A beloved hideaway since 1920, Santa Barbara, California’s hilltop El Encanto has re-emerged from its long renovation like a butterfly on a mission. That mission? To relax and delight anyone who comes to visit. It’s a lovely, luxurious place to let yourselves unfurl.
It’s not that the hotel been closed for renovations for about seven years; refreshment of the 1920 property was definitely needed, and change (read: construction) was never going to be easy here amidst one of Santa Barbara’s most affluent residential neighborhoods. I was concerned that a sweet, anachronistic place where I’d enjoyed romantic weekends with my former husband would be — like my marriage — irrevocably changed. Turns out I needn’t have worried. I strolled into the lobby of what is now Orient-Express’ only West Coast property, took a big deep breath, and smiled. It was somehow the same and different, all at once. Gone was the astroturf on the terrace and a thicket’s worth of brush, replaced by herringboned brick and a view straight to the Pacific. Furnished like a dream Manhattan penthouse, the lounging areas are all modern curves in beige, russet, brown and glowing gold. There’s even a Damien Hirst silk-screen of butterflies trimmed in diamond dust, and it looks quite at home. I’d certainly stayed here before, but I hadn’t stayed here before.
Back in the day, spending a weekend here felt like escaping to another time. Everything felt soft and worn, like a favorite sweater or a vintage rocking chair. The menu stuck to classics my grandparents might have enjoyed. The gardens were lush and overgrown as if keeping the property hidden from view, rooms didn’t have TVs, and the loudest sound was the creaking of a metal bench swing on the sloping lawn. In its current incarnation, the peace and quiet remains, but just about everything else feels sexier. Part of that sloping lawn has been set aside for a gated infinity pool. The spa has individual resting pods with tiny lights and magazines that will make you aspire to a life of jewels, shiny cars, and well…staying at El Encanto.
The hand-crafted cocktail list is firmly set in the present, and the food is simply stunning. The rakishly handsome (yeah, I said it) French chef, Patrice Martineau, keeps a huge kitchen garden, growing herbs and vegetables he came to love while working at The Peninsula Tokyo. His cuisine here focuses on seasonal, local seafood and produce, and I’d like to be locked into the restaurant’s gorgeous wine cellar if the apocalypse ever hits. Whether you’re out on the breezy terrace or seated by the graceful tumble of teardrop lights in the dining room, meals here are an occasion for lingering, from a perfectly fluffy egg white omelette to fruit-trimmed salads to perfectly seared scallops. And don’t miss the one holdover from the original dinner menu: the delicate “floating island,” a deconstructed bird’s nest of sugar resting on a cloud of meringue.
The 92 individual bungalows are still unique to one another, and retain many of the 1920s Spanish-Colonial Revival architectural details that define Santa Barbara itself (e.g., terra cotta roofs and floors, wrought iron scrollwork, etc.).
However, now you’ll also find the presence of a more modern era. Bathrooms have been tricked out with heated floors and big, gleaming tubs topped with little earthenware jars of El Encanto’s signature-scented bath salts. Walls and doors feel thick and secure, and huge flat-screen TVs gleam from sitting areas and bedrooms. Most colors are muted, but bright objets d’art pop from the corners. You’ll want to steal all the coffee table books, and, like me, you’ll probably marvel at a simple detail you haven’t seen in a hotel before: a bolster pillow on the bed that bears your last name’s initial.
Tailor made for workaholics who haven’t yet spent their retirement funds (bungalows now start at upwards of $500 US a night), this place invites you to hang out and indulge. Between the gorgeous coffee, afternoon tea, and chocolates left in your room after dinner, you could certainly coast on a sugar-and-caffeine high all day long. But there’s plenty of opportunity to decrease your heart rate, with low-impact activities like drifting around the airy and full-service spa; strolling the well-pruned grounds; cooing over other guests’ dogs (pets are allowed, for a nightly fee); keeping your eyes peeled for hand-painted ceramic pigs hidden in the gardens; and curling up on porches, patios, loungers and sofas with all those books and articles you never get to read.
However, in the exploratory spirit of Travels With Two, I’d encourage you to rip yourselves away now and again. El Encanto is only 1 ½ miles from the historic beauty of downtown Santa Barbara; 15 minutes from Montecito’s most famous garden estate, Lotusland; roughly a half-hour from Los Olivos and the Santa Maria Valley wine country ; and 20+ minutes from Goleta and the Ellwood Main Butterfly Preserve, where migrating Monarch butterflies gather by the thousands from November to March. Flit around as you may, safe in the knowledge that this sprawling hotel will be waiting when you’re ready to land. I can attest that the new El Encanto, much like the old one, is a sweet, special place to create some lasting memories.
My stay, meals, drinks and spa treatment were all provided by El Encanto, but all opinions and observations are my own.
And seriously: You oughtta see this place for yourselves.