How to Help Hotels Survive During the Pandemic by Taking a California Work From Hotel Road Trip

Please note that this article was written and posted before the most recent Covid-19 restrictions. Check for updates on Covid-19 regulations and restrictions as well as with local authorities in the areas you might travel to before making any future plans.

#WFH: It’s a thing, there’s a hashtag, ads running and signs. Work from Hotel, the new WFH,  is not only trending on Instagram, it’s a way to allow a somewhat essential errand to turn into a well-deserved mental getaway.

It’s also a clever survival tactic for hotels to attract business. I started noticing the first #WFH newsletters when Marin was covered in an unrelenting smokey haze from the wildfires. A bright blue sky overhead, matched by an equally brilliant blue ocean framing a content, “could be anyone” model working on her laptop in a cabana. #WorkCations. 

Hotels up and down the coast were cautiously yet also aggressively promoting their picturesque settings. The ads were relentless, and… hook, line and sinker, effective. I was making plans. “Why not,” I said. With the goal of San Diego for a friend’s birthday, among other things, I started planning the ultimate #workfromhotel adventure. Traveling during the pandemic means a few creature comfort compromises, as in no maid service, or coffee bars, but it was all worth it.

California’s Various States of Openness

While the state seemed to be slowly opening at the end of last summer, Marin to me seemed to be uniquely stuck in the purple and red “risk” zones. The cautious folks at Visit California did a good job of updating those of us who write about travel on the latest CDC safety protocols, basically giving a yellow/green light on getting out on the road. Follow the rules: wear a mask, practice social distancing ps and qs, and be cool. The latter refers to the fact that people are testy, from the drivers on the road, to the hotel clerk and baristas. As I researched this article, a headline from the Orange County Register caught my eye: “Passenger slaps bicyclist from moving minivan, both die: ‘Open murder’ charges filed.” Point is, we are all on edge. Not to sound too preachy, but it seems like it’s time we all adopted a zen approach to life: be kind, patient and lower expectations.

First Stop: Santa Cruz

Dream Inn room patio

Easy as a day trip, even better as a weekend or longer getaway. The beautifully funky Santa Cruz has a population of just over 65,000, and in a normal year makes room for three million visitors. The mild climate and beautiful beaches have made this south-facing coastal town a popular destination for well over one hundred years. 

The name Santa Cruz, meaning Holy Cross, comes from the Spanish explorer Don Gaspar de Portola. He happened upon what he described as rolling hills above a beautiful flowing river, which he called San Lorenzo, in 1769. Both names stuck. The 12th California mission, which followed in 1791, was built in what is now downtown Santa Cruz, and within another century, Hawaiian royalty was reported to be surfing the waves on locally milled redwood boards at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. 

Surfing is a big draw, and Santa Cruz claims the distinction of being the historical birthplace of mainland surfing in the United States. The wetsuit was even created here by local legend Jack O’Neill, elevating the sport of surfing to the world stage and enabling surfers globally to stay in the water longer since “it’s always summer on the inside.” During the pandemic, the city came up with a Let’s Cruz Safely, Covid-19 safety campaign, which promoted wearing masks and social distancing.

There’s plenty for land lubbers as well, including the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, opened in 1907, home of two historic landmarks: The Giant Dipper, a 70-foot tall wooden roller coaster and the Looff Carousel; both have played an integral part of many a California childhood.

When I saw the Dream Inn’s “Endless Summer in Santa Cruz” email in my inbox last August, I forwarded it to my annual Santa Cruz getaway group of which only my friend Katy was brave enough to don a mask and walk the tightrope of social distance travel. Rezzies made and masks packed, we hit the road. Crossing the Golden Gate is always a thrill, but knowing I was finally getting out of town reminded me that normalcy is within reach. Even debating something as mundane as the pros and cons of eating sushi vs. a burrito for lunch was an exercise in the return to what matters. What wasn’t normal was that our conversation occurred via FaceTime since we drove in separate cars. 

