Don and I recently spent one night at the Santa Maria Inn, while traveling the California coast.
This is not what we saw when we arrived. But this is what travelers in 1917 saw when they drove up on the El Camino Real. The road was dirt back then.
A green sign with gold letters, greeted us when we pulled off what is now, South Broadway. Behind the sign and fountain, stood a 6-story building and parking garage. It was part of the 164-room Santa Maria Inn.
The odd collection of old and new buildings looked very different from the quaint 24-room inn, that opened over a century ago.
1954 Ford Motor Company's Cookbook
It was our vintage cookbook that recently guided us to this historic hotel. A month before our trip, Don and I were finalizing plans for our road trip, when I grabbed the old book and flipped through the California section. I spotted the Santa Maria Inn and paused.
I did an internet search and was excited to learn that the 105 year old inn, was still in operation!
Charming... in 1954!
Don and I have made some major road trip detours, to hit some of the classic restaurants featured in our cookbook. This time we decided to make a detour for a meal AND an overnight. Fig pudding, if we were lucky!
We canceled a cute hotel in Solvang, CA and booked our Friday night at the Santa Maria. I kept fingers crossed that we wouldn't regret the decision. Reviews were questionable about the historic wing of the hotel. But how bad could it be?
Not My Usual Style
I prefer old, but the hotel's website seemed to spotlight Santa Maria's "new" addition. It was added in 1984... so not that new. I sort of cringed when I first laid eyes on the rambling complex. Not my style.
I'm sure the addition, with big picture windows was quite the thing, when it was built in the eighties. But that is not my favorite era for anything. Except for giving birth to my kids.
Frank McCoy's Inn
Luckily, I'd made it clear when I made reservations, that we wanted a room in the old building. We could see the original 2-story structure, to the right of the entrance. It looked different than the cookbook illustration. A clock tower had been added to hold an elevator. There were no vines.
The original Santa Maria Inn was the dream of Frank McCoy. Over 100 years ago, he built the Olde English-style inn, then filled it with art and surrounded it with gardens. McCoy's luxurious little inn catered to upscale travelers, needing accommodations between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The inn also became popular with movie stars, who were frequently invited to William Randolph Hearst's "Ranch". Back in those days, the 75 mile drive from Hollywood to Hearst's Castle, was more than a day's drive. Many of Hearst's guest spent a night at the inn, on their way.
After arriving, I headed for the lobby. It was in the newer section, but the brass revolving doors made me feel like I was stepping into an old hotel.
Near the lobby I spotted a photo of Walter Matthau, with the revolving doors. I'm guessing this was taken about 25 years ago, when Matthau was in the area, filming Odd Couple II. He might be the last celebrity to have visited the inn. The sweet roadside inn became less popular by 1950, when Highway 101 was built and steered travelers away. The hotel struggled for years.
The historic side of the hotel is actually said to be haunted. However, the lobby in the "newer" wing, attempted some haunted creepiness, with Halloween decor.
The lurking character on the left, was a little annoying with his ghoulish schtick. (I kept getting too close and triggering his voice) Sometimes I wish historic hotels would skip the cobwebs and skeletons. They get in the way of my photos. But mostly, it was an eerie odor that was a bit unsettling. What was that?
Off to Gloria's Room!
Before long we were given the key to our Gloria Swanson Suite! This old postcard image shows how the inn looked, back when stars like Ms. Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart visited.
The exterior has changed some over the years. But at least I could recognize the roofline and tile and original upper windows. The doors and windows on the first floor were hidden.
An enclosed walkway had been added to the front of the building.
We rolled our bags towards the elevator, walking past the windows and double doors, that had once been part of the hotel's exterior.
Gloria Swanson Suite
Upstairs, we wound our way down a few hallways, reading the names of different Hollywood celebrities, on each of the brass stars. I spotted maybe 20 different "star rooms", but the inn claims to have had at least 100 celebrity guests over the years.
Our corner suite was spacious, with lots of windows and a sitting area. But there were issues. My photos don't really show the worn fabrics or dingy furniture... or the unappealing odor in the room. Honestly, I'm not usually this picky. But the sour milk scent was hard to ignore.
Santa Maria rates are very reasonable, but we'd paid extra for an Executive Suite. We wanted a room with a balcony and courtyard view. We opened the doors for fresh air and took a peek.
The balcony would have been fine, if the solid, (ivy covered) wall hadn't totally blocked our view. When I stood tall and peered over, I could see a patio, with an odd covering. It was a little disappointing.
The Old View
100 years ago, the courtyard would have looked more like this.
There would have been rocking chairs on a porch and no a.c. units humming. But times change. We were just frustrated that we'd paid more and expected more.
