Belmond El Encanto, Santa Barbara, US
Sprawled across the lush green coastline of the American Riviera, this sophisticated Santa Barbara hotel honours its glamorous Hollywood history
21 February, 2023
Sitting on a hillside above the Pacific Ocean, the verdant sprawl of Los Padres National Forest crowding in behind, this iconic coastal stay has been open since 1918, offering a warm welcome to guests including Clark Gable, Barbra Streisand and Franklin D. Roosevelt. It's no wonder the rich and famous flock here; rooms - bungalow-style and spread across the lush grounds - offer intimate privacy. The hotel's Spanish Revival architecture - so familiar in this part of the US - adds to its distinctly old Hollywood feel. Friendly and caring, but not overbearing, service keeps itineraries on schedule and frayed nerves subdued. Case in point? When we lost a belt for a dress 30 minutes before we were due to attend a wedding service, the housekeeping staff happily dug up a similar one from lost and found. It's that "help is here when you need it" ethos and quietly confident assistance that keeps El Encanto at the top of the legends list.
The hotel's sun-baked exterior, left, and a snug living area.
The hotel's 92 elegant bungalow rooms, including 22 suites, are scattered across the grounds. Tucked behind flowering shrubs and mature trees, their privacy lends a sense of intimacy to an otherwise medium-sized retreat - you'd think there were fewer rooms.
In keeping with the Spanish Revival architecture, interiors feature whitewashed walls, dark-wood furnishings and, in most rooms, working fireplaces. Beds - if you're in a larger suite - are enormous. Bathrooms have heated floors and are stocked with eco-friendly beauty products.
What's for breakfast?
The menu might be classic (eggs, pancakes and waffles) but the heated terrace overlooking the ocean really makes your morning meal something special. There are zany Californian twists on offer, too. Add CBD to your juice, pick a dairy-free coconut yoghurt parfait to start or opt for typical Cali plates like huevos rancheros and El Encanto egg-white scramble. The hotel prides itself on the quality of its ingredients, and stocks its own signature coffee and teas.
Dining area views, alongside a snapshot of an airy bedroom.
How about lunch and dinner?
Chef Johan Denizot is behind the seasonal Californian menus. The kitchen sources ingredients, where possible, from local farmers and fishermen, and many of the vegetables and herbs are grown in the property's gardens. Top picks for lunch include a lobster cobb, tortilla soup, tacos and local halibut and chips. This being California - home of the health-conscious - the menu includes a "wellness selection", with full nutritional information listed alongside dishes. If you're not feeling too overloaded, we'd recommend stopping for an afternoon tea, too.
Dinners are more formal, with a vegetable-heavy list of starters (think heirloom tomato gazpacho and roasted beet salad) and entrees that include Maple Leaf Farms duck breast and a whole grilled snapper for two. If you have room, desserts include gluten-free, vegan ice-cream sandwiches, s'mores, a chai sticky toffee pudding and a cheese plate made using milk from the hotel's resident cow, Ellie. There's also a caviar menu - it's that kind of place.
Is there a bar?
Yes, next to the dining room. It does a mean margarita but note that, this being Cali, last orders are at 11pm.
An outdoor, heated, saltwater infinity pool is open year-round. There is a medium-sized gym with ocean views and a spa, where we had one of the best massages of our lives (ask for Adriana Reyna if you're booking in). Electric bikes are available for exploring the area, and the hotel will prepare a picnic for the beach, if you fancy. In the warmer months, guests enjoy regular al fresco movie nights.
Take a look inside Belmond El Encanto...
How about their green credentials?
Eco-friendly cleaning products, bath products and light bulbs are all in use. Vegetables are, where possible, grown in the gardens and other produce is sourced locally from sustainable producers.
What about accessibility?
There are several specially adapted rooms.
What's the crowd?
A real mix of well-dressed families and sleek couples, old and young. The feeling is one of laid-back luxury.
Things I should know
The nearest airport is LAX, which is a two-hour drive away. We'd head here to kick back during a big Californian road trip, or, if you're LA-based, for a luxurious long weekend.
Children are welcome (and those under 18 stay free in suites equipped with sofa beds); the hotel happily provides free travel cots, as well as baby monitors. The restaurant has a children's menu and high chairs, too. Otherwise, additional guests cost from £70 a night.
Pets are welcome but you'll have to pay £124 for one and £62 for each additional animal.
Within a short walk I can find…
The American Riviera neighbourhood and some beautiful, lust-worthy houses. More restaurants, boutiques and beaches are a 10-minute drive away: the hotel provides a free shuttle service on a first-come, first-served basis.