Considering check-in wasn’t until 4 p.m., we went for lunch in Half Moon Bay. We usually opted for Sam’s Chowder House, a Food Network fave where we stop for salads and lobster rolls, followed by a beach walk. With coronavirus however, we went for a masked beachwalk, where we ordered grab ‘n go sushi via our phones from Shiki Japanese Cuisine on Stone Pine Road. We then enjoyed, in the aforementioned separate cars, the jaw-dropping scenery on the 45-minute drive from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz. Usually, this drive offers many opportunities to park and explore wild, empty beaches; however, many of the parking lots were closed.

Dream Inn

Dream Inn room

Our destination: the classic oceanfront Dream Inn Hotel. Majestically fronting the Pacific Ocean since 1963, our friend group became acquainted with the 165-room property awhile back, when Joie de Vivre took over management for a few years, waved their magic cool wand on the decor, and upgraded the restaurant. Their most recent renovation included renaming the restaurant, Jack’s, after the aforementioned O’Neill founder. There is something so insidery about sipping a signature Jack Martini whilst watching surfers frolic and toasting the man who made it all possible. While the restaurant is temporarily closed, the parking lot has been transformed into Jack’s Patio, offering open air dining and live music Thursdays through Sundays. 

Back to the #WorkCation. Every room has an ocean-facing balcony, a table and a comfy bed, in other words, plenty of “desk” options. I took advantage of them all throughout the day and there are cabanas at the pool with wifi. The property’s central location is ideal — only minutes from the Boardwalk and downtown’s shopping and restaurants. 

To be sure we had enough oxygen flowing in our brains, we took a few breaks to walk the beach or the multi-use trail that meanders along the edge of the bluff. During one morning stroll, we witnessed a classic Santa Cruz moment: a masked woman being pulled by her pit bull on a quasi-scooter dogsled. Luckily, she took a break to enjoy the view, and we were able to ask her about the dogsled. She then launched into one of the most fascinating life stories I’ve ever heard. This involved growing up as a preacher’s daughter and regional gymnastics star, traveling the world with a backpack and getting pregnant by a G.I. in Italy who happened to be a descendant of the McCoys (of the Hatfields and McCoys). She then thrived as a stripper (gynmastics came in handy), and is now living in blissful happiness in a van with her boyfriend, a pioneering surfer and, murder suspect. Thankfully, LeeAnn has written it all down: her book Around the World in a G-string is available on Amazon. The dogsled can be purchased on BarkPost.

LeeAnn with her dogsled

Another not-to-miss activity is Chardonnay Charters out of Santa Cruz harbor. This two-hour sunset booze cruise (wine and beer) often includes whale and shark (great white) sightings. Upon booking, we had been assured that the crew would be very careful about keeping passengers apart and to keep guests from commingling around a cheese platter, they handed out individual pizza slices. The wine and beer was flowing as usual, as were the easy conversations. A couple from England recreated the “King of the World” Titanic scene for their Instagram account and another group  from Orinda said they gather every year to go out on this cruise. The pandemic wouldn’t stop the tradition. We felt safe on the open ocean, kept our masks on the entire time (except, of course, to drink the wine) and experienced the most memorable whale tail show of our lives.

We’ve chosen Santa Cruz for the past few years, because within two hours of Marin, you’re in a classic California beach town. It’s not too pricey, there’s an abundance of healthy food options, and it’s just so easy. As Katy put it, “You don’t feel bad about being in sweats here — that’s a true vacation.” Covid-19 has made things no different except that the Boardwalk was closed, and most people were wearing masks. Check for updates.

Mission Santa Barbara. Photo by Jay Sinclair.

Think of Santa Barbara as the pretty sister of California cities. She doesn’t try to be, but she’s got that “wow” factor, and it just comes easy. Her white sand beaches, surrounded by the Santa Ynez mountain range with meticulous mission-style architecture, have earned her the trademarked moniker, The American Riviera. 

A beach town with world-class wineries, it’s also home to California’s 10th mission, aptly called the Queen of the Missions, founded in 1786. According to Karna Hughes of Visit Santa Barbara, in a typical year some 7.2 million visitors come to the Santa Barbara South Coast region (made up of the communities of Santa Barbara, Montecito, Goleta and Summerland). Travel restrictions initially took a toll during the spring, but once they lifted in the summer, travel rebounded. 

