The nearly $800 a night it costs to stay in a recently renovated cottage at the San Ysidro Ranch wouldn't raise the pulse of many guests at this Montecito Elysium. For the rest of us, let's be real; $800 is probably three evenings out, two months of maid service and a week in Puerto Vallarta.
But whether it's easily affordable or barely doable, the bottom line is this: Is it worth it? I went to see whether billionaire hotelier Ty Warner's recent upgrade — which has focused on remodeling interiors and adding private spas to the ranch's signature cottages — justifies the expense.
I was also going home again. Because my best friend lived on an estate next door, the San Ysidro Ranch became part of our extended playground as kids. Mostly that meant roaming through the gardens on the way to the San Ysidro Canyon trail. My favorite memory: At 14, we plunked ourselves down on poolside lounge chairs, and a waiter asked if we wanted drinks. I mercifully do not remember whether we ordered any.
We got away with this partly because it was the '60s, dark days at the ranch. There's so much history to the place, it's hard to know where to begin, but L.A.'s film royalty were chugging up the highway to the ranch by the 1930s, when it was owned by the charismatic Alvin Weingand (destined to be a state senator) and actor Ronald Colman.
Me, I swoon over the writers who sweated in its cottages: Somerset Maugham. John Steinbeck. Sinclair Lewis working on "Bethel Merriday." In a 1983 interview, Weingand recalled finding Lewis in his cottage dressing room typing furiously on a perfect day. He chastised him for being "cooped up" when he should have been outside. "My dear fellow, I could not think of my characters, I'd be so entranced with the view," Lewis replied.
From Jasmine cottage, where my fiancé, Gary, and I were staying, our view was of a strip of backlighted ocean floating on a sea of trees. Looking down at Montecito from any height — and you are well above it at the ranch — it always seems as if nothing lives here but porpoises and Tolkien's Ents. There are very few places where you can sit in nature's lap and it's not too cold, hot, dirty or demanding. As Goldilocks would have described it, Montecito is just right.
In fact, everywhere I looked, the ranch had that seductive Santa Barbara County scenery — times two. The gardens remain an Impressionistic mix of the best and the brightest flowers. From the private spa at our cottage we could hear the nearby creek and look up into the eucalyptus canopy. A junco provided free entertainment: It spotted its reflection in the polished hinge on the glass door out to the spa deck. We laughed as it attacked its "rival," faked leaving, then whirled around, convinced it would catch its foe by surprise.
Jasmine's creek-side neighbors were later additions, and they had a tacked-on look that's been softened by pretty porches, gates and landscaping. The refurbished cottages have high ceilings, new bathrooms and charming furniture that I am told Warner selects himself during antiquing jaunts.
Warner is just the latest and wealthiest in a series of ranch rescuers. You could see things were seriously falling apart by the late '60s. A 1970 review of the ranch in a California magazine noted, "With heritage comes age, and the white clapboard cottages are showing theirs. Hot water tends to give out. The English furniture needs redoing. (A New York guest described his quarters as 'shabbily genteel.')" Still, the writer concluded, "The spectacular outdoors softens the sensibility to any complaint." I'll say.
Jim Lavenson already had turned around the Plaza in New York when he bought the ranch in 1976. When he was done repainting and refurnishing, a night in the cottages cost $98. Eleven years later, he sold it to the owners of Napa's glamorous and pricey Auberge du Soleil, and more renovations ensued. The place was becoming gorgeous, with rates to match. By 1993, a one-bedroom cottage cost $350 to $525.
So, $800 is the price of progress. To afford it, I had to tweak the traditional weekend getaway. There's a two-night minimum if your stay includes a Saturday night. So, my late-May weekend started early Sunday and continued to the noon checkout Monday. Good thing there were several great, inexpensive places to eat nearby.
Budget-wise diversions The 101 was wide open early Sunday. San Ysidro Road was our exit, and we headed straight toward the mountains and the Montecito Coffee Shop. The people at breakfast live here, and they know they'll eat well without a big markup.
