El Encanto, Santa Barbara

LOCATION: Santa Barbara, California, 90 miles north of LA and 300 miles south of San Francisco.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The odds were stacked in favour of this hotel being marvellous.
It sits on top of a Santa Barbara hill and faces the sea. Its 100 year old heritage is littered with visits from silver screen stars. And now it’s in the Orient-Express collection.
So when it opened after a seven-year restoration I wasn’t surprised to find a meticulously impressive example of how to bring the best out of an old hotel but make it suitable for a 21st Century palate.
Like the best, and most annoying because other people tend to have them, haircuts it had clearly had expert hands upon it but shows no garish sign of having been the result of enormous labour.

THE FACTS: El Encanto’s seven acre patch of manicured hillside is dotted with Spanish-colonial style bungalows, fruit trees, and the original lily pond. On the way to the room I worry I’ll get lost trying to get back to the main building but that’s thanks to clever tardis-esque landscaping rather than any realistic chance of losing one’s way.
Every room (there are 92 including 22 suites) has been gently pimped with marble bathrooms, plantation shutters, a fire place and a verandah the highlights.
Eating here is best done on the terrace, half because of the views and the other half because the food is worthy of the view. Predominantly locally sourced fresh ingredients make up the fine dining options while the bar is best for a (I hesitate before saying more relaxed because the fine dining is hardly stressful) more relaxed and quick American or Japanese meal.
To finish there’s a decent spa, a fitness studio and a chic pool that looks like it was made with those movie stars of old who once came here in mind.

A GOOD BASE FOR: If you decide to leave, and you probably should although part of your brain will suggest you shouldn’t, ever, there are free shuttle buses into town or electric bikes to explore on. First place to send clients is the Segway Tour office. There’s a part of me that worries about over-promoting Segway Tours. A couple of years ago they were novel, now they’re as old hat as an old hat. But I must praise (Josh) and the Segway of Santa Barbara tour (segwayofsb.com) because other than him having 90 favourite restaurants (my favourites were The Wine Cask, winecask.com; Julienne, restaurantjulienne.com; and  Scarlett Begonia, scarlettbegonia.net) I learned an enormous amount in two and a half hours. Your clients can choose to explore the seafront on two wheels but personally I suggest they do that on foot. Instead send them on the Old Santa Barbara tour which is essentially a journey through the Spanish heritage of the city. The headliners are the courthouse (offers 360 degree views from the clock tower) and sunken gardens but Josh stopped at individual houses to tell us stories about them and the people who lived there.
The more you explore, the more the city earns its tag as The American Riviera. It has the seafront, beaches, gardens, mountains, white-washed buildings and sunshine to rival its famous Italian and French counterparts.
There also seems to be a European attitude towards food and wine with an almost obsessive focus on farm-to-table cuisine and a growing love of drinking and showing off local wines.
This love of the grape led to the creation the Urban Wine Trail (urbanwinetrailsb.com) which is a collection of more than a dozen boutique wineries all offering tastings predominantly within what is known as The Funk Zone. This zone, formally an industrial hub, also houses art studios, galleries and surf board shapers. With the wineries all within walking distance of each other it probably the most sensible wine tasting experience around. As those of you who have driven across France doing it will know.
State Street is a ridiculously long road with shops and restaurants on either side all the way along. Start at the top and work down and eventually you’ll hit the sea. A sea which has seals, dolphins and whales in it all very much viewable from a boat. Sunset Kidd Harbour sail (sunsetkidd.com) have a beautiful sailing boat if your clients want to spend half a day on the sea in style.

WOW: The terrace probably. When great food and great views combine it’s awfully hard to top.

HOW MUCH: From $525 per night

elencanto.com

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