There have been some unexpected perks that have resulted from the pandemic’s restrictions, including the closing of the State Street pedestrian promenade, spanning 10 blocks from Sola to Gutierrez streets. It’s one of the largest street closures in California, and it has revitalized the downtown corridor, which will remain open until at least March 2021. 

Family on State Street in Santa Barbara. Photo by Blake Bronstad, courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara.

And as a result of the pandemic, Visit Santa Barbara has created a healthy traveler guide, which includes a link to their latest travel advisories to give visitors information to aid with travel planning and answer many frequently asked questions around Covid-19 travel to the region.

Second Stop: Santa Barbara

The second stop on the ultimate #WorkfromHotel tour of California was Santa Barbara, to deliver “essentials” to my daughter, Grace, who is attending UCSB. 

The skies were bright blue (just as the newsletters promised) as I pulled off onto Storke Boulevard. towards what I’ve been calling Cola Vista (Covid + Isla = Cola). Life looked very “normal” on these streets. The array of tanned abs and bright smiles (masks were few and far between) enjoying the metabolism of youth made the news that the virus had an increase in cases make perfect sense. Driving along Del Playa with my windows up, just in case a biker happened to cough in my direction, I spotted Grace’s house. Her directions were perfect, right across from dog sh*t park and “our living room is on the front yard.” In most places you’d think, “This is the ultimate Spring Break photo shoot,” but it’s just another day at UCSB. Due to the crowd, I decided to wave from the car and FaceTime her to make plans for dinner.

If I hadn’t been born in Hawaii, I would have been a fifth generation Californian, with much of the family tree rooted in Santa Barbara. Because of this, family reunions are pretty epic. In town, there is a park honoring my great grandfather, and a plaque on Cabrillo Blvd, marking the spot where my grandfather and his business partner opened the first Sambo’s restaurant in 1957, which became one of the first restaurant chains in the country using what they called “a fraction of the action” (I’ll get back to this in a bit). So a visit to Santa Barbara means a dozen or so family guest room offerings, and lots of cousin time. However, Covid-times meant distance and plenty of parking.

This was my second pandemic trip to Santa Barbara — my first one in early May was very different. The town was under a very strict lockdown then, yet five months later, restrictions had been lifted to travel, and unlike Isla Vista, downtown Santa Barbara had very few Covid cases, allowing for looser travel guidelines.

Hotel Milo terrace. Photo courtesy of Hotel Milo.

Lured by the Stay Longer, Pay Less offering, I opted for Hotel Milo, named for the prolific historical hotelier, Milo Potter, whose popular Potter Hotel helped to put Santa Barbara on the tourism map back in 1903. Today, all that is left of this grand dame is a park lined with palm trees, which is now a convenient courtyard in the center of the 2.5 acre property. A bounty of fire pits and seating areas were ideal locations to #WFH and fun to share on zoom. The hotel is also right next to the aforementioned Sambo’s location, which is now called Chad’s — same great pancakes, with lots of outdoor seating. 

An unexpected perk of the trip was finally meeting Chad Stevens, the grandson of my grandfather’s business partner Sam Battistone. Throughout the years, we would always stop in for pancakes and take a photo in front of the portrait of the founders. And through cousins, I had heard Chad was keeping the pancake recipe safe and sound. However, I hadn’t reached out to him until this summer, when the restaurant made national news in the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt for him, having to absorb the blame for an unfortunate naming situation on his own. Our families had both enjoyed the success of the business, but these positives were also tempered with how the origin story found itself on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement back in the 1960s. A claim that both founders refuted at the time, but in the interest of kindness, after 63 years, the restaurant at 216 W Cabrillo (now Chad’s) still serves up the best breakfast in town.

Speaking of food, Grace had a list of restaurants to explore, Arigato on State Street, as her roommates say, “it’s where your parents take you.” There was East Beach Tacos at 226 S Milpas Street, with the best take-out for a beach picnic, and Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodles, ideal for a picnic at the Mission and Toma on Cabrillo, with delicious Italian food and abundant parklet seating. Now that she’s working at Margerum Wine Bar, she insisted we do some research on the Urban Wine Trail, since they have expanded outdoor seating.

