The West Coast is one of my happy places. Whether I’m staying with friends, in a tent, up a tree in Big Sur (yes, I have done that), in my car, a hostel in Santa Monica, or a luxe hotel in Bel Air, when I am there, there is nowhere else I would rather be.
Long term readers will remember my California Adventure from back in 2009, where I flew to LAX, hired a shonky car from an even shonkier rental company on a lot at the arse end of the airport, and set off to explore.
I first visited Santa Barbara on that mission, and I’ve been back several times since, although not to stay. Last month I decided it was time I spent a night there, and booked in at Santa Barbara’s most storied hotel, the Belmond El Encanto, perched in the foothills above the city.
(The dining terrace in the clubhouse at the Belmond El Encanto.)
Santa Barbara is a gorgeous two hour drive up the coast from Santa Monica, where I spent my first night in California on this trip at the Fairmont Miramar. Don’t be put off by the distance thing – two hours in English terms always seems like a bit of a schlep, in California that’s like popping round the corner to get some milk. And, as I mentioned, it really is a lovely drive.
A landmark since the 1920s, the hotel has benefitted from an excellent and recent restoration project, with its original architectural features have been lovingly brought back to life. Modern additions include a heated outdoor swimming pool and a boutique spa.
The property is centred around a white central clubhouse, which houses reception, a sitting area, the main restaurant, a terrace overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean, and the above-mentioned spa.
In February it was beautifully sunny, but with a real nip to the air in the mornings, and the fire in the sitting area of the clubhouse was more than welcome.
This is the terrace at the back of the clubhouse building, where breakfast is taken.
The property is large, with accommodation split between California Craftsman, and Mission Style Bungalows. If you are less mobile, there are golf carts to transport you through the winding, tree-lined paths to your home for the night.
The gardens themselves are perfect for strolling in, with plenty of niches and nooks for reading and staring at the bright blue skies. (It’s understandably extremely popular for al fresco weddings.)
And, although I didn’t have Lettice, my needy sausage dog, in tow, I was pleased to see that El Encanto is dog friendly.
I met this delightful new friend at breakfast one morning. Helped to stave off the Lettice-missing.
My California Craftsman bungalow home for two nights really did feel like a generously sized apartment, with a huge combined bedroom and living area, a dressing room leading to a frankly palatial bathroom, with separate loo and shower and, accessed through a stable door, a beautiful shaded terrace running the length of the bed-sitting room.
Above – the front porch.
The hotel is justly proud of its monogram pillow for each resident – a W here for Wilkins, my surname.
The light-flooded seating area is a joy, with none of the sterility you sometimes find in smart hotels. Everything has been thought of, and it’s as close to a room in a private home as I’ve come across in a hotel.
I loved the pretty writing desk, with its personalised guest stationery.
(Parker Cisele fountain pen gift )
I spent an entire day on this beautiful terrace, which can be seen looking enticing through the stable door in the living area.
And then there’s the bathroom. Frankly there was more square footage here than there was in the entirety of my old East Village, Manhattan apartment.
One of its big selling points for me is its accessibility options: with a sister who has MS, I’m always hyper aware of trip hazards, accessible bathing options, and grab rails. This bathroom was perfectly laid out for someone mobile but with access issues.
No trip hazards here!
And so the hotel grounds…the swimming pool is a world-beater. Even on sunny days it can be chilly, but the pool is heated, and doing early morning laps staring at the ocean is a pretty good way to start the day.
During my stay, I had an excellent massage from a male masseur. I’ve noticed in American hotels (as opposed to European ones) that they can be quite surprised by women choosing to have male masseurs. The spa pointedly checked several times that I knew he was male…but I’d much rather have a guy digging his fingers in the knots in my shoulders, not being a fan of the scented, strokey, strokey approach, and Brian gave me one of the best therapeutic massages I’ve had in a while.
There is a great gym, whose USP is these exercise bikes out on the terrace underneath the pool, but if gyms aren’t your thing then it’s easy enough to head to the hills. Not metaphorically – behind Santa Barbara lies a mountain range and the Los Padres National Forest, and there are plenty of fantastic hiking trails within minutes of the hotel. (Sadly it was a little bit chilly first thing in the morning for me in February so I didn’t go this time, but here I am standing on top of Inspiration Point back in 2009.)
I didn’t eat supper in the restaurant, as I went off to meet my dear friend Lisa for dinner in town, but I had breakfast twice out on the terrace (chilly – pack a cashmere wrap in February), which was very good both times. But its deliciousness was beaten into a cocked hat by the absolutely charming waitstaff, for whom nothing was too much trouble.
Eating breakfast with this view is a complete treat.
Huevos Rancheros for breakfast – I think it’s illegal not to order this at least once in California. And when it’s as good as this…mmmm….
Although this hotel is beautifully thought out, and the interiors exquisite, it’s the staff here that really stood out for me. From the valet guys, who didn;t flinch at my midden-on-wheels and the bellhops who coped admirably with my insane amounts of luggage, through to the cheery housekeepers and welcoming reception staff, nothing was too much trouble.
And the hotel’s care and consideration stretches to your car: as I drove off I noticed two bottles of complimentary water in the console.
Belmond El Encanto Santa Barbara: 800 Alvarado Pl, Santa Barbara, CA 93103, United States. Telephone: +1 805-845-5800
Sasha was a guest of Belmond for two nights, bed and breakfast, at The Belmond El Encanto in February 2016.