It was March 2022. The pandemic lingered on, although conditions had certainly improved since early in the year. Still, international travel was spotty and, for many destinations, hassle-filled. Therefore, for a week away in spring, we decided, once again, to stay in the U.S. We had several domestic destinations on our list to visit, but many of those were still emerging out of winter, and we needed some sunshine and warmth, so we settled on California. Palm Springs and Santa Barbara were our two choices, but the ocean was calling.
The “American Riviera” town of Santa Barbara it would be.
With a destination chosen, we set about researching a place to stay and decided that Santa Barbara’s geography would dictate the decision: Did we want to be beachside? In the heart of town? Or up in the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains that surround Santa Barbara? Although the ocean drew us to Santa Barbara, most of the best oceanfront hotels in Santa Barbara are resorts that seemed a little isolated for our taste. The same was true for our top choice up in the hills; we would have a car, but our goal when traveling is typically to stay out of the car and explore on foot or on two wheels. With those factors in mind, we went with our city pick: Palihouse, a 24-room hotel situated in Santa Barbara’s historic Presidio neighborhood.
Quintessentially Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is recognized for its Spanish colonial revival architecture; its sophisticated but laid-back attitude; its proximity to the ocean, to the wine country of the central coast, and to Los Angeles; and, of course, it’s weather: warm, sunny days and cool mornings and evenings. To us, Palihouse embodied many of these features and, as a consequence, felt very place-based.
The hotel itself is comprised of several individual structures that surround two lovely courtyards. Against an almost-always blue sky, the white stucco walls, red-tiled roofs and iron railings of Palihouse provided a postcard-like view from almost any spot in the hotel. Our room – like all in the hotel – had both a fireplace and a balcony, and we’ll admit, on a few occasions, to having the double-doors to the balcony wide open while simultaneously enjoying the warmth and glow of the fireplace.
The courtyard off the reception and bar area, which we overlooked from our room, had a central fountain with umbrella-covered tables along with couches and chairs suited for lounging. Throughout the day, guests could be found having a coffee or a cocktail, chatting with friends or reading. The second courtyard was home to a lovely small pool, which was reportedly kept at 86 degrees – warm enough for just about any day. The attentive staff was always busy assisting guests, but no one ever seemed hassled or in a hurry, and our requests always received quick responses.
During our stay, one of our favorite rituals was walking into and out of the hotel property through the back entrance where we would almost always see a few small lizards sunning themselves on the sidewalk (one of which we could recognize because of its half-tail) before walking in between two historic buildings to emerge into the grounds of the Presidio. This route made the hotel feel like part of the historic monument itself.
Room No. 3
The hotel began as the Santa Barbara School of the Arts in the 1920s and, immediately before becoming the Palihouse, was the Spanish Garden Inn. In fact, we found the hotel through a London Telegraph article that pointed us to the Spanish Garden. In March 2021, the Palisociety group opened the hotel after completing all new interiors throughout the property, which Palihouse describes as an aesthetic that blends “vintage preppy” with “American Riviera.” That design – however one would describe it – was clearly articulated and cohesive throughout the hotel, and elements from individual rooms carried through to the common areas, which happened to be some of our favorite spaces.
Our room was spacious and, with the exception of the bathroom and entry, bright. One of our favorite features was the two soft chairs that sat just inside the balcony. With the doors wide open, we could enjoy the view from the balcony while still having the privacy of sitting in our room. In addition to the already-noted fireplace, the room also featured a big, comfortable bed with Frette linens and a Nespresso machine (although we wouldn’t have put the coffee in the bathroom).
