Santa Barbara, on the self-styled American Riviera, is one of the most beautiful coastal resort towns in California. Little wonder this south facing stretch of America’s Pacific coast is home to the some of the country’s most notable residents including Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Ellen DeGeneres, and Tom Cruise.
You too can enjoy the discreet, laid-back luxury of Santa Barbara with a stay at the exclusive Belmond El Encanto, writes Andrew Forbes.
Welcome & Check-in
Getting to Santa Barbara is relatively easy from the main international hubs of San Francisco or Los Angeles. Although Santa Barbara has a small airport, it makes better sense to rent a car and drive the 150 kilometres north from Los Angeles airport to Santa Barbara – traffic means this takes at least 2 hours.
Belmond has a proven approach of pre-arrival communication with guests, so I knew that my room, dining reservations, spa booking etc. were all confirmed before I arrived, together with a few personal preferences.
Upon arrival on a warm summer’s day I was welcomed with Bellini cocktails on the elegant terrace, courtesy of Julio the friendly head of the bar– this really set the tone for a very special stay.
Check-in was offered in the lobby lounge & bar, and Emilio, Laura and the front desk team were friendly and professional.
Whilst being escorted to my bungalow by Jesse of guest relations, I was explained the history of the property and given some tips for enjoying Santa Barbara.
…the only Forbes Five Star resort on the American Riviera
This exclusive hilltop estate, once student accommodation in the early 1900s, became a chic and understated retreat for Hollywood celebrities.
In the early noughties, this iconic estate had begun to fall into disrepair, so the family-owned property was sold to Orient-Express Hotels (later rebranding to Belmond) who, under the supervision of Santa Barbara’s Historic Landmark Commission, restored the estate into what is now the only Forbes Five Star resort on the American Riviera.
The 32 guest bungalows which offer a total of 92 guest rooms, retain their vintage Californian style and it still very much feels like a 1950s Hollywood hideaway. The 2014 multi-million-dollar remodelling delivered new contemporary enhancements including elegant guest rooms, an infinity fresh water pool, gym, and smart public spaces; whilst many historical elements such as the trellis-lined Arbour and Lily Pond in the 7 acres grounds have been restored.
So, Belmond has given El Encanto a new lease of life, including world-class contemporary art and installations, positioned throughout the main building where one finds the lobby lounge and bar, including a cosy fireside drawing room area, (lovely space for Afternoon Tea) and on the lower level the excellent spa.
I was personally particularly taken by the art, especially the ‘120 prayers’, a work by Yoshitomo Saito of 120 bronze pine cones positioned in an organic way on the wall behind the reception desk – a beautiful way to bring the surrounding nature into the hotel.
Likewise, the work ‘Sueño’ by Paul Villinski, a multitude of metal butterflies, painted cobalt blue, flowing down the grand staircase evokes a delicate, calming notion of nature as one approaches the spa.
Guest Rooms & Suites
This resort lives up to its name; it is a charming enclave of ‘bungalows’ of guest rooms & suites. The colonial ‘Mission’ style and classic ‘Craftsman’ bungalows are distributed across the small hillside estate, surrounded by subtropical gardens with Spanish colonial style details such as fountains, and little courtyard patios.
Each bungalow is home to a few guest rooms & suites which are full of thoughtful design. This boutique property celebrates its heritage and charming ambiance.
I stayed I one of the largest suites; living room with chimney, spacious bathroom and master bedroom.
The suite opened out onto a large covered terrace that ran along one side of the bungalow.
Yet after the first night, I opted to change rooms to a more intimate space with the sitting room as part of the bedroom
The more compact space felt more welcoming and cosy for me.
colonial ‘Mission’ style and classic ‘Craftsman’ bungalows
Each room has its own character, yet all include iPod docking, iron with board, large safe etc.
The rooms are well furnished with modern entertainment technology, and classic furniture. In my mind, it would have been lovely to have had some more personal touches including more hardback coffee table books and magazines etc.
