If you're as fascinated as we are by the opulence of 1930s Hollywood — a time when parts of Southern California seemed as far removed from the Depression-era Midwest as the two regions' temperatures on a bright January day — there is an excursion you can take that is like going back to spend a weekend with Clark Gable or Carole Lombard.
While you might be driving up the coast in a Ford Explorer rather than a Dusenburg, it's not hard to imagine a time when the stars drove the 100 miles north from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, encountering grain fields as well as orange, lemon and walnut groves much of the way. Today, of course, sprawling L.A. suburbs like Thousand Oaks, Oxnard and Ventura have been built-up in many prime locations along the Coast. But, still, the drive remains mostly picturesque and, the closer you get to Santa Barbara, the further back your Time Machine takes you.
Our destination was not only Santa Barbara — nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean in an area often called the "American Riviera" — but also a hideaway we had heard and read about, perched just above downtown on the lush hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the city. The El Encanto Hotel and Garden Villas, we had heard, was once a Hollywood retreat — a place where stars and other bigshots from as far away as New York would rent a cottage for weeks or even months at a time. Decades later, the El Encanto is renowned locally for its fine restaurant (voted "Most Romantic" restaurant in the city 10 years in a row), but is still a bit of a secret hideaway for those staying overnight.
Arriving mid-day, we followed our directions to 1900 Lasuen Road and quickly found ourselves ascending the tree-lined roads skirting the hills above the city. One could not help comparing this with the Italian Riviera or some other seaside area where stately homes and historic architecture blend with centuries-old vegetation to create a colorful mosaic worthy of a master's painting. In fact, the El Encanto embodies this neighborhood charm, much to the delight of the guests who may be more accustomed to large homogenized complexes with cookie-cutter rooms and facilities.
From the outside, the El Encanto looks like it is all part of this neighborhood of exquisite Mediterranean-style homes, most with their tile roofs, and ornamental windows and terraces. The hotel is betrayed only by a modest 1930s-era sign pointing the way to its secluded location. Before you know it, you've come upon a small circular driveway that appears to be leading not to a hotel, but to a large house. This is the check-in area, a lobby lounge and the restaurant that we had heard so much about.
Check-in was quick and painless and we were able to drive immediately and directly to our lodgