The pandemic spurred an even greater love for far-flung destinations away from city life. These areas breathe air/life back into your soul and quite frankly, they may not have been on your radar until the pandemic.
The great California Road Trip is having a bit of a renaissance and the Golden State features hundreds of unique escapes. We went on the road and off the beaten path in search of unique road-trip-worthy hotels. Our travels went by quickly in a newly redesigned 2022 Buick Enclave, a premium SUV that’s great for road trips with the space, comfort, safety, and efficiency needed for a long journey. For your next adventure, plan your travels around one of these reimagined California hotels.
Cuyama Buckhorn in New Cuyama
New Cuyama is an area in east Santa Barbara County where most might have never considered venturing – until this 1952 retro roadside motel was reimagined, spurring the area as the next best bucolic getaway. Nestled in The Hidden Valley of Enchantment, restored Cuyama Buckhorn is the sort of destination retreat you not only make as an overnight pitstop but to get away from it all for a long weekend.
Situated right off the iconic Highway 166 at the border of Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Kern, and Santa Barbara counties, this rustic retreat – surrounded by wide open spaces and breathtaking scenery – is where you venture to unwind. Guests can relax at the pool, play lawn games, or take an oversized hot tub dip under the stars on cool desert nights. It’s easy to cozy up at the communal fire pits around the grounds for ‘smores or savor local small-batch sparkling Mead on your private patio. (At nearby Blue Sky Center the Cuyama Beverage Co makes Mead with flavors like Sage Honey and JUJU-Bee). A barrel sauna near the pool even affords sunset views from inside.
You don’t need to go far to eat Santa Maria Style BBQ and wagyu burgers served on-site at The Buckhorn Restaurant, where the pastoral golden mountains have been in view from the diner since it was established in 1952. The popular Buckhorn Bar is like its name – filled with buck heads lining the walls – a lively establishment with hefty whiskey and Mezcal selections, where locals and motel guests mingle over some bites.
Upon check-in, a welcome iced Canyon Coffee blend was made for us at The Buck Stop and a bag of s’mores greeted us bedside. The revitalized rooms with modern farm-style decor feature details like vintage hats hung on the wall and Cowboy Poetry bedside. Tesla and EV owners will appreciate the chargers right on site.
Sixty years ago, this area was founded as a booming oil town, followed by organic farming – the baby carrot was invented here in 1984 as the core of the carrots is whittled down. Today visitors who choose to spend time here will be charmed with nearby discoveries. Consider some of our favorite finds close to the hotel – driving through Cottonwood Canyon’s rolling yellow wildflower hills with cows and buzzing crickets, hiking up Aliso Canyon for sprawling views of the area, and wine tasting at rural unrefined Sagebrush Annie’s with the 88-year-old owner who produces some of the best cabernets in Santa Barbara County (and where the first vine was planted in 1982).
One of our most memorable outings was feeding goats at Cuyama Oaks Ranch where pigs, dogs, turkeys, and chickens happily coexist. Fresh eggs can be taken home while visitors can rent a glamping yurt or pull up a trailer, car, or RV on this enchanting piece of rural land that consists of 82 acres with 360-degree mountain views. Other adventures to be had in the area include horseback riding at Hidden Creek Ranch and bird gazing at Bitter Creek Wildlife Refuge since the area is a foraging habitat for the endangered California Condor.
What made this trip even more special was the drive to arrive at New Cuyama from Malibu. After a lunch stop in Ojai at French Lebanese Ojai Roti (Try the rotisserie-style chicken with grilled Lebanese flatbread and roasted potatoes with lemon pepper aioli), the road winds and spirals through green majestic mountainous Los Padres National Forest (on the 33). As your car careens into tunnels and you hear only birdsong when you hop out for a photo, the green land seems to sweep on forever while sometimes the landscape resembles ocean fog but really is shrouded in dust storms. As you make your way to the high desert near Cuyama Buckhorn, stop at the Santa Barbara Pistachio Company to observe the naked barren trees already harvested for your nut packaged delight.
National Exchange Hotel in Nevada City
Lovingly renovated by a team of locally skilled artisans, designers, and craftspeople, this 38-room property originally opened in 1856 in Nevada City, California, and now is re-created as an intentional unique experience celebrating the past. The sophisticated National Exchange Hotel tells a story through its décor and design – some original artifacts from 1800 and some sourced, donated, or reimagined. The hotel is a national landmark located near Tahoe and about 45 minutes from Truckee. Once a Gold Rush refuge, the area continues to be a thriving hub for creatives.
Oozing with Victorian design style featuring over 400 art pieces, the hotel was once considered modern way back when. Ladies of the evening used to live here and a plaque outside thanks them for their contribution to expanding the Wild West and mining towns. Like a time capsule, the design team discovered artifacts hidden in the walls and even uncovered a stone wall hidden behind the plaster, sheetrock, and former wallpaper. The front desk area was once a one-chair barbershop and former Prohibition tunnels are sealed off that were used as an escape for those who didn’t want to be recognized. This treasured piece of history has been a gathering spot since the Gold Rush as it housed the town telegraph office and had a stagecoach stop just steps away from the barroom.
Rooms feel comfy chic like staying at your expertly designed aunt’s home with deep green velvet headboards, mustard yellow, and thistle William Morris wallpaper prints, and carefully selected décor items like a vintage telephone, unique furniture, and old-school sconce lighting. My room had access through a window to a balcony above Broad Street and the former mining town. There’s no need for a TV as the room’s character and charm exudes rest and connection, with plush bedding and an electric kettle for coffee and tea.
A former boarding house, hallways capture the old bordello feel and you might have to look twice as a hallway mirror reveals a male image– once a popular idea in the 1800s. The opulent furnishings carry over throughout the hotel into the in-house dining at the luxe Lola dining room with plush aqua banquette seating, custom lighting designed by Doug Washington, and Oriental rug wall tapestries. Envision what man-eater Gold Rush performer a la Spanish exotic dancer/singer Lola Montez might be doing while you dine, since her shenanigans inspired the name. History seems to think she took on many devilish personalities while the hotel’s grand registry book on display in the lobby area shows proof that she stayed here. Feast on smoked salmon mousse, walnut pate, Brussels, French Onion Soup, and Wagyu Steak Frites – modern cuisine sparked by the great wild west, locally sourced (when possible) with a shine of European finesse. In March an educational tea service was introduced on the dessert menu to aid in digestion.
Brunch is even more tantalizing with options like sourdough mushroom tartine, short rib hash, and a Benedict with salmon. Inside the National Bar dedicated to the women of the Wild West, the hotel room’s former radiators, now painted gold, create the bar’s base. Portraits of females from the Wild West era don the bar area and an old bank vault can be found in the side room. A wall collection boasts over 200 inherited bar shakers that were kept and passed down from being open for over 160 years. Thanks to the Acme Hospitality Group’s direction, cocktail medleys are so outstanding, that it’s hard to not want to try them all.
The past is always present in the surrounding bustling town of Nevada City where many historical plaques don countless buildings now filled with lively bars, restaurants, museums, and shops. The area right outside of town is a mecca for mountain biking, hiking, lake swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding and even panning for gold. Don’t miss a walk through town and the woods to a nearby suspension bridge or a visit to the Empire State Historic Park in Grass Valley, the largest and longest operating gold mine in California.
While the National leans towards the feminine, the nearby 1851 Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley has also been carefully revamped and redesigned by the same design team offering an equally impressive feel but with more masculine vibes with period-style rooms – some with balconies, fireplaces, or sitting areas and antique clawfoot tubs. Some say certain rooms may be haunted but feel the spooky former era of madman down below at the hotel’s Iron Door speakeasy bar or savor “killer” handcrafted cocktails at the 1852 Golden Gate Saloon. An elegant restaurant donned with animal heads sits right off the interesting lobby serving a menu influenced by California’s early days with smoked meats and Mexican-style additions.
AutoCamp Russian River Valley
“Adventure simplified” is AutoCamp’s motto because you can get into nature easily and sleep in a stylish RV. No need to sacrifice comfort or WIFI or the exhaustion of setting up your tent when this luxury Airstream and tent community awaits in the heart of wine country along a seasonal creek tucked into a grove of trees. Fresh air bliss!
Twenty-three Airstreams parked closely together in Sonoma County’s redwood forest and a welcoming mid-century modern clubhouse lounge affords guests wine tasting nearby and a 5-minute drive to the charming town of Guerneville. Besides the location’s sense of peace and quiet, the easy access to conveniences is a nice perk. Complimentary breakfast treats (croissants and muffins) and coffee, a mini general store with provisions, beer and wine in the lobby, complimentary Linus bikes, and communal fire pits for s’mores in a large grassy area under the bright stars are all part of a stay at AutoCamp.
Airstreams come with shockingly amazing spa-inspired showers, AC and heat, and a mini skylight over the bed. We loved opening the shades around the bed to let in the golden morning light and feel surrounded by trees.
Today you can also access AutoCamp’s other awe-inspiring locations in Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Zion, Cape Cod, and Catskills with more locations coming soon. Each location also offers programming like yoga, acoustic music by the fire, rock climbing, naturalist-led walks, forest bathing, night sky photography workshops, and more. Also, each destination is customizable for small group getaways or meetings especially when you can host group farm-to-table dinners, food trucks, sommelier-hosted wine tastings, yoga classes, and more.
Azure Sky in Palm Springs
Transformed into a design lover’s Zen oasis, this former apartment building from 1959 has been reborn as 14-room Azure Sky Hotel, set in the tranquil Deepwell Estates neighborhood. The design team behind this Palm Springs newcomer has made mid-century modern with a calm aesthetic in this secluded property just minutes from all the action of downtown.
Thanks to the vision of the creative team Lightning Bar Palm Springs, made up of John Janulis (partner in Villa Royale Palm Springs & Lightning Bar Collective) and Anne L’Esperance (An Ellipsis Design) with the help of Cioffi Architect, two years were dedicated to breathing new life into every aspect of Azure Sky.
The front entrance’s lengthy white slats pay an architectural nod to the popular breeze block walls seen throughout Palm Springs, creating privacy and light shadow drama. Original palm trees poke near the entrance interior surrounded by lush local plants such as agaves, banana trees, birds of paradise, jasmine, trailing rosemary, and more. Upon entering the 800 square foot lobby, it feels more like stepping into a lavish living room in someone’s home but keeping with Palm Springs vibes, one wall is fully open to soak in the mountainous palm tree landscape. Look up and the ceiling is expertly crafted with light wood slats and mirrors and dreamy rich gold vintage lighting. Stay for the sunset hues over cocktails as this check-in area is also a cocktail bar where guests can lounge on the plush deep green couch facing a cozy fireplace. In the morning, pop in this lobby lounge living room for complimentary coffee and breakfast bites.
Most rooms are set around a grassy courtyard with olive trees and a lengthy fire pit perfect for desert nights under the stars. Choose from suites (some 620 square feet), junior suites, and studio rooms with stone tile flooring, walk-in mosaic tile showers, and uber-comfy mattresses set in floating platform beds in a minimalist wood frame with the same white oak slats accenting the headboard. Clean lines with pops of chic black are felt throughout the art, furniture, and architecture. For those who may not want to spend all their time eating out, almost all rooms come with impressive kitchenettes with floating shelves, a cooktop with cookware and kettle, pottery-style dishware, and fancy coffee and tea. Patios with hammocks are an option at the back of most rooms for those who want more privacy.
