Casa Del Mar Inn – Santa Barbara, CA

Oct. 14, 2008

The Mediterranean style scenery of Santa Barbara, CA, is hardly a hidden travel secret. Fresh air, clean beaches, lush gardens, and ocean vistas are all part of the draw to the area often referred to as the American Riviera. I’ve been a longtime fan.

Northbound on Hwy 101, I dropped onto the beachfront drive and passed the taller, wider, larger resorts that dot the coast. There’s no question that a Pacific Ocean view from a room is nice, but sometimes turning inland can lead to a hidden lodging treasure with a price tag that won’t convert a wallet into shredded leather.

Casa Del Mar Inn sits on Bath St., just a short stroll from the beach. A cluster of one and two story buildings, it blends into the neighborhood unobtrusively and beautifully with its Spanish architecture, tiled roof, and palm trees – the quintessential Santa Barbara structure.

Not on my own for this trip, I arrived as a party of four – two of us on two feet apiece and the other two on four paws each. This made Casa del Mar especially appealing, as it’s one of several pet-friendly lodging establishments in the area.

Conveniently, a ground floor room off the courtyard was available and we moved right in. With soft blue décor, modern furnishings, plush bedding, an alcove sitting area, writing desk, fridge, microwave, coffeemaker, wifi, and private bath, we were set.

We arrived in time to enjoy the inn’s wine and cheese buffet, served from 5 to 7 pm. Though state law precludes our four-pawed guests from entering the dining area itself, a table and chairs on the front patio allowed us to share crackers and milk bones together. Over these treats we debated our dinner options, settling—at the suggestion of the front desk—on Louie’s California Bistro.

The Santa Barbara area in general is restrictive about areas where dogs are allowed, especially when food prep and service is part of the deal. Yet options still remain available, sometimes by thin technicalities, such as a patio area with tables alongside a railing. Inside the railing is a food service area by definition; outside the railing is not part of the same area. The distance between these distinctive locations: a few inches. This is the recipe for dining with pooches on a getaway in this particular city.

Louie’s is housed in the historic Upham Hotel, a short distance from Casa Del Mar Inn. The ground floor restaurant has an elegant interior dining room but also offers a few patio tables, nicely set with linen tablecloths and sprigs of fresh flowers. The varied menu allowed us to order Grilled Salmon with Beurre Blanc on one side of the table and Cheese Ravioli with Artichoke Hearts and Sun-Dried Tomatoes on the other. Numerous salad and dessert choices were also available. And it wasn’t too difficult to slip a few dog biscuits alongside the railing.

Human-only parties might have lingered over Tiramisu or “Banana a la Louie” before returning to the inn for a soak in the courtyard jacuzzi. We opted to take the dogs on a stroll along the warm, breezy oceanfront sidewalk just around the corner from the inn – not a bad way to enjoy a few of Santa Barbara’s finest amenities: fresh salt air and sound of the crashing waves.

Over a complimentary buffet breakfast the following morning, consumed on the patio, we allowed our canine companions to choose the day’s activities. There was no indecision there; they knew exactly where they were taking us. We packed our belongings, checked out, and let them lead the way.

Dogs love open spaces and when it comes to filling that bill, 70,000 acres is a pretty good place to start. We cruised up Cliff Drive and over to the Douglas Family Preserve, formerly known as the Wilcox property, having housed the Wilcox nursery from 1949 to 1972. Through dedicated fund-raising efforts by Santa Barbara residents, the scenic bluff area overlooking the Pacific Ocean was saved from a variety of proposed developments including a residential tract, luxury hotel, and retirement community. A sizeable contribution by actor Michael Douglas led to its name.

Not only is the Douglas Family Preserve dog-friendly, but much of the preserve is leash-free, which makes it a favorite haunt for dog owners and their faithful companions. To add even more temptation, a leash-free portion of sand for oceanside romps waits just below the bluffs, accessed through Arroyo Burro Beach, known by many locals as Hendry’s Beach.

A trip to Santa Barbara probably wouldn’t be complete without a little meandering down State St. Aside from the draw of the many shops and galleries, our bluff and beach adventures had left us with an appetite. Homemade soup and fresh baked bread at The Natural Café came to our rescue. The café filled the wide variety of our particular needs – vegetarian food, non-vegetarian food, and “rail side” canine patio seating.

Scenic coastal vistas, Mediterranean-style architecture and landscaping, mouth-pleasing and stomach-satisfying cuisine, open spaces, and fresh air all added up to an excellent trip. There’s far more to do in Santa Barbara than can fit into a short visit. The Santa Barbara Mission, the area’s wineries, a pier walk at Stearns Wharf, State Street’s farmer’s market… those would have to wait for another time.