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California Hotel Boom

The rooms are huge, spare, and eerily spiritual, with Stickley-style furniture and excellent reproductions of Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps. Japanese wood-block prints, framed in oak, hang by thick leather straps from a picture rail. William Morris wallpaper and ocher marble worthy of some swish London club make for rather luxurious bathrooms. No terry cloth here; instead, you get a Craftsman-inspired homespun robe. The tissue holder is Craftsman-style. The wastebasket is Craftsman-style. In the event of an earthquake, you evacuate following instructions in a Craftsman-style frame. After a while it all begins to seem normal.

The restaurant, A. R. Valentien, is small, like a fin de siècle tearoom, and there isn't a design misstep, down to the bread plates with the feathered glaze of old Fulper tiles. You'll wish you were wearing a crushed-velvet cape. Executive chef Jeff Jackson, formerly of Shutters on the Beach, produces very good food, and the service is attentive and unflagging. So many on staff! There was the person who brought the amuse-bouche (halibut mousse and beet purée on toast), the person who introduced me to the bread ("Tonight we are serving country bread..."), the person who ladled the white-corn soup (with a little disk of black-truffle flan), the person who served the roasted ivory salmon, the person who gathered my crumbs. Yet, hooray, they knew when to back off: you pepper your food yourself.

In the spa you get acquainted with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish Art Nouveau master whose snow-white interiors shocked Glaswegians out of their grimy Victorian row houses a century ago. It's so ethereal, unlike any spa you've ever seen—what other locker room has an inglenook?The steel Art Nouveau fireplace and the iridescent mosaic-tile floor may make you forget what you're here for: a wide selection of water-based treatments as well as several signature extravaganzas that run more than two hours.

What an odd style to have picked for a luxurious modern resort. The Arts and Crafts movement had its origins in Bible-thumping and homilies extolling humility. For a long time it was considered the essence of dreariness; some people still look at it and think, electric chair. But today it is the height of fashion once again, especially in California. Its message of the simple life, wrought in straight backs and oak slats and the mark of the chisel, seems terribly romantic now. If you're going to live the simple life, it's nice to know that every creature comfort has been quietly taken care of.


Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara is an oceanfront strip like oceanfront strips everywhere, with a fishing pier and a parade of motels. Oceana used to be one of those motels—in fact, four of them—which trailed down the busy street and around little courtyards and gardens. Two years ago, they were unified into a single property by the owners of another Oceana, in Santa Monica, and the interior designer Kathryn Ireland—no, not the model Kathy Ireland. This Ireland is known for dreamy fabrics in stonewashed reds, blues, and yellows; they have a sunbaked feeling that captures this Mediterranean climate beautifully. You can practically smell sage and chaparral just looking at them.

In some ways Oceana is still motel material rather than a luxurious resort. But the 122 rooms are cheerful and much more stylish than the average in Santa Barbara. There's nothing in them you're not happy to look at. I just couldn't get that yellow-checked bedstead out of my mind, or the artwork of pressed flowers, or the staff in shirts run up in Ireland fabrics. The rooms vary widely in both age and feeling. Among the better bets are those in Building Five, some overlooking a pretty courtyard, others, on the second floor, with views of the small swimming pool and the ocean.

Oceana has a strong following among young couples from L.A., who come here to go sea kayaking and mountain biking. You might find a room of similar size in Santa Barbara for less, but if you look for style wherever you go, this is where you'll want to be.
Doubles from $155. 202 W. Cabrillo Blvd.; 800/965-9776 or 805/965-4577; www.hoteloceana.com

The new Ambrose, in a modest residential area of Santa Monica, is another temple to Arts and Crafts style, with the same mossy color palette and dark woods as the Lodge at Torrey Pines but a younger point of view, more urban and Asian. It's a little like a Japanese ryokan.

Organic is the word here: the continental breakfast (included in the price) is organic; the wines are organic; the mini-bar offerings are organic. There's no restaurant, but 24-hour room service is offered from the kitchen of local restaurateur Celestino Drago. And although the location isn't glamorous, it's convenient and blissfully quiet, and quite nice to come home to. There are just 77 rooms, all much larger than in the average boutique hotel, but also 27 room types, with those on the top floor having higher ceilings. Some are oddly shaped, so don't take the first one you're given unless you're certain it's right. The rest is easy: What could be cozier than hanging your clothes in a Craftsman armoire impressed with ginkgo leaves, climbing into a big, deep Craftsman bed, and sipping a Virtual Buddha Elixir?Makes you want to curl up with an illuminated manuscript.
Doubles from $150. 1255 20th St.; 877/262-7673 or 310/315-1555; www.ambrosehotel.com


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