An oversized lounge poolscape with a pool bar, jacuzzi, and generous amount of chaise lounge seating is also a highlight of Azure Sky, as unobstructed views of the San Jacinto Mountains feel like you’ve stepped into a postcard with the often bright blue cloudless sky. When guests tire of relaxing, they can grab a hotel bike to whiz around the midcentury modern neighborhood to admire the quintessential architecture, desert landscape foliage, and looming mountain-scape. Feel the exclusivity of this adult sanctuary under the Azure Sky.
Mar Monte Hotel in Santa Barbara
The beauty of California is leaving one beachside town to visit another oceanfront community and having an entirely different experience. Santa Barbara has been blessed, or you may feel blessed with a stay at the revamped 200-room boutique hotel Mar Monte that is part of Hyatt’s Unbound Collection.
Located right across the street from the beach and a mile from Stearns Wharf, the 1930s Mar Monte Hotel completed its final multi-million-dollar reimagination phase in 2021, consisting of a beautiful refresh of design and décor blending old with new while preserving the character across three acres of Spanish influenced grounds.
The lobby oozes charm with a glamorous fireplace featuring original pearly-esque tiles and a check-in area with terra cotta floorings, spectacular dazzling gold dripping chandeliers hanging from arches and exposed beam ceilings, and a large-scale ceramic tile art installation behind the reception desk. The lobby leads to a refined library foyer workspace and an open-air patio where the golden California sunlight and ocean air assaults the senses. Choose from various seating areas in the courtyard with a Spanish/Moroccon-style tiled fountain as a focal point.
Thanks to the Los Angeles-based design firm Beleco, rooms are elegantly furnished as if you are staying at someone’s lavish home – with stylish carpeting, a patterned cushioned mid-century modern bed, chic accent pillows, darling bedside lighting, and a retro chaise lounge. A gold ornate frame accents a vintage diver above the bed and a book on surfing reminds you where you are – the American Riviera.
Most rooms come with oceanfront terraces or balconies – perfect for morning coffee, a workspace, sunset wine, or just to feel the salty air. One morning I biked to the historic Stearns Wharf (where I later found Deep Sea Winery Tasting Room high above the pier) and another morning I crossed the street to East Beach to put my feet in the sand and walk a few minutes towards cliff-laden picturesque Butterfly Beach where Santa Barbara joins Montecito. I had the whole beach to myself – minus someone waking up in their tent or walking their dog.
There is no need to venture far from the hotel as Mar Monte has two new food and beverage concepts. Lido Café is not just a café but a bar and poolside restaurant with ocean views, where dramatic arched white walls are adorned with hand-painted native flowers and accented with various-sized hanging basket lamps and hanging foliage. Date shakes or smoothies are a must but so are the mocha coffees. Café Lido’s all-day menu serves up huge portions of California fresh produce. Don’t miss the breakfast menu or lunch options like juicy plump local mussels with nduja, softer chorizo – perfectly accompanied with a grilled baguette for soaking. The Salmon Nicoise and California Grilled Chicken Sandwich with rosemary focaccia are also exceptional.
For dinner, the property also boasts another beauty called Costa Kitchen & Bar where you can sit outside across from the ocean with a cocktail before entering the cheerful space with lemon wallpaper, olive trees, plush yellow dining chairs, and rich leather banquettes. For sophisticated taste buds, spend a leisurely evening over whole roasted branzino with salsa verde, squid ink linguine with clams, snow peas, and uni butter sauce, and central coast crab with flavor bursts of sweet and spicy. Toast the good life with a local wine or a ‘Gucci’ Old Fashioned paired with California olive oil cake doused in whipped cream and slices of fruit.
Situated right downtown and minutes from the fun Funk Zone, Mar Monte Hotel makes exploring Santa Barbara easy. One night we ventured right across the street to the new oceanside Reunion Kitchen + Drink for sunset dinner by the firepit. Stay in the heart and soul of Santa Barbara.