Ever since I watched the 2004 film Sideways, I have wanted to visit California’s Central coast. Over the last few years, I have seen a few friends and colleagues migrate to Santa Barbara and its nearby towns, remarking on the relaxed lifestyle, Mediterranean-like weather and it’s many other outdoor and cultural attractions. It was due time to visit the ‘American Riviera’ – as Santa Barbara is often referred to for its fine wine, hilly landscapes and oceanfront views.
A girls getaway originally slated for Scotland (we are unabashed Outlander fans) was scrapped without hesitation for a more ‘rejuvenation-style’ type trip to sunny Santa Barbara. The timing in late April worked well for both of us as we both had nearby business to attend to afterwards. The plan was simple – relax, hike, drink some fine wine, and spa over three nights. A girls version of Sideways, if you will, without the drama.
I considered a few places for us to stay, from Bacara Resort and Spa in nearby Goleta to the romantic San Ysidro Ranch and ocean-side Four Seasons Biltmore, both in the outskirts of Santa Barbara. But it was the legendary 100-year old Belmond El Encanto hotel that captured my attention. The location of the 7-acre property, the only 5-star Forbes hotel in Santa Barbara, with drop-dead views (or so it appeared on the website) of the Pacific ocean made it an easy choice.
Facing a 97-mile drive after we landed at the Los Angeles airport, we picked up a Mercedes convertible (after all we were in ‘getaway’ mode. The convertible turned out useless however as it was a hard-top that had to be physically removed) for a two-hour journey to the hotel. We experienced the infamous L.A. gridlock which was a bit of buzzkill to start a vacation. But after we got out of bumper to bumper traffic, the last hour of our drive on the 101 North, which hugs the coastline, was breathtakingly gorgeous. Following recent heavy rains, literally everything was in bloom.
A quick detour to Jeannine’s Bakery in Montecito for a bite on the way and we arrived at El Encanto after a few winding streets up the into the hills of Santa Barbara. The entrance is so inconspicuous, we literally drove right past it. In hindsight, it’s a fitting introduction to the essence of El Encanto as this hotel basks in its understatedness. As we arrived at the tail end of the weekend, the hotel was seemingly quiet except for guests attending a small wedding in progress (I snuck around to take the picture below because the setting was so pretty) and a few people from Los Angeles staying over to see Willie Nelson perform at the nearby Santa Barbara Bowl (which features an impressive roster of upcoming concerts this summer including John Legend, Blondie, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode and Boston – am I giving away my age?).
But even at full capacity, I doubt this serene sanctuary would ever feel crowded. That is one of the reasons El Encanto has long been a popular discreet hideaway for celebrities looking to escape for a few days. When it opened its doors as a hotel in 1918, El Encanto quickly became a favorite mainstay of silver-screen stars Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and the like. I am sure there a lot of good stories behind the walls of these ivy and wisteria-lined bungalows and cottages at this 100-year old property, Maybe even a ghost or two?
From the moment we left our car at the valet, all stress from everyday life (and admittedly watching too much CNN) dissipated. It is supremely difficult not to feel immediately relaxed here. Taking in the fresh air, with the sun on your face and contemplating the postcard-perfect views of the Pacific Ocean directly beyond the expansive hilltop terrace – which, in my view is the crowning glory of El Encanto – will do that for you. But it is the intoxicating scents of honeysuckle, lavender, jasmine and bougainvillea that descend upon you from the moment you step on to the property that enthralled us (‘How can I bottle that smell?’ my girlfriend asks). It was like being in one big outdoor spa.
To truly appreciate Belmond El Encanto, you have to know a little about its origins. Back in the 1870s (that is when the eucalyptus trees on the property were planted), the original 4-acre property was used to house faculty at a nearby college (the old UC Santa Barbara campus is across the street) . The ten-room Craftsman and Spanish Colonial-style houses and cottages are all still intact and used as guest accommodations today. Not until 1918 did the property turn into a hotel. It operated as one until 2004 when it was sold to the Orient Express Hotels (now Belmond). A long seven years transpired before the hotel re-opened in 2012. During that period, Belmond put significant funds into restoring all the original architectural details, updating accommodations and adding a spa, fitness center and saltwater pool.
It was evident, as I walked the brick winding paths that take you throughout the property, that Belmond went to great pains to keep the historical integrity and charm (incidentally this is the translation of ‘encanto’ in Spanish) of the property intact. The hub is the main house which contains reception, an attractive small bar and lounge area, and the indoor/outdoor dining spaces. Other than the spa and fitness room, these are the only indoor spaces. Here, the outdoor setting is the star. Sitting on the terrace with a glass of wine in hand as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean is a pretty special place to be.
When not chilling at the pool or getting a massage, I enjoyed exploring the property, checking out the arbor-covered cottages tucked throughout the 7-acres. In one short walk, I encountered a 1928 wishing well (original to the property) the Arbor and Lily Pond where you can feed the turtle and Koi residents during the day (at night, the frogs come out and get pretty vocal serenading their mates) and five beautiful ceramic pigs, gifts from the Belmond Maroma property scattered throughout the property. But wherever you turn your head, the glistening Pacific ocean is always visible to remind you to go outside the property to check out the beaches!
Cottages and bungalows are spread widely across property. While many are stand-alone, there are some that are adjoining or in quads (like ours). All the original cottages are spacious at an average of 560 square feet and were updated before the hotel re-opened in 2012. It should be noted, however, that strict landmark guidelines apply to the property and, as such, the structural design has stayed intact. For sure, that is part of the charm and personality of the hotel but in some rooms, the small original windows do not bring in enough natural light.
