It would be hard to encounter a frequent visitor to Santa Barbara, if not one of the city’s inhabitants, who hasn’t visited the El Encanto Hotel. Perched high in the hills, with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean that’s breathtaking, its siren song has been irresistible for those who simply wanted to drop in for a quiet drink on the sprawling terrace at sunset, or hole up in one of its cozy bungalows.
Its past is as storied as the nearby Santa Barbara Mission, with a celebrity clientele that dates back to Hollywood’s Golden Age (from Gable and Lombard to Babs to Leo). It helped that the atmosphere wasn’t as stuffy as that at San Ysidro Ranch to the south, or as formal as that at the Four Seasons Biltmore on the coast below. If the drive back to L.A. seemed too daunting after a cocktail or two, an overnight stay could be arranged without draining your savings account.
But by the ’90s, things had become so casual that the property had fallen into disrepair — more shabby than chic. In came Orient-Express, known for such posh hideaways as the Hotel Cipriani in Venice and the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, to give the El Encanto a much-needed facelift. Seven years and $134 million later, the hotel has been restored to its former glory.
With changes unveiled this past spring, the aim was to update the seven-acre property for the more discerning traveler without sacrificing its soul. The Historic Landmarks Commission made sure the exteriors were not compromised, to ensure a pristine restoration that remains faithful to the property’s combination of Craftsman and Mission-style origins.
The subtlety of the exterior upgrades belies the fact that each bungalow was lifted up — walls rebuilt, new plumbing installed underneath — and dropped back down. Creamy white stucco coverings, terra cotta-tiled porches and brick-lined walkways feel crisp and clean, but the vibe evokes an era when all this was built almost a century ago. Construction of a handful of Craftsmans began in 1913, serving as student and faculty housing for what is now UC Santa Barbara. They were converted into the El Encanto five years later; the Mission-style bungalows were added starting in the mid-’30s.
For the upgrade to comply with building standards, it was necessary to demolish some of the original structures, but the new builds preserve the El Encanto’s original architectural integrity. The famed arbor and lily pond was broken down brick-by-brick and refashioned using those very same bricks.
The elegant transformation is evident as soon as one walks through the lobby doors. The small reception desk is the opposite of ostentatious. Unpredictable art adorns the walls, including stunning works by Charles Arnoldi, Damien Hirst and Brad Miller. Hirst’s painting of diamond-dusted butterflies establishes a motif unique to Santa Barbara, a migratory destination for the Monarch species. The piece de resistance is artist Paul Villinski’s cobalt-blue butterflies that line the stairway leading down to the new 4,500-square-foot spa below. Once there, if a Pinot and Cabernet Crush Sugar Scrub (the grape seeds harvested from the vineyards nearby) seems too rich for your blood, a complimentary steam might do the trick.
And while the kinks in the restaurant’s menu still need to be worked out, the dining room is posh and inviting, with a wine room available for private parties of up to 14 guests, equipped with a glass partition that allows patrons to see out without anybody being able to peer in. It’s a feature that seems ideally suited to the VIPs flooding into town for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (there’s also an event space upstairs with an eagle-eye view). But the terrace, which shares the same menu, is a viable option even in winter, with heat lamps at the ready and that panoramic view unobstructed.
Gone is the old backyard-style pool that hugged the hillside, replaced by an infinity pool lengthy enough to swim laps, with the water heated to 84 degrees during the cold season. If a chlorinated plunge isn’t your thing, the brand-new fitness room below is fully equipped and inviting to even the exercise-averse.
Of the 92 rooms, which average 560 square feet, 63 have fireplaces, 40 feature private terraces and 21 tout coastal views. Custom-monogrammed pillows greet you upon arrival. Italian linens feel luxurious. The marble-lined bathrooms, with radiantly heated floors, are characterized by ceilings so high a shower is akin to a cascading waterfall. Some of the fancier Craftsman quarters are adorned with hand-painted headboards, hammered-metal coffee tables and original art (curation was overseen by Deanna Postil of DPA Fine Art Consulting); there are no faux pastel prints that smack of assembly-line decor here.
Embossed hotel stationery, with peacock-plume pens, is so fancy that letter writing never seemed more inviting. And for celebs who prefer their privacy, a discreet side entrance is available for access and egress. It’s the kind of experience that lingers in the memory. So with apologies to the Eagles, be warned: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.