Here at the freshly enhanced Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara, billionaire owner Ty Warner has spent $240 million — and counting — to refine and restore the 80-year-old oceanfront property.
You can't help but wonder where all that money went. Some of it bought acres of hand-painted tile, fine textiles, rare marble, exotic landscaping, uncommon antiques and comfortable but not lavish guest rooms. But when I visited in late April, I expected to be fully immersed in a quarter-billion dollars of grandeur. I was, perhaps, only dampened.
Many of the expenditures covered labor and costly upgrades to sight lines, décor and infrastructure. All the improvements are courtesy of Warner, the Beanie Babies tycoon, whose influence has touched nearly every corner: The dark and luxurious bar is now the Ty Lounge, the pool is ringed by lounge chairs he designed and the pool shimmers because of Tyles, his new iridescent, non-slip tile. And Warner has tucked original artwork and antiques from around the world into seemingly every corridor and cranny. The guy is the aesthetic love child of Martha Stewart and William Randolph Hearst.
Warner traveled the world collecting for the Biltmore, one of several hotels he owns in New York, Mexico and Hawaii. He also has assembled an enviable portfolio of prestige properties in the Santa Barbara area, including the Sandpiper Golf Club in Goleta, the San Ysidro Ranch, the Montecito Country Club and the Rancho San Marcos Golf Course. (He sold the Miramar by the Sea to developer Rick Caruso.)
While creating his San Simeon of the South, Warner has modernized the landmark property with all the latest electronics and plumbing (wireless Internet connections, floors heated by buried water pipes, in-shower steam spigots), but like some designer showcase house, inconsistent and ill-conceived design themes interrupt the flow, creating an impression that's eccentric instead of artfully eclectic.
Asian antiques and Victorian curiosities don't seem at home in the 1927 Spanish Colonial building. The softly rendered guest rooms recall early California but don't jibe with the modern Mediterranean Bella Vista restaurant or the dark bar's crocodile and crewel upholstery. The remodeled restaurant may open up views to the ocean, but the pleasant effects are dimmed by the echo acoustics, harsh light and uneven food. (How can a Caesar salad be bland?)
But the décor still delivers the promise of a world both elegant and historic, albeit oddly original. The corridors leading to my almost 450-square-foot room, the property's least expensive at $550 a night (now $605), featured hand-painted garlands around door frames. Inside, the room radiates a pale wash of yellow, interrupted by black iron headboards, a Space Age, 4-foot plasma TV and a huge wall mirror that seemed more Las Vegas than historic hacienda. With the hefty Spanish furniture, leather armchair and a rawhide-tone shade, I felt as though I were in a Girl Scout camp. At least at camp I could light a fire to read. Here, two beds share one dull lamp.
Compared with the bedroom's mild hues, the bath was bold: vivid turquoise and butternut tile, pedestal sinks, chrome racks and a tub spout sunken into the wall like a whale's blowhole. The single shower stall had two shower heads: one was the regular wall-mounted variety, and the other was an overhead-mounted "rainfall" type.
This, I realized after a night's stay in perfect silence, is subliminal luxury. Each room feels unique and indulgent because of the high-quality sheets, curtains, fixtures and tile. To minimize clutter, the drawers, mini-bar and closet are hidden in a dressing room.
Elsewhere, the driveway asphalt is gone, replaced with hand-cut stone and bricks; brass medallions, not paint, mark parking spaces. To improve the ocean view, the valet parking lot was lowered several feet. Rare marble and an Oriental rug rendered in hand-painted tile grace the lobby bathrooms. Silk fabric and intricate metallic embroidery cover hectares of wall in the ballrooms, each of which looks disconcertingly different.
Still, speedy service (an ice bucket arrived in 5 minutes, 12 seconds) and rich atmosphere keep guests properly spoiled, particularly at the pool. Fleets of attendants jump to adjust your umbrella or dispense hourly amenities such as mini-smoothies, fresh fruit skewers or a "spritzer" — a light facial misting with Evian.
The spa is surprisingly underwhelming, particularly considering that it was designed by Peter Marino, fashion's favorite store architect. His talent shines in the four suites. Book a couples treatment and you'll get ocean views, a two-person whirlpool, a fireplace, a private bathroom and a balcony where you can order dinner. Spend the day with the most lavish, seven-treatment package for $1,200, or an hour with the least expensive massages for $140.
For no cost, you can get a sense of the hidden wonders by taking a self-guided tour of the resort's grounds. An illustrated botanical guide steers you past the tennis courts, the croquet lawn and putting green, through the Red Abyssinian banana trees and the exotic palms, and into the rose gardens. As you stroll the shady pathways, you can peek into the outlying 13 cottages that begin at $2,250 a night. Along the way, you notice not a single smudge, crack or chip anywhere in the property.
Despite the surface perfection, the place can be confounding. Why, for example, would everyone at a Bella Vista table be wearing sunglasses on a Saturday afternoon? Because they're defending themselves from the midday sun that blasts from the new retractable glass roof. And why should you never wear knits or delicate fabrics to the Bella Vista? Because the outdoorsy décor features rattan chairs that will snag them. Why are noisy children having dinner at the next table? Because, except for the bar, their parents had only there to dine. Why has the ritual of afternoon tea been ruined? Because now it takes place in the dark and moody bar, with blenders whirring cocktails and speakers beeping bad jazz. And the staff apparently doesn't know the appropriate amount of leaves required to brew a pot of tea.
Still, the Biltmore's allure can't be erased, thanks to its supreme location, beautiful grounds, long history and genuine comfort.
There are more refinements to come. By early next year, Warner and architect Marino will have remade the adjacent Coral Casino Beach Club (now noisily under construction). The footprint and huge pool remain, but Warner is spending $65 million on a historic rehabilitation that will add outdoor dining and relocate the restaurant to the second floor. Hotel guests will still be able to use the property, along with the club's 600 or so members. And of course, Beanie Babies are welcome.