Our accommodation was a top floor Premiere Deluxe double-bed bungalow (although not a bungalow in true sense as was part of a 4-suite complex). #1804 was a comfortable room with a very spacious bathroom outfitted with a deep soaking tub and shower. It was simply designed, similar to other bungalows I inspected, with a large flat screen TV, fireplace, and terra-cotta floors. While perfectly comfortable, the terrace was too small to fit more than a small chair and the room felt particularly dark as only one window. The room was also very close to the main entrance which, while convenient, doesn’t have the charm of being further immersed in the lushly landscaped property. Which is the whole point of being here.The next time I return to El Encanto (and I will), I would definitely upgrade to a stand-alone cottage or at least request a lower floor bungalow which feature spacious patios (see Rooms to Get below).
We appreciated the deliveries of delicious fruit plates, cheese, wine and champagne during our briefly stay. We did have a few glitches with our room upon check-in which were addressed quickly but I believe were due to some staff communication/training issues when we were there. This is one area that could have been improved during our stay. It felt understaffed in many areas and the service just fell short of my expectation for a 5-star property.
During our brief time here, we accomplished what we set out to do – hike, relax, eat great food, and drink great wine. Belmond El Encanto could not have been more ideally located for our mission as it is within 5-10 minutes of the incredible beaches, hiking trails, the authentic town of Santa Barbara as well as within 30 minutes drive from the Santa Ynez valley and its many wineries. It is a place that feels private and remote yet it isn’t as you are smack in the middle of one of the most beautiful places with so much to do and see. What sets it apart from many other properties I have visited is that it hasn’t strayed from its original style which is lost in so many renovations I have seen. Aside from modern conveniences, it simply feels timeless.
Things To Do
For a relaxing outdoorsy girls getaway, Santa Barbara is about as good as it gets (although I can do without the LA traffic. Note to self: next time fly directly into the local airport). There is no shortage of things to do. Wineries, beaches, mountains and amazing restaurants are just a starting point. Here is a small sampling of suggestions.
Whale Watching. The Santa Barbara area offers some of the best whale watching in world with 20 different species of whales. Spring is sure bet for whale watching – even from the Pier – especially when new calves are on display. Ask the concierge about the 2-hour cruises that take you right from the marina.
Wild Horses. Just one hour drive North and you can visit Return to Freedom, a 300-acre wild horse rescue and sanctuary, that opens one Sunday every month to allow visitors to see and learn about the 175 wild horses it rescues and takes care of.
Historic District and State Street. The town of Santa Barbara is host to great restaurants, cultural attractions, great shopping, and a wonderful farmers markets on Tuesdays.
Hikes. (see Tips below)
Wine Tasting. This is a given as you are in the heart of one of the best wine regions in the U.S. Napa and Sonoma may be better known but Sideways has uncovered the secret of the Santa Ynez region, along with the towns of Los Olivos, Solvang and Los Alamos, less than an hour drive North of the hotel. If you are deprived of time, no worry. Hit the Funk Zone and the self-guided Urban Wine Trail and check out the many wine tasting rooms in an old industrial complex (Riverbench, Whitcraft, and Santa Barbara Wine Collective are some notable ones recommended to us).
Where to Drink and Eat
Test Pilot – A tiki-inspired craft cocktail bar in the Funk Zone.
Good Lion – A swanky speakeasy serving tapas and inventive cocktails.
Boat House at Hendry’s Beach (unofficially known as ‘Dog Beach’) – a must at least once during cocktail hour from 3-6 or at sunset. Located right on Hendry’s Beach, this is where you can get your dog fix or just watch the surfers.
Bakeries (breakfast, lunch or picnic fare)
Renaud’s Bakery. On State Street, this Parisian style bakery is known for having the best chocolate croissants.
Jeannine’s Bakery. Located on Coast Village Road in Montecito as well as in Santa Barbara. Known for their breakfasts.
Helena Avenue Bakery. Decadent French toast.
The Lark. Named one of the top 100 Hot Spots in the country on Open Table, The Lark is a very popular urban eatery housed in a former fish market in the Funk Zone. Always packed and very good! Make reservations well ahead of time and ask for outdoor seating when the weather is nice.
Loquita. A hot new tapas joint in the Funk Zone and sister restaurant to The Lark just around the corner. Sit at the bar or the beautiful outdoor (and heated) garden with fire pit. Loved it here!
Olio e Limone. Italian restaurant that is a favorite of many locals and considered one of the best Italian restaurants in the area.
Mony’s Mexican. Very casual Mexican in the Funk Zone. Known for their tacos and salsa bar. Most always packed.
La Superrica. One of Julia Child’s favorite restaurants when she lived in the area, this cash-only small shack serves excellent but simple tacos. Usually a line out the door. Highly recommended by a foodie friend!
|Rooms to Get||Tips|
Belmond El Encanto
For 2017, Virtuoso Rates at Belmond El Encanto include:
• Upgrade at time of booking, subject to availability
• Continental breakfast daily, for up to two guests
• $100 USD Resort or Hotel credit
• Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability
Why book Virtuoso?
- Personalized travel assistance
- 24/7 online booking
- Special rates & exclusive offers
- Guaranteed Room upgrade*
- Complimentary full American breakfast
- Early check-in, Late check-out*
- Exclusive on-site amenities (varies by hotel)
- * based on availability on time of arrival