Opened in September, the 121-room Hotel Californian is a gateway to a revived Santa Barbara waterfront. It’s also a do-over: one of its three buildings sits on the site of the original Hotel Californian, which was destroyed, two weeks after opening, by a 1925 earthquake. The property changed hands and fell into disrepair in the 1990s. In 2011, a new owner acquired the hotel, kept the four-story facade, which offers sweeping views of Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean, and reimagined everything else. A Moroccan design scheme by the Hollywood interior decorator Martin Lawrence Bullard differentiates Hotel Californian from the hacienda-style resorts that dot the Southern California coast. The property’s lawn and plaza provide prime venues for sunbathing and people watching, and the city is returning to normal after wildfires and mudslides wreaked havoc on the region.
The hotel’s three buildings cluster around the corner of State and Mason Streets. Walk one block west and you’ll reach the beach, Fisherman’s Wharf and a jogging and biking path that hugs the shore. Two blocks north of the hotel is the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara’s burgeoning arts district with galleries, restaurants, and more than 20 wine-tasting rooms. The Santa Barbara Amtrak station is a seven-minute walk from the hotel and offers direct service to and from Los Angeles (generally a two and a half-hour ride).
Most rooms at the Hotel Californian come with one king bed; my mother and I, visiting midweek in November, were able to reserve one of the few double queen rooms with a view. It wasn’t the best — those go to the suites that face the beach — but our spacious third-floor room had a veranda with armchairs from which to watch ducks on a greenish creek. The interior was lavishly decorated with oil-rubbed bronze lamps and patterned tile — the hotel imported more than one million pieces from Morocco — but some accents, like the brass snakes above the bed, verged on garish. USB ports by the beds offered an easy way to charge devices; other in-room gadgetry proved more difficult. The Nespresso coffee machine was maddeningly difficult to master, even though I use a similar model at home, and ejected every other espresso capsule without dispensing anything.
Laser-cut panels framed the shower, furthering the Moroccan theme, and while the shower stall was large enough, given the considerable floor space, the lack of a bathtub was curious. The double sinks and marble countertops left plenty of space for our toiletries. The best part of the bathroom: the plush, microfiber bathrobes by the Italian manufacturer La Bottega.
Only one of the hotel’s buildings has a lobby staffed 24/7 (ours was unmanned after dark; key cards unlocked the door to the street). Every room has a flat-screen television, and the hotel provides complimentary Wi-Fi, bottles of water and Nespresso capsules. A small gym on the ground floor of the Californian building has up-to-date machines and can be accessed anytime with a key card, and a pool, firepit and pool loungers line the fourth floor rooftop. There are also lounge areas in the ground floor, Turkish-themed spa. Rendered in Moroccan blue, it offers an array of treatments.
The executive chef Alexander La Motte, who previously worked at Thomas Keller’s Napa Valley landmark, the French Laundry and his New York mainstay, Per Se, elevates beach-adjacent dining throughout the property. The airy, market-style cafe Goat Tree offers inspired breakfast entrees such as shakshuka, a Middle Eastern dish of baked eggs. For dinner, a finer dining restaurant, Blackbird, serves artfully plated riffs on Mediterranean fare, like figs with za’atar and burrata. The hotel’s room service menu offers a more standard assortment of burgers, salads and sandwiches.
The Bottom Line
A trendy upgrade of the standard California coastal resort, the property straddles the line between downtown hot spot and beachside getaway. With a wide variety of amenities and things to eat, time here is best spent outside the room.
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