Remember Los Alamos -- and the Skyview Motel
by Jim Farber
When the Skyview Motel opened in 1959 it had everything going for it. Perched atop a scenic five-acre knoll overlooking the bustle of north/south traffic on California Highway 101, the motel -- with its distinctive yellow sign -- offered an ideal respite for weary travelers. It was a time when cattle on oak-shaded hillsides outnumbered vineyards about 100 to 1.
Located at the northern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley and across the highway from the historic farming town of Los Alamos, the Skyview combined a sense of midcentury-modern flair with the cozy wood-paneled appeal of a classic motor court. Its 33 rooms faced onto a communal parking lot.
The first time I stayed at the Skyview in the late 1990s, I found its frozen-in-time atmosphere as appealing as its modest rates. It felt light-years away from the kitschy tourist frenzy of Solvang, though you could drive there easily in 30 minutes or less. It also (and still does) provided an excellent jumping-off point to explore the valley's ever-growing list of wineries.
Less appealing were the Skyview's paper-thin walls that made every conversation (as well as certain other activities) clearly audible. Then, as it turned out, the motel went into a steep drug-ridden decline. It got so creepy that locals began referring to it as the "Psycho Motel."
Then in 2016 five partners of the San Luis Obispo-based Nomada Hotel Group purchased the property. According to Kimberly Walker, the managing director, they set about a $3 million transformation of the Skyview intent on making it into a destination-worthy boutique hotel. The success of their endeavor changed both the motel and the walking-distance town of Los Alamos.
One the most significant aspects of the renovation, Walker pointed out with pride, was the decision to entirely remove the drive-through parking area and replace it with an open communal space complete with landscaped alcoves and group-friendly fire pits. The effect when you arrive is instantaneous, both in the reduction of noise and the atmosphere of conviviality the spaces inspire. They gave the lobby a distinctly midcentury-modern look and added a panoramic deck that is ideal for morning coffee or sunset wine-tasting.
Thankfully, gone are the paper-thin walls, replaced by silent partitions. The elegantly simple rooms include luxurious beds and fireplaces. Deluxe rooms feature outdoor patios (and showers) with fire pits and couches that face rolling farmland, lushly planted vineyards and at nighttime a galaxy of twinkling stars.
They also added the Norman (Get it? Think "Psycho.") restaurant and bar. It is open for indoor and outdoor lunch, dinner and weekend brunch with the menu overseen by Chef Will Hanko. An extensive wine list highlights local vineyards, and signature cocktails are created by resident mixologist Dominique Gonzalez.
But the real impact of the Skyview's reincarnation has been its ability to attract visitors to the northern end of the valley and the town of Los Alamos. Since its grand reopening in June 2018 the Skyview has become a destination, and its success has stimulated a culinary renaissance in Los Alamos. While its historic landmark, the 1880 Union Hotel Saloon, remains a favorite with locals and as a location for weddings, Los Alamos has become a mecca of excellent new eateries led by Chef Drew Terp's Pico (located in the old General Store) and the authentic French bistro cuisine and atmosphere of Bell's, opened by Daisy and Greg Bell in 2018. Their chicken liver mouse is to die for.