The list of loyal clientele at the Belmond El Encanto reads more like Hollywood royalty, than nouveau riche…Streisand and Gable, rather than Kardashian. The seven-acre property possesses a sense of grandeur dating back the golden age of the movie industry, when it was a great escape from Hollywood for many a starlet or a leading man looking for down time and discretion.
Back then, Santa Barbara, the Pacific-lined city beneath the El Encanto, earned its nickname, “American Riviera,” for its sun, surf, and elegance. Just 90 minutes up the 101 freeway, it’s proximity to Los Angeles made it an easy destination for a weekend, or even a boozy day trip, with a long lunch turning into an overnight at the El Encanto.
One central building houses the reception desk, a bar and dining rooms, including an outdoor patio. Guests are escorted down windy, brick-laid paths and landscaped gardens to a series of bungalows. The structures are nestled together with private terraces and balconies, combining Spanish colonial and California craftsmen architecture. Spaces are designed to encourage relaxation. In our bungalow, a large bedroom is the backdrop for a corner fireplace, flanked by two comfy leather chairs and a coffee table – perfect for reading. Marbled bathrooms with under floor heating are enormous with everything following a super-size theme. They’re equipped with gigantic, fluffy towels, a large tub, and a shower built for two. Etro-brand bathroom amenities from the Milanese design house are generous, the bright colored tubes filled with a sophisticated scent.
Over-sized beds are set with welcoming pillows monogrammed with guests’ initials, befitting the resort’s glamorous reputation. It’s high thread count linens and subtle lighting set the scene for a peaceful sleep.
Originally, the El Encanto attracted artists from the Plein-Air School, a style of painting popular in the early 20th century. Considered ‘California’ impressionism, this style of painting from nature was adopted in the southern part of the state following success further north in San Francisco, where the trend had made its way from the East Coast, home to a large number of American impressionists who had picked up the techniques from visits to Europe.
Sitting by the pool next to the main building, it’s easy to spot the artistic inspiration, from the views overlooking the Pacific, to the original wishing well, first installed in 1928, to the Monet-like lily pond and the 100-year old wisteria vines. The hotel continues its connection to art with works by Damien Hirst, Charles Aroldi and Paul Villinksi decorating the walls of the public areas.
A fitness center and spa offer yoga, Pilates and cardio classes, or one can borrow the bicycles available for loan to cycle down to State Street, centered in Santa Barbara’s downtown with more than a mile of shops and restaurants leading a path to the harbour and the historic wharf. The El Encanto also offers a shuttle service transporting guests to destinations within a 5-mile radius.
An indoor-outdoor dining room serves locally sourced California-style cuisine, making good use of seafood and bountiful produce – much of it grown just a few miles inland within Santa Barbara county. Breakfast makes nods to food trends past and present with breakfast burritos and a steak and egg dish that will keep you full until suppertime (and costs about the same as dinner, too).
The wine list is naturally dominated by producers from Santa Barbara and other nearby counties. There are bottles from further afield, like a sparkling white from England and Argentine reds, but with the central coast producing such good wine these days, there’s no need to stray into foreign territory.
Diners are a mix of hotel guests, some of whom have been coming here for years, and locals. On one of the nights during our stay, residents of Montecito were evacuated because of the heavy rain and fear of mudslides. The El Encanto is one of the more popular places evacuees take shelter. While packing up and leaving one’s home behind is never a pleasant task, there can’t be many better shelters to run to than the El Encanto.
Belmond El Encanto, 800 Alvarado Place, Santa Barbara, California, 93103, USA.
Tel: +1(805) 845-5800
The resort is set in seven acres of secluded gardens in beautiful Santa Barbara and only 9 miles (15 minutes) from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. Alternatively, LAX is about a 90-minute drive where you can easily hire a car for the duration of your stay.
Type of Hotel: 5-Star Hotel Resort
Number of Rooms: 92 rooms and suites, including complimentary Wi-Fi throughout.
Price Band: High
Insider Tip: Take advantage of the free shuttle anywhere (return) within a 5-mile radius, but it is recommended you book early.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
For more information on visiting Santa Barbara please visit www.santabarbara.com
Amy Guttman is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London regularly reporting for PBS Newshour, BBC and Forbes, focusing on current affairs and entrepreneurship.
Photographs courtesy of Belmond El Encanto