El Encanto hotel in Santa Barbara takes a big step up
Here are three tweets I would have sent from my recent stay at Santa Barbara’s just-reopened El Encanto hotel if I hadn’t been busy behaving like royalty and pretending the Internet didn’t exist:
—Arriving Encanto. Tab for a 375-sf room w/fireplace and regal bathroom: $575 for 1 night, $35 for pkng, plus tax. Hey, what’s with extra stairs?
—Sunset on terrace. Ordering abalone. Below: lush grounds, distant sea, SB’s red roofs. We’re 200 ft above normal life.
—Waiting for dinner. Wind gusting, asparagus in flight. Superfluous stairs still a mystery.
It’s been seven years since Orient-Express Hotels closed the beloved El Encanto for reconstruction and a few weeks since the hotel reopened on March 23. The grounds, the views and the mystery stairs all relate to the same question: Can Orient-Express please the old El Encanto’s old guard and win enough new admirers to justify the $134 million it has spent to buy and rebuild the place?
Many old-timers and newcomers will be pleased. The hotel still sprawls over 7 lushly planted acres. The lily pond is as elegant as ever, twin pines towering at one end. A new twinkling chandelier in the dining room evokes the water features outside.
Still, some people must be mourning. Seven years ago, guests paid as little as $200 a night to stay in faded bungalows. Now that’s over, and for those visitors priced out, the $75-a-head Sunday brunch isn’t much consolation.
The hotel sits in the hillside Riviera neighborhood, half a mile up from the Santa Barbara Mission, a mile from the shops and restaurants of State Street, 21/2 miles from the beach. The property’s first Craftsman bungalows were built before women could vote. By 1918, the site had become a hotel called El Encanto (in Spanish, place of enchantment).
The hotel’s Spanish Colonial Revival buildings went up after a 1925 earthquake (which prompted a citywide wave of Spanish-style reconstruction). For decades, the restaurant’s terrace was admired for its views.
When Orient-Express Hotels bought El Encanto, the property had about 65 rooms and plenty of maintenance issues. The company aimed for a 2009 reopening. Then came the recession and preservation regulations.
El Encanto now has 92 units, an enlarged restaurant terrace and a spa with seven treatment rooms. The buildings are still a mix of Craftsman and Spanish Colonial Revival, some occupying the site of the former tennis courts. The old pool is gone too. But a new pool, larger and deeper, has been dug in higher ground and given infinity edges so guests can see the Pacific while treading warm water.
My wife, Mary Frances, our almost-9-year-old, Grace, and I stayed a night in a superior bungalow, intended for one or two people, and at the bottom of the hotel’s rate schedule. Nice fireplace. Wood floor. In the middle of the bed lay a pillow embroidered with the letter R. (El Encanto stocks an entire alphabet of monogrammed pillowcases, then outfits the rooms to match every guest’s last name. Pampering with a capital P.)
The bathroom seemed almost as big as the bedroom, with a separate tub and shower, radiant-heated marble floor and twin sinks.
I was standing at one of those sinks when I looked out the window and noticed stairs and a landing below — the stairs leading to our bathroom wall. I walked around the building and ran my hand along the false door on the exterior. Why?
As I later learned, this was one of the property’s oldest bungalows. So the city Historic Landmarks Commission required that the building’s footprint remain intact even though the interior was being reconfigured to eliminate the second door and make room for the big bathroom and all its fixtures.
Modern luxury, historic preservation: Most awkward bedfellows since Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
Anyway, Room 203 was comfortable, and the turn-down service (refreshed linens, artful arrangement of Grace’s stuffed animals, etc.) was expertly done.
And that’s a good thing, given El Encanto’s rates. Come summer, the smallest rooms often will fetch more than $600; the largest, more than $1,200. Rates are about comparable at the Four Seasons Biltmore, El Encanto’s seaside competitor across town.
If these numbers alarm you, be assured that in downtown Santa Barbara, you can rent spacious rooms, closer to the beach, for a lot less. At El Encanto, you’re paying for the grounds, the view, the monogrammed pillowcase.
To get a good look at that view, we booked a terrace table for dinner. Then the wind kicked up — blew my wife’s asparagus off her fork — and I wished I’d reserved a table in the covered part of the terrace.
The larger problem was timing. Though we sat down just before 7 p.m., the kitchen didn’t get main dishes to our table until after 8. And our waiter, charming though he was, needed to be reminded twice about a wine order. The food was tasty when it came (especially the small plate of abalone with mushrooms and onions), but the restaurant might need a few more weeks to work out the kinks.
By the way, Grace endured the long dinner well and enjoyed the rest of El Encanto — flipping a coin into the wishing well, peering through the telescopes scattered around the property, creeping to the headwaters of the little brook by the pond and swimming. Though only 36 of the hotel’s rooms were occupied that weekend, there were several contented children around. It’s a kid-friendlier place than I’d expected.
The parting tweet I meant to send:
—The hill is steep and the tab is steeper. But a cool pool goes a long way, and El Encanto has one.
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