You love their hotels in Italy. The Orient Express is on your bucket list, to get your Agatha Christi on for a lifetime trip. But did you know that you can get a piece of Belmond’s luxury, close to home? Combine it with 300+ days of sunshine a year and a destination that is a happy place, and you have the Belmond El Encanto in Santa Barbara. Here’s our insider review.
I have to admit, this was my first time in Santa Barbara. I’ve asked myself the question, “Why did I wait so long” repeatedly since this visit. The Santa Barbara area is one of the Utopian settlements of the United States. Part of it is the drive, up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles. This in itself is a vacation, and one of the car rides you can take in the world. Then you arrive in Santa Barbara, which is an enclave of traditional Spanish-style homes and views everywhere. It’s views of mountains. Of greenery, and of course, the stunning Pacific Ocean. With the closure of the Four Seasons, there are really only two luxury games in town: The Rosewood Beach Miramar and the Belmond El Encanto, which is notably part of the LVMH empire. They could not be more different from each other, while both equally worthwhile.
I’ve stayed in 15+ Belmonds through Europe and South America, and the Belmond El Encanto is unique from them all. As we drove up into a residential area, I thought we were taking a wrong turn when we arrived at the resort. The hotel was originally part of a college campus, so a collection of original buildings that were Belmond-ified. The hotel footprint is intimate. In Belmond-style, it’s classically elegant, with no flash, whatsoever. While they welcome families, the vibe lends itself more to couples looking for a low-key getaway. The guests on my visit were 60% baby boomers, 30% Gen X and Y, and 10% everyone else. When the kids get into the pool, it makes it a little less relaxing, as the loungers are placed pretty close tot he water.
The highlight of the resort is the main dining room, which has a view you can look at for days. That’s one of the distinctions from the nearby Rosewood Miramar, which is set right on the beach. The Belmond El Encanto is perched up on the mountain over the “American Riviera”. The hotel is perfect for those who want quiet time, and not necessarily to run into a lot of people you know from LA.
The bedrooms are housed in individual Spanish-style casitas, that are set into the hills of the resort. To get a view, request a suite on the second floor overlooking the ocean. The rooms, at all categories, are amply sized with outdoor space. There’s a nice sitting area with full-size couches and coffee table to watch a movie in the evening. The decor is classic, that is consistent with the philosophy of the Belmond properties. The floors are heated in the bathrooms, which also have large dressing areas. I would describe the rooms as standard luxury; it ticks all the boxes but wouldn’t necessarily stand out in your memory if you travel extensively. Personally though, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time in my room. But instead I think a stay at the Belmond El Encanto is to base yourself for exploring the area.
The other compelling aspect of the accommodations is they won’t break the bank. On the weekend I stayed, rooms here were around $1000/nightly. At the Rosewood Miramar, they were $2,500 for a room that faced the highway. While everyone at Belmond clearly can afford to stay where they want, it just depends on how you allocate your resources.
As you would expect from Belmond, the food is very good, with a focus on the most fresh ingredients. I thought lunch was the most compelling of the offerings, because it’s here where you get the best views of the day of the ocean and surrounding mountains. That is, besides cocktails at sunset. Portions are extremely generous; no one is going to walk away hungry. The menu is classic California cuisine. The tortilla soup, lobster cobb and fish and chips were standouts, and keep it real.
On weekends, they have a Bellini Brunch served alongside a jazz band. The menu is multi-course, where they bring out beautiful shared starters. The selection is legit too; deviled eggs, ceviche, tuna and quinoa salad are on the current menu.
The one suggestion I have for the food is to bring in Chefs in Residence. This would draw for the Montecito local crowd away from the Rosewood. I’m talking Major Food Group, Frenchie from Paris and Jose Andres, to start. This would freshen up the guests and vibe.
It sure is nice nowadays, where even the top tier hotels are struggling, to get service at pre-pandemic levels. Service just works here – from the time you arrive with the valets and bellmen, to an efficient check out. And everything in between, from the servers in the restaurant, bartenders, housekeeping and hotel managers. They have it down on service at the Belmond, which was near flawless on my visit. It was a genuine California welcome, with the polish I expected from Belmond.