A Santa Barbara Icon Gets a Facelift

A Santa Barbara Icon Gets a Facelift

The historic El Encanto, once favored by Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, is restored to its former glory as a luxe romantic hideaway.

By Carole Dixon 06/03/2013

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Drive past the local shops and restaurants on Santa Barbara’s lively main drag, State Street, and head toward the historic Spanish Mission, but don’t stop there. Wind your way up the jasmine-scented hillside to the El Encanto hotel. The seven-acre property was known for more than 100 years as a top spot to soak in the romantic ocean view of this American Riviera with a cocktail in hand, yet it also became slightly infamous as a place for just that — the view and nothing else, not the food, rooms or décor. The hotel’s faded glory was something you just tried to ignore as you made your way through the valet line and peeling patio paint to catch a glimpse of the sparkling coastline at sunset. Recently reopened after a seven-year closure, the property — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — has become the first West Coast acquisition by  the Orient-Express, a high-end travel company primarily known for restoring historic villas around the world into five-star hotels. To showcase the brand in North America and catapult the El Encanto into a world-class destination, the company gave the iconic hotel a $134 million facelift.

Key to the hotel’s makeover is reclaiming its rightful place as an exclusive destination for weddings and romance. So the new owners kept intact El Encanto’s historic wishing well while launching a new wishing-well tradition, complete with a commemorative coin that a honeymoon or anniversary couple can toss into the shallow water, sealing their wish with a glass of Champagne. If you haven’t gotten quite that far yet, you might also consider the sentimental spot for popping the question, as your odds of a yes will probably improve. Adjacent to the well is the 800-square-foot Hummingbird Suite, traditionally  considered the honeymoon hideway, with a two-person tub and a private outdoor rainforest shower. Other romantic touches include a large private terrace and an Italian marble and travertine bathroom.

Meticulous details abound throughout the property.  When you check into the main building, your eye wanders to a print just behind the concierge desk by renowned British artist Damien Hirst, titled Psalm print: Verba mea auribus. Its abstract blue butterfly-wing motif, in homage to El Encanto’s location on a significant butterfly migration path, was created on a silkscreen with diamond dust. Next to the Hirst piece a white wall is dotted with 120 pine cones hand-cast in bronze; the work by Yoshitomo Saito, titled Prayers, is a nod to the excellent hiking in the area.

El Encanto’s basic layout has not changed, as required by Santa Barbara’s Historic Landmarks Commission, and the ambience is still reminiscent of a private hillside retreat, with views of terracotta roofs and towering trees. But you now have the option of checking into 92 rooms and suites in Craftsman and Spanish Colonial Revival bungalows, individually restored and redesigned with an eye toward preserving vintage architectural details. The original Craftsman accommodations now sport hardwood floors and plantation-style shutters that open onto a private patio or garden equipped with a telescope. Walls are decorated with botanical photographs from the hotel’s collection.

More than $1 million was spent on the landscaping alone, retaining a large lily pond under 100-year-old wisteria vines, all trellised during the renovation, with the supporting corner columns restored brick by distressed brick.

The kitchen is now overseen by French-born Executive Chef Patrice Martineau, whose pedigree includes chef de cuisine at Daniel in New York, the Peninsula in Tokyo and The Savoy in London. The chef has created a California coastal menu incorporating seasonal produce from the region. Naturally, Martineau is taking full advantage of the Mediterranean climate by nurturing an onsite herb garden — but it’s not just your typical patch of green. The horizontal and vertical garden will showcase Japanese ingredients used in the menu — wasabi, lychee, shiso leaf and burdock, among others. Japanese and French influences are apparent from the moment you are seated, starting with the Japanese peppercorn-and-fennel-pollen butter served with freshly baked sourdough bread and baguettes.

Chef Martineau has resurrected and recreated the beloved floating island dessert, which made its debut on the menu in 1920. “Everyone wanted to have the dessert and threatened not to come if it was not back on the menu,” he says. He added his own twist with French meringue poached in milk.

Martineau says it has been a challenge for him not to import too much of his modern French-Japanese technique acquired in running some of the world’s most prestigious kitchens. The idea was not to dazzle guests with the chef’s talents  and push his innovations on the clientele,  but rather to create a menu expressive of Santa Barbara. To that end, Chef will be serving his own twist on classic dishes so as not to alienate the local regulars. Try his French Provençal chicken with crispy chickpeas or beef short ribs braised in red wine with crushed potato, olives and fresh herbs. The halibut in a light cream sauce is amazingly flaky. The ‘21’ burger (made with three cuts of beef) from the famous New York restaurant can also be found on the menu.  In another culinary twist, typical of the Orient-Express, the property has its very own Holstein cow, Ellie, whose milk will be used solely to produce handmade dried and aged white cheddar exclusive to the resort.

For downtime, the spa has seven treatment stations, including a couple’s room, offering therapies infused with calming elements, such as seaweed from Patagonia, as well as vinotherapies, which boast healing properties extracted from regional vines.

If you long to explore the surrounding area, look no further than El Encanto’s custom-made electric bikes. The hotel will load you up with a bike — free for guests — and a picnic basket if you plan to head to the beach or a secluded spot in the hills, but if you long to leave these idyllic surroundings, why not ride down the downtown urban wine trail and leave your car safely back at the resort? One thing is certain, you’ll be back.

El Encanto is located at 800 Alvarado Pl., Santa Barbara. Nightly rates range from $525 to $1,995. Call (805) 845-5800 or visit elencanto.com.

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