After poached eggs and toast, we steered north on East Valley Road, a short hop to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. After the 8 a.m. Mass and before the one at 10, we sat inside the church and meditated on Ross Montgomery's amazing design: the vibrant mix of agave greens and sandstone oranges, the wave motif that always seems in motion, the intricate tin chandeliers.
I'd planned a run to take us past the other two corners of the Warner hotel triangle. At the Four Seasons Biltmore on Channel Drive (which he bought in 2000), we found parking right in front, then wandered in through the main lobby (so pretty), gazed at the ocean out the windows and grooved on the tile work in the gardens.
Starting at the Biltmore, we jogged south along the beach to the forlorn Miramar hotel. Four years fallow, the Miramar is hotelier Ian Schrager's unfinished business and Warner's latest purchase. The Beanie Baby creator, one of the richest men in the world, seems well-equipped to bring it back.
I wanted to eat lunch at a favorite stop, Montecito Deli on Coast Village Road, but it's closed on Sundays. Panino, in the nearby Vons center, served a prosciutto sandwich on excellent bread, and the pear salad was tops. And cheap. Gelateria Gioia up the street was also new to me. We stopped there and had good chocolate gelato. Half an hour shy of the 4 p.m. check-in at the ranch, we headed for the hills.
Once in our cottage, we walked to the pool, where little has changed except the lounge chairs are nicer. Now that we'd arrived at the ranch, we didn't plan to budge. There was a wine reception at 6 p.m. on the terrace overlooking the garden. I was not surprised that many of the guests were in the entertainment industry, and we paired up with one gracious, articulate couple who give New Hollywood a good name.
Everyone else peeled off to restaurants for dinner, some using the ranch's complimentary car service. (The ranch's own restaurant was closed by a fire in April 2004 and won't reopen until fall.) We ordered seafood pasta from nearby Via Vai — to go. We had a private spa and flat-screen TV waiting back at the ranch.
After breakfast the next morning, served in the historic Colman cottage, we played tennis on one of the ranch's two courts, which have to be on Warner's short list of things to fix. I still wanted to hike up into San Ysidro Canyon behind the ranch, my favorite trail in all of Santa Barbara County, but it was noon and time to check out.
For lunch we decided on sandwiches from nearby Pierre Lafond, where as a kid I would tie up my horse at the watering trough (it's still there) and run in to buy candy. We chose barbecued chicken sandwiches and drove up to the trail head. The record rainfall has re-sculpted the creek, and there must be a million new pools to choose from. Lunch to water music.
As we walked back to the car, I looked around at the tree-shrouded multimillion-dollar homes and gardens and thought about how a stay at the San Ysidro Ranch is like living on a Montecito estate for a day. And that is not cheap.
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The luxe life
Expenses for two on this trip:
One night at the San Ysidro Ranch
with breakfast and tax $875
Breakfast at Montecito
Coffee Shop $17 Lunch at Panino $16
Dessert at Gelateria Gioia $5
Dinner from Via Vai $31
Lunch from Pierre Lafond $16
Distance from L.A. 93 miles
WHERE TO STAY:
San Ysidro Ranch, 900 San Ysidro Lane, Montecito; (805) 969-5046, http://www.sanysidroranch.com . Double "ranch rooms" (studio rooms with shared walls) $539; cottages (most with private spas) $635-$1,495; two-bedroom villa with private pool, $3,990.
WHERE TO EAT:
Montecito Coffee Shop, 1498 East Valley Road, Montecito; (805) 969-6250.
Panino, 1014 Coast Village Road, Montecito; (805) 565-0137.
Gelateria Gioia, 1150 Coast Village Road, Suite E, Montecito; (805) 969-9808.
Via Vai Trattoria Pizzeria, 1483 East Valley Road, Montecito; (805) 565-9393.
Pierre Lafond, 516 San Ysidro Road, Montecito; (805) 565-1502.
WHERE TO GO:
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, 1300 East Valley Road, Montecito; (805) 969-6868.
San Ysidro Trail, Park Lane at East Valley Road, Montecito. Trail head is before the bridge over San Ysidro Creek. Two-mile trail goes up the canyon. Part of Los Padres National Forest, overseen by Santa Barbara Ranger District, (805) 967-3481.
— Ann Herold