Clark & Carol
I'm the Queen of Adapting. I rarely complain. I take pride in making the best of what I'm given. But I just wasn't up for paying extra, for a smelly room with no view. I went to the desk and spoke with the manager. Marie was very pleasant when I sort babbled about hoping for a balcony with a better view... She graciously walked with us to the Clark Gable & Carol Lombard Room to see how we liked it.
Basically we got a downgrade, which was just fine. The room was smaller and still a bit worn, but we were satisfied. We thanked Marie and stopped fretting.
Don and I do love a hotel balcony! This one was tiny, but at least we could see out, without standing.
The view was mostly a jungle of palms and some windows. But the air felt good and it was entertaining to study the old building. I think that was the Charlie Chaplin Room balcony, below.
Olde English Tap Room
It was before 5 on a Friday and I was eager to check out the Tap Room, at the far end of the building. From the exterior, we could see the fireplace chimney.
Frank McCoy added the Tap Room in 1941. It was designed to feel like an English pub. I loved the ivy covered side entrance, with the old neon sign.
Long before we entered the bar, we heard the music loud and clear. I'd seen photos on the website, with cozy couches near a fireplace. I had pictured a different vibe. My photo looks pleasant enough, but the rap music was blasting, along with TV and laughter. A lot of locals seemed to be arriving for Friday Happy Hour.
There were wonderful hints of the 1940's tavern, with classic red, tufted bar & booth seating. I spotted Gargoyles looking down from beams and the stone fireplace could have been inviting... if it hadn't been blocked by DJ equipment and more ghostly decor. We opted to let the locals enjoy the bar without us.
The weather was pretty lovely, so we headed outside to wander a bit. There was a large pool area that was nicer than we expected. Hopefully we didn't break rules. We didn't stop to read all 10 signs on the gate.
We walked across the deck, wondering where all the guests were on a Friday evening. Then we found our favorite kind of guest. Hotel Cat! Don got his cat fix.
We explored the grounds and found rose bushes and trees that were most likely on the grounds from the early years. Frank McCoy took great pride in his gardens and filled the hotel with fresh flowers.
We peeked up stairways and wondered about the rooms and the guests who once stayed.
I was curious about the age of the this crazy looking tree. I climbed onto the roots for a photo and wondered if Shirley Temple climbed any trees on the property when she came to stay.
The more we wandered, the fonder we became of this place.
I wondered if Bob Hope or Bing Crosby sipped martinis near this fountain, when they visited nearly a century ago.
We found the room named for Charlie Chaplin, with its cozy porch. I wonder what he was like as a guest. Did he make the potatoes dance at the dining table?
As we explored, we saw tables beginning to appear on the lawn. The next day there would be an event.
This property had seemed so dated and weary an hour before, but I found myself envious of the people who would later dine at these tables on the green lawn.
After exploring, we grabbed our own wine from the car and headed to our balcony.
We sat for a while enjoying the evening. I set the camera timer and we did a porch pose. Suddenly I felt like we were missing things. "Let's take our drinks and go explore some more!" I insisted.
The Coach Room?
I had noticed earlier that there was a room with lots of framed photos and history. There was a closed sign, but I chose to ignore that.
Cones and caution tape blocked off an area where tables and chairs were stacked. A giant fan was blasting away... trying to dry up a leak of some kind. Maybe it was wet carpet that created the smell that annoyed me earlier.
Old Dining Room?
We cautiously walked around the barricades and entered the room that had once been one of the dining rooms. I found a photo of it from the 1950s.
My color photo shows light fixtures that are similar to the ones in the vintage photo. We studied the colorful murals on the walls. There was a common theme. Each image featured a stagecoach.
Sipping and Strolling
Don and I meandered with our wine, studying the old photos and reading the little bits of history. I felt like we were guests at an art gallery event. Except there was no one but us. Unless you count the life size skeleton and the furry spider on the table.
Some younger guests might not be overly enthused about some of these ancient stars. It was even hard for me to recognize the earliest photos of Joan Crawford and John Wayne. The fact that Don and I are big fans of classic movies, helped.
We happily absorbed it all the faces and the trivia. Evidently Rudloph Valentino regularly haunts the inn. And Marilyn Monroe came to dine at the restaurant years ago. But she wasn't a star then. She was a child, dining with her foster parents, who lived in Santa Maria.
Up and Down
Don and I moved on from the stars... to the stairs. We found an old set that was lovely, with intriguing designs.
We wandered into the new wing and found a set of stairs that made us feel like we'd had 5 glasses of wine. The mirrors and reflective brass made me feel woozy! We wandered downstairs and around wine bar, with a bored bartender. We didn't go in.
Hints of Old
Instead we continued our search to find treasures from the past. I love it that they haven't updated much in the old section. We found a few old phone booths.
And I was pleased to find old doorknobs and hardware and woodwork.
We followed one more stairway and discovered a private patio. I'm not sure if we were supposed to hang out near the John Wayne Room, but no one seemed to be around. The doorway was intriguing with it's arched entrance.
