After a seven-year restoration by Orient-Express, Santa Barbara’s oldest hotel reopened last March. For decades, its famous terrace provided a glamorous stage for movie stars and presidents alike.
Located above Santa Barbara in the residential Riviera neighborhood, El Encanto first opened in 1917. Its glory days lasted from the 1920s until the 1950s, after which decline slowly set in. The lengthy reconstruction was undertaken in collaboration with the Santa Barbara Historic Landmarks Commission, and I was keen to see whether the resort’s period atmosphere had been successfully preserved.
On arrival, we were escorted to our room along meandering paths lined with wildflowers. Spread across seven acres overlooking the Pacific, the 92-room property now comprises Bungalow Suites, smaller Bungalows and new, modern Luxury Suites. The original tile-roofed bungalows were raised so that new foundations could be constructed and modern comforts, such as radiant-heat tile flooring, installed. Thoroughly traditional on the outside, our bungalow came with contemporary furnishings and fabrics in pleasingly warm and restful tones. Overall, it proved to be a cozy space with an attractive sunroom sitting area and a bedroom with a gas fireplace. The splendid modern bath was almost as large as the bedroom.
Strolling through the grounds before dinner, we easily saw why El Encanto has inspired such loyalty and affection. We paused for a while beside the famous Lily Pond, which has been lovingly restored. Apparently, the adjacent Arbor was dismantled brick by brick and its 40 columns re-erected. During the work, its venerable wisteria was pruned back and supported by temporary scaffolding.
In the restaurant, Executive Chef Patrice Martineau, formerly of Daniel in New York, serves “California Coastal” cuisine. His menu has a farm-to-table ethos: Fruits and vegetables come from an on-site garden, and cheeses are crafted with milk from Ellie, the resort’s own cow. A starter of poached lobster and chive-glazed gnocchi was delicious, but the sautéed abalone with parsley-garlic purée proved disappointingly bland. Fortunately, the pan-seared swordfish with creamy Jerusalem artichokes was outstanding. In a nod to tradition, Martineau still serves the hotel’s famed floating island dessert, the “Enchanted ‘Oeuf à la Neige,’” which dates to the 1920s. New amenities at the hotel include an infinity pool with views of Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, plus a magnificent spa that employs seasonal organic products, such as a signature oil of lemongrass and sage.
Despite a few minor service glitches, our stay at El Encanto was extremely enjoyable. Orient-Express has done a fine job, and the meticulous restoration of this famous sanctuary will delight its many admirers.