Luckily, Santa Barbara has as many healthy activities as noteworthy restaurants. From surfing and stand-up paddling to running and hiking, my time in Santa Barbara always feels like a balance of calories in, calories out. Annual events such as Fiesta or the Film Festival are great reasons to visit. However, traveling to Santa Barbara mid-week and in the shoulder season (fall-winter) are also good ideas for those who are seeking maximum social distance. When it’s safe to travel, Visit Santa Barbara is promoting a Third Night Free travel promotion for lodging properties throughout the Santa Barbara South Coast through March 2021, as long as the booking is made by December 24, 2020.

Serra Museum and Heritage Park. Photo by Alex Matthews, courtesy of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

Biggest for last. With just over 35 million visitors in a normal year, San Diego is one of the most popular destinations in the country.

Considered by many to be the birthplace of California, it’s home to the first mission, built in 1769. This metropolis is named for Diego de San Nicolás, a saint, who lived three hundred years before Cabrillo honored him by naming his first stop in Alta California. Fun fact: sticking with the conquering theme, Diego was among the first group of missionaries to the newly conquered Canary Islands in the 1400s. Its proximity to Mexico, miles of white sand beaches, natural deep-water harbor, thriving foodie scene and tons of shopping means there is truly something for everyone.

Families flock to LegoLand, San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld. (While eyebrows may go up at the mention of a Zoo or SeaWorld, it’s fair to say it’s a “there are good people on both sides” situation). As the second largest city in the state, San Diego is also built for business travel, making #WFH vacations easy. “Be Patient, Be Kind” is the headline of the video on safe travel information. And they have a website dedicated to monitoring what’s open.

Final Stop: San Diego

Photo courtesy of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

A quick Google search revealed that the San Diego Mission Bay Resort was offering their own Work by the Bay Package #WFH. I had to do a search, since the name was new to me. I was thrilled to figure out that it was formerly the Hilton San Diego, one of my family’s favorite spots in town. It’s centrally located in Mission Bay, on a very calm beach with plenty of sail boats, stand-up paddling and even jet skis to rent. The property has just undergone a multimillion dollar renovation to the entire property, including room updates, pool, restaurants and grounds. Ironically, I’ve been to conferences held at this property, so my #WFH #Workcation felt completely normal. The package includes a room with a private patio or balcony, complimentary parking and a daily $25 food and beverage credit starting at $185. They are not just targeting the #WFH crowd, Mission Bay Resort is also offering the Stay More, Save More Package, and Distance Learning Package.

The complimentary parking also meant that I could park right in front of the unit, which came in handy, considering I had meetings all over the county. Some of the highlights of the trip included shopping on Encinitas Boulevard — most people wore masks, and the shops and restaurants were open. I always have to stop in at Eve, the open air, vegan eatery that made me fall in love with garbanzo beans. Nada Shop is a new, super chic sustainability boutique, and has my grandmother’s name. I told the clerk that besides meaning “nothing” in Spanish, it means “hope” in Yugoslavian. She wasn’t as excited by this double entendre. Encinitas is hip, fun and colorful, and the boutiques have unique, fun, and often locally made items. 

Mimi working from “home” at the San Diego Mission Bay Resort.

Another stop I had to make was in Oceanside, a sweet — not pretentious — town, with a beautiful long white sand beach. After a meditative walk in the sand, I noticed an exceptionally long line at a kettle corn kiosk. Drug front? I needed to know. I got in the socially distant line and waited my turn. Turns out the popcorn maestro also made fresh lemonade. The kiosk is called Popin’ Duo, run by an industrious kid named Yager. You can find him on Instagram, and he said he really doesn’t know why his corn has attracted such a following. “People just seem to like it,” he said as he smiled and then looked above me to take the next order.

San Diego tourism is running a campaign called WeekYAYS to invite locals and visitors to enjoy local hotels during the week. When you visit San Diego midweek, you’ll experience the same good vibes for a lower rate. 


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Mimi Towle

Mimi Towle is a Marin-based writer and editor. Currently the editor of Marin Magazine, she enjoys the various perks of her job, which include meeting chefs, winemakers, and inspiring characters. As a volunteer philanthropic advisor for the EACH Foundation, she focuses on needs in her home state of Hawaii. Some of her favorite nonprofits include City BeatHawaii Land Trust, and University of Hawaii Cancer Center.