The South American house-keeping team were in my experience superb. Marcela the house-keeping member of staff who looked after my room was a delight to deal with and really made me feel welcome and kept the room in pristine condition, generously replenishing the lovely amenities.
Bathrooms are of warm coloured marble with bath tub, rain forest showers, town wash basins and Italian amenities.
The stocked mini bar includes Nespresso coffee, bottled water at turndown, and complimentary local wine, a Summerland Pinot Noir, from the Bien Nacido Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, which together with the sophisticated fruit and chocolate plate was as an elegant welcoming gesture from GM Shaun O’Bryan.
Guest services include free Wi-Fi, a morning newspaper delivered to the room,
The main restaurant, simply called The Dining Room and Terrace celebrates nearby central northern Californian wineries as well as local produce from the earth and ocean.
…the kitchen was most certainly delivering to Belmond’s world-class standards
During my visit in June 2017 service at dinner wasn’t quite to usual Belmond standards but it was clear that this is one of the areas that is being fine-tuned.
The three young Maître’d hostesses appeared a little frazzled by the volume of dinner guests; and during the meal our waitress seemed very preoccupied with other matters and we were left on our own for very long periods of time.
Despite the issues with service, the food was truly first-rate.
The low light meant I couldn’t photograph the plates very well with my phone but be assured that the kitchen was most certainly delivering to Belmond’s standards.
Starters included seared Ahi Tuna; organic Kale salad; and cauliflower soup. I chose the appealing grilled octopus with lamb sausage, garbanzo beans and smoked piquillo pepper relish – such a great combination and so tasty.
The main dishes included a varied selection from vegetarian Black Quinoa with grilled market vegetables; to roast chicken; pasta; and some appealing fish dishes such as wild King Salmon; local halibut; and Californian black cod. I took the Day Boat Scallops – and this being America, they were huge, juicy clams – and wonderfully presented.
Breakfast is a real pleasure. Served on the terrace with ocean views; it’s a wonderful to start the day. Our server was a local resident;who offer superb service, a natural, friendly style and lots of helpful travel tips about Santa Barbara – that’s the Belmond touch one expects.
The comprehensive breakfast menu includes light Mediterranean breakfast bites; savoury hotel ides such as Eggs Benedict or a Hearty Breakfast Burrito as well some classic American sweet treats such as waffles, pancakes and French Toast.
The intimate pool area is a real ‘rincón del paraíso’ on the American Riviera. Elegant aquamarine parasols and grey towels create a sophisticated aesthetic. Rueben and his colleagues looking after poolside service were professional and friendly. Below the freshwater pool is the Fitness Studio.
Another standout experience at the Belmond El Encanto was at the boutique, full-service spa. Manager Sara Scott and her team offer a relaxing and professional service. Access to the spa circuit and the Fitness Studio is included for all guests. Personalised training is available, as it advice for local jogging routes.
I chose to be pampered in the spa, and opted for a massage with Jay, who if you don’t mind, talks you through the massage in the style of a meditation treatment. It was something new for me but he certainly had a knack at enabling me to release charged muscles that I didn’t even know were tense!
Santa Barbara – the American Riviera
The town of Santa Barbara is a delight to explore. A short walk from El Encanto is the Santa Barbara Mission; one of over 20 built in California by the Franciscan monks from Mexico.
El Encanto offer several activities that can be tailored your guests’ preferences including a private tour of Santa Barbara in one of the hotel’s luxury vehicles, or a guided walking tour. The hotel even offers electric Pedego push bikes for a fun way to get around and explore.
The valet and doorman team were super-accommodating throughout my stay. There is a free shuttle service down into the town. One evening I decided to eat on the marina with the locals, in a lively seafood joint. The valet who took me in a luxury 4×4 was professional and helpful.
The restored ‘Hollywood hideaway’ of the Belmond El Encanto offers genuine, understated exclusivity in the hills above Santa Barbara – make sure you visit when you are next on the west coast.
Address: Belmond El Encanto 800 Alvarado Place Santa Barbara California 93103 USA
Tel: + 1 805 845 5800