Barbara Zoo, gawking at otters and elephants and riding the train that circles the grounds. After the zoo we drove to Alameda Park, at the corner of Garden and Micheltorena streets in the northern section of Santa Barbara, to check out a special playground we'd heard about from an architect friend.

Kid's World is an awesome paradise of warrens, slides and ramps, and it was packed with screaming, giggling children at play. Built by 4,000 volunteers over four days in November, 1993, it's worth a detour if the kiddies are bored with sightseeing. We capped the afternoon with a late lunch of soft tacos and quesadillas at La Super Rica, the popular stand on Milpas Street regarded by some as home of the best Mexican food in Southern California.

The next morning we tried the Miramar's sunny dining room overlooking the main pool. Ferns hang from the ceiling, and we watched one man, a lone diner, battle the runner that tickled the back of his neck throughout breakfast. In fact, the dining room is the only serious complaint we have about the Miramar. Our servers never did catch on that Judy was drinking decaf, and the kitchen had trouble producing a soft-boiled egg. At dinner that night, the limp green salad came drenched in bottled dressing and covered with packaged croutons. Entrees were of the prime rib and broiled chicken variety, the vegetables over-boiled and the wine menu limited to house white or red even though we later saw more choices on the room service menu.

With a bit more care and attention to quality -- better coffee, an updated menu, flourishes such as warm genuine maple syrup instead of the cold, thick artificial ooze -- the dining room would help entice us to return. On the other hand, among the few patrons were regulars who seemed to like the Miramar just the way it is.

Sean spent her last morning exploring Stearns Wharf, the city's landmark wooden pier. She watched brown pelicans do battle with fishermen, and held crabs and starfish in the tide-pool tank at the Sea Center, a marine museum on the wharf. But she reserved her greatest praise for the Miramar, and we knew we'd probably be back: "This is a fun hotel!"

© Los Angeles Times 1995