It has taken a good seven years for this to happen: Orient-Express Hotels opened its latest masterpiece in recent months — the seven-year bottom to top redo of the 100-year-old El Encanto in Santa Barbara. It’s held U.S. presidents and icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age within its California Craftsman and Spanish Colonial spread, and it is none the worse for wear. A seven-year lift can do a lot to pump life and color into a run down resort and this one is now basking in its close-up.
The El Encanto shut its doors in 2006. Orient Express properties, known for a collection of hotels that present like museum pieces, knew just what it was doing when it acquired the property in 2004. At that time (El Encanto’s last independent owners purchased it in 1977, 100 years after the original purchase of the land for $153.75 had earned the name “Storke’s Folly”) it had been in serious need of a renovation. It first became the fashionable El Encanto in the 1920s and by the 1970s, the string of bungalows on the mountainside in Montecito overlooking the Pacific had hosted the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt as well as Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Hedy Lamarr, and later Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Kennedy Jr., Gwen Stefani, Barbra Streisand, Wolfgang Puck, and Leonardo DiCaprio. They usually stayed in the Wishing Well suite (formerly the Presidential Suite), with its 1000-square-feet of space and front porch overlooking a deep well of good luck and an ocean of fortune beyond.
But in 2004, the owner sold the aging property to Orient-Express Hotels for $26 million and in 2006 the El Encanto checked out its last guest.
Working steadily with the Santa Barbara Landmarks Commission, Orient-Express poured in another $109 million to rebuild the El Encanto into exactly what it was, brick by brick, plant by plant, plank by plank and room by room for each one of the 92 rooms and suites. It reopened its doors in March to a California splendor that no longer easy to find. The seven acres of Eucalyptus stands, wisteria arbors, California oak and Santa Barbara pine overlooking the lights of town in the distance and the coastal waters nearby provides a certain getaway effect, if only from the Entertainment Capital of the world some 90 minutes south and from a fast-paced life all around.
El Encanto is about California Slow – the location is in the path of the Monarch butterfly’s breeding grounds. California Mission and Craftsman style accommodations designed over the past century with wooden porches and period decor (a phalanx of Superior Bungalow Kings stands above the other buildings on these grounds, Spanish adobe style rooms that once served as dormers for the university during the turn of the last century). But the interiors are conveniently contemporary and very Orient-Express.
El Encanto: Rooms and Suites
El Encanto offers 70 rooms and 22 suites – 63 with fireplaces (gas powered), 40 with private terraces, 21 with coastal views, 11 with garden views. Accommodations are not large. This is a hotel that was basically lifted in place and the footprint of old stayed firm. That means kings and doubles range from 350 square feet to 600 and suites are mostly 600-650 square feet with the exception of six specialty suites that run 800-1,100 square feet. Inside, find wooden floors with plush and tasteful Oriental style carpeting, large beds with soft, plump European bedding, comfortable craftsman lounge chairs and ottomans, an ample desk and only as much furniture as needed.
The bathrooms at the El Encanto “wow.” Orient-Express makes a prideful signature of its bathroom set-ups no matter how small and at El Encanto the tradition continues. Find marble floors (heated, that is) and countertops, double sinks, gold-plated fixtures, and a deep soaking tub that does it right. This one has women in mind (although big enough for both sexes) with narrow sides and a perfectly angled back slope. There is plenty of side space around the tub and a complimentary urn of aromatic bath salts to complement the Acgua di Parma bathroom amenities offered. A large marble shower stall with a wide, rainshower ceiling fixture complements the tub, or guests can use the hand held nozzle – which comes in handy for those who do not want to get their hair wet (the amenity tray does not include shower caps).
Along with a separate commode room, the bathroom also contains the dressing area. This is where the built-in wall closet is, with full-length mirror, drawers, safe, and plenty of storage space. Also find the umbrella that guests usually forget to bring. In the bedroom, a large flat screen TV sits over the mantle, and a fireplace feature blazing below makes the setting a particularly cozy experience. Wi-fi is complimentary and there are plenty of contemporary outlets around the desk area to power all devices. An iPod stand with speakers makes a nice touch. The L.A. Times is delivered early in the morning and adds to the tableau of sipping fresh Nespresso coffee on the porch in the early California light, accented by purple wisteria blooms, twisted aged wood vines, the rustle of Eucalyptus and the flutters of Monarchs.
The lobby building is the heart of the hotel, separate from the bungalows and opening up to a wide dining terrace where the views of the Pacific are stunning. Guests get their sunsets here, usually with a local Pinot Noir in hand (for anyone who saw the film Sideways, the wine is a must in Santa Barbara). This spot of the property also received its mis-en-place facelift. As the venue that hosted decades of Santa Barbara blue bloods and the local celebrities that lived in these Montecito Hills (Jane Fonda, Drew Barrymore, Oprah …), very little could be changed. Reception is easy and uncomplicated (rarely a line) and steps away is a library parlor with overstuffed seating, shelves stuffed with art books and a large, warm fireplace. This is where good friends and intimates have homemade scones and afternoon tea. Nearby is a grand piano and on weekends a Sinatra crooner fills the bar. Outside on the terrace, anyone can take a meal or just sit, no questions asked.
Dining at El Encanto
The food focus at El Encanto is clearly a draw. Chef Patrice Martineau’s resume includes, as one would expect for an Orient-Express property, tenures at Peter at The Peninsula Tokyo, The Savoy in London, Daniel in NYC, mentoring by Christophe Cussac and plenty of television appearances with the BBC. Dishes fuse Santa Barbara local with California contemporary and wrap in influences of trendy French cuisine and classic Japanese. Find such delicacies as abalone on the menu along with risottos, creative California salads, New York cuts and even DB-style burgers. Entrees run $20 to $54 at dinner, a bit less at lunch and to-die-for desserts are always $10.
El Encanto Pool & Spa
Although the property is very dog friendly (walkers, doggy bowls, all pooch services provided for the asking) and family friendly, the pool at El Encanto is a quiet pool. It faces the Pacific and sits heated to 85 degrees. No Jacuzzi here. The Spa at El Encanto is full service with seven treatment rooms and does not open onto the pool. It is in the lobby building and contains a large steam room for men and women in their respective changing areas and a plush central waiting area with teas and dried fruit. Treatments run 50 and 80 minutes with a full menu of possibilities, from Oxygen treatments to Four Hand massage, to active organic facials to Pinot scrubs. Each season a package is created using local garden herbs, such as basil or sage or, coming up, peppermint. Sessions start at $160, although multi-treatment gift picks start at $345. Therapists are focused and professional, and highly trained in products and therapies.
Activities & Excursions in Santa Barbara
Guests come to the El Encanto for rest and quiet but not far from the property is the old Santa Barbara Mission (circa 1786) as well as trails and parks amid the old California oaks that surround. About 10 minutes away is downtown Santa Barbara with about a mile of stylish shopping, dining and walking on State Street toward the beach. Parking is easy and traffic is light. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is along this walk with strong collections of 19th and 20th century paintings and photography from Europe, Asia and the U.S. Admission is $10. Great beaches lie just south in Carpentaria. Ojai, en route to Los Angeles, is a quaint artists’ colony hidden in the mountains that makes a memorable day trip.
(800) 393-5315; (805) 770-3702