Poolside/Beachside Escape, to the Cliff House Inn in Mussel Shoals

The Beachfront Cliff House Inn Is a Secret Treasure in the 805

Poolside/Beachside Escape,
to the Cliff House Inn

Mussel Shoals Beachfront
Is a Secret Treasure in the 805

By Josef Woodard | February 2, 2023

Credit: Josef Woodard
Read all of the stories in our “Locals-Only Sneak Peek at SBIFF” cover here.

The story behind this story starts with the painting. Last fall, the superlative and vibe-capturing painter Patricia Chidlaw had her summertime exhibition at Sullivan Goss Gallery, bearing the self-explanatory title The Pool Show. One of the prize canvases in this set of cool pool portraits was a twilight view of the pool at the unique hotel known as the Cliff House Inn, just south of the Rincon.

It’s reasonable to report that the Cliff House, once a highly visible feature of the coastal landscape in the tiny enclave of Mussel Shoals, roughly in the neighborhood of La Conchita, the 101, and the weirdly alluring Rincon Island and pier, has receded from our consciousness and become a secret treasure, hidden in plain sight. That very status, achieved by the building of a large wall and bike path in 2015 — as part of the epic and seemingly endless freeway expansion project — makes it all the more intriguing as an extremely close escape route for Santa Barbarans. It’s a prime getaway exotic outpost, agreeably funky-kitschy around the edges but appealing in many ways. And it requires roughly a 20-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara.

The Cliff House’s iconic swimming pool captured on canvas by Patricia Chidlaw | Credit: Courtesy

Oddly, in the widely touted beach-town culture of Santa Barbara, it’s hard to think of a single hotel/motel in the 805 with a closer proximity to the actual lapping of waves on the shore. Once there, I was reminded of a trip to a jazz festival in Barbados, staying in a hotel nuzzling up against the beach. There, like here, the rolling waves became a meditative sonic force. The only thing missing in this memory parallel was the collective chirp of Barbados tree frogs.

As Chidlaw rightly observed on canvas, the long, iconic swimming pool is very much the centralized feature of the Cliff House property, situated a small stone’s throw from the rocky shore and the healing sound of gently crashing waves. The Cliff House building itself is a long three-story structure, entirely oriented toward the ocean and a benevolent bulwark against the adjacent freeway. Friendly and clean rooms line the upper two floors while the highly recommended restaurant, The Shoals, occupies the bottom floor.

Char-grilled pork loin chop | Credit: Josef Woodard

Weather permitting, you’ll want to eat and otherwise spend time at the bounty of tables surrounding the pool. The pool is clearly the thing.

On a recent midweek night, I took the, ahem, plunge and went down for a meal and an overnight stay. The holidays were looming and, even despite a rush-hour snail’s crawl on the 101, once I settled by the pool with my wife and daughter, the ribbon of red lights on the freeway felt almost like a festive adornment to the whole experience. Poolside, the sound of waves almost drowned out the freeway hum and rumble.

Perched at a table (with heater) maybe 20 yards from the sea, our epicurean experience was more than satisfying, me with my char-grilled pork loin chop and they with their porcini mushroom risotto and grilled salmon fillet, each cross-sampled with smiles. A well-equipped continental breakfast greets the morning, but beware of the cunning seagulls: After putting down my food and going to fetch coffee, gulls quickly swooped down to pilfer my hard-boiled eggs. They know an easy mark when they see one.

Nearby sightseeing must-sees are few in the area, unless you count stops along this short stretch of the PCH, a road less traveled parallel to the mighty 101 but much humbler and more scenic. Head down the freeway a tad to the Sea Cliff exit and enjoy the drive and vista. Jumbo RVs can occlude the view, but beach access and toes-in-sand encounters can be found at the Faria Beach outpost, which comes equipped with that all-American oasis, the funky beachfront snack bar.

The Cliff House’s ocean view with Rincon Island in the distance | Credit: Josef Woodard

And then there is the evocative pier leading to the palm tree-flecked Rincon Island, a remote backdrop to the Cliff House ocean view. Given the fierce fencing and rolls of barbed wire at the pier’s entrance, the public is decidedly not invited to this mysterious and beckoning place. Built-in 1958 for use by the oil industry, the pier and “island” shifted through bankruptcy and current ownership by the California Coastal Sanctuary. Of course, the taboo and off-limits nature of the thing teases our curiosity all the more. (My surfing daughter informs me that surfers can tend to hit the waves right next to the pier, but that I shouldn’t put that in print. Pretend you didn’t read this section.)

One interesting phenomenon here occurs once settled into the super-king-sized bed. As you drift off to sleep, the twin tones of freeway noise (an off-white noise) and the lapping and splashing waves of the Pacific on the rocks provides an almost-too-tidy metaphor for the life of coastal Californians. The sensation is surprisingly soothing as you slip into the arms of Morpheus.

By the time I was forced back to the 101 after the noon checkout, I could easily buy into the New Age–esque promise of text on the Cliff House Inn website:

Seek Balance
With Life’s Ebb and Flow
Awake and in the Rhythm
With the Ocean Tides

Micro-vacation at Cliff House duration: 24 hours. Travel time, round trip: 42 minutes. Bingo. Thanks, Patricia Chidlaw.

Read all of the stories in our “Locals-Only Sneak Peek at SBIFF” cover here.


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