I wish when we booked earlier, that I could have gotten more input about the various rooms. Maybe we could have asked details about some of the better rooms. The internet and the young staff, didn't seem very helpful with specifics about the different historic rooms. Next time I'll ask to speak to Marie.
Today the hotel has just one restaurant in operation. It's called The Century Room.
The restaurant looked surprisingly formal and upscale when I peeked in, before hours.
The hostess desk was vacant. I approached the cobwebbed desk and took a peek at the menu, held by another statue. Not a ghoul this time. It looked a bit pricey. We'd had a big lunch and Don was skeptical.
The restaurant looked lovely. There were no corny cobwebs or musty smells. The cozy booths and tables looked classy and the menus were appealing.
But, Don and I had been on the road, dining out for days. We had hoped for a more casual dinner that night. But, we had the darn cookbook! I reminded Don that we HAD to have a cookbook encounter, with at least someone during our stay. He looked very skeptical. "I don't see that going well." He moaned. And I knew he was right. So far, we'd met no one in the hotel who seemed liked they'd "get it" about how we use this book like a treasure map when we travel.
Glad We Dined!
We ended up going for it, with plans of paying the 6-dollar splitting fee, to share an entree. Perfect. The second we walked in the dining room, I felt like we were in a different world. There was no tacky Halloween decor and the furniture looked fresh and comfy. The only odors were delicious ones, wafting from the kitchen.
There were white tablecloths and the voice of Frank Sinatra crooning quietly. Best of all we were given the waiter I had hoped for. I'd seen him earlier, bustling around attending to diners. He looked friendly, but seemed to take his job seriously. I liked him.
No Fig Pudding
Jesus introduced himself to us with an apology. We assured him that he hadn't kept us waiting at all. I kept the cookbook under wraps and didn't ask if they served fig pudding... just yet. We let Jesus' description of the pasta special make the decision for us. We ordered some local wine and dug into the olive bread!
Jesus brought our salad, split beautifully, with separate boats of dressing. Our half orders of pasta were ample and also delicious. We ate every bite!
Jesus and the Cookbook
By the time our meal was finished, the restaurant was nearly empty. Jesus looked relaxed and happy when we complimented our meal and service. I told him we were from Texas and asked if he could guess how we heard about Santa Maria Inn.
I didn't press Jesus for an answer. Instead I pulled the book from my bag, telling him we'd never heard of the inn till a month ago. Then I opened the book to show him the illustration and Fig Pudding recipe. Before we knew it, Jesus had pulled over a busboy to take a look and then take our photo. Then he pulled out his phone. He wanted to send a photo of the 3 of us, to his daughter in Mexico. It was the perfect way to end our evening at the Santa Maria Inn.
After dinner I stepped outside to have a peek of the hotel at night. It looked peaceful on a Friday. I walked around to see if the neon cocktail sign was lit. Sadly it was not.
Then I glanced inside the old tavern and the music was actually softer and more inviting. The DJ had started up and he nodded with a pleasant smile when I looked his way. Then I headed upstairs to give my last report to Don. I chuckled as I used the old chain on our door. We slept well.
We checked out by 10 and headed off on one quick adventure, to complete our Santa Maria Experience. We drove not far to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. We'd read about Cecil B. DeMille filming the silent version of the epic, The Ten Commandments at the Dunes, in 1923. He stayed at the inn during that period.
I tried to imagine the massive pieces of scenery he created. Up to 12 stories high! I pictured the director and his crew and actors heading back exhausted, to relax at the inn.
When the film was completed it was too costly to remove the giant sphinx head and all the scenery. DeMill had the pieces buried in the dunes.
We tried to visit the Dune Center which exhibits many of the remains that were excavated in the 1980's. Sadly the place was closed on Saturday. That means... we must return!
Our stay at the Inn was indeed memorable! The Santa Maria may not be the most classy hotel we've every enjoyed, but it was defiantly a classic! After our shaky start, the place absolutely grew on us.
The historic section is obviously what we loved... flaws and all. But the modern, upscale dining experience was a huge highlight of our stay. I'd say we made good use both the old and new.
Special thanks to Marie and Jesus for making our stay extra nice!
My New Year's Resolution for 2014 was to start documenting some of the memorable overnights I've had in some very odd and curious motels and hotels. Like the adventures in my Dining Blog, I have learned to enjoy the surprises that happen when you step out of the comfort zone, far away from the well-known chains.
I began with a few entries recalling my very first home away from home memories from my youth. Then, I started sharing about some of the quirky and unforgettable motels, hotels and inns that my husband and I have discovered in recent years.
The best part about this challenge was making some lists with Don and getting on the road in search of new overnight adventures. I gave myself a 2-year goal to write up 90 stories and the goal was met. Now we just keep on adding!