Perhaps because the hotel was not purpose-built, a few elements in our room did feel a little awkward, and one or two choices didn’t fit with the rest of the generally well-executed rooms. First, the room wasn’t effectively set up for stays of more than a few days. The closet was spacious – and the staff cheerfully delivered a bag full of additional hangers – but the quite-small chest of drawers inside the closet wasn’t enough to allow us to properly unpack. (For the record, we were there for a week but only brought a carry-on suitcase each, so we didn’t need vast amounts of storage.) Additionally the bathroom, which we’ll admit was our least favorite part of the room, didn’t have any towel racks and only a few hooks. From a sustainability perspective, we aren’t guests who need or want fresh towels every day, but we didn’t have anywhere to hang wet towels or washcloths, so we took to draping them over the tub. The bathroom itself was dark, and the shower and toilet, which were in a separate “closet” from the tub and sink, felt cavelike; a glass window between the shower and the tub only partially mitigated the challenge. Perhaps if the fixtures of the bathroom had been of higher quality, the feeling would have been different, but the soaking tub was plastic, and the faucet was loose. The vanity for the sink didn’t have any storage for toiletries, and it was clear that an older piece had been spruced up by covering it with a pleated fabric drape rather than bringing in a new vanity, sink and counter-top.
Other smaller quibbles related to visible extension cords, burned out light bulbs, and oddly placed art, which may have been from Santa Barbara’s vibrant arts community, but seemed oddly commercial and not in keeping with the rest of the hotel’s interior design. Finally, in our room, the placement of the full-sized Smeg refrigerator right at the front door made for an oddly tight entrance. (We did happen to walk by a few other rooms when the front door was open, and the refrigerator placement seemed unique to our room.)
The Palisociety brand is unstuffy and fun, and from what we can see the hotel facilitates fun by encouraging cocktail/wine/beer consumption. Upon arriving in our room, we were invited to enjoy a half-bottle of prosecco “while getting settled in.” The room’s refrigerator was stocked with all of the cold necessities for crafting any cocktail, and what wasn’t in the refrigerator was in a bedside tray. Of course, while on holiday, who really wants to make their own drink? This is especially true when the hotel offers a complimentary cocktail hour many nights (we never quite figured out the logic of what nights featured a cocktail hour and what nights didn’t) where anything on the menu – or off the menu – was on offer. And during hours when the bar was closed, we also had access to an honor bar off the main courtyard. Let’s just say, we definitely didn’t go thirsty during our stay.
All in all, Palihouse Santa Barbara was a good choice for our week-long stay in Santa Barbara. We loved the quiet neighborhood that was close to so much we wanted to see. The staff were genuinely kind and helpful. The size of the hotel lent itself to an intimate and cozy vibe without feeling too inn-like where everyone knew everyone else’s comings and goings. And we loved the inside/outside spaces.
Would we add Palihouse to the list of our top hotel stays? Probably not this time around. We tend not to put “value” high on our list when assessing a hotel, but we will say that Palihouse was as expensive or more so than some of our favorites, and we don’t think it quite stacks up, even when considering that Santa Barbara is a costly destination and we were traveling during a peak week. This feeling was reinforced when, after returning home, we got a second credit card charge from the hotel. After calling to inquire, we learned that although we had paid for our room upon check-in, this additional charge, which was not negligible, was for the daily resort fee. We would certainly call Palihouse a lovely small hotel but not a resort.
- Palihouse Santa Barbara in the downtown Presidio historic district
- Our stay: 7 nights, March 19 – 26, 2022
- Room: deluxe king, #3
Where we ate, what we did:
Eating and drinking:
- Handlebar Coffee, downtown
- Dune Coffee, Anacapa Street
Beer and snacks at:
- McConnell’s, State Street (ice cream)
- Tondi Gelato
- Bettina, Montecito (chocolate chip cookies)
Outings and adventures:
- Santa Barbara Courthouse
- Walking tour of Santa Barbara waterfront
- Jeff Shelton architecture walking tour
- Central Coast Loop
- Santa Ynez
- Lompoc and tasting at The Hilt winery
- Santa Barbara mission church
- Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Van Gogh exhibit: Through Vincent’s Eyes
- Turtle viewing in the fountain off State Street (near the art museum)
- Presidio State Park
- Botanic Garden
- Art galleries of Santa Barbara
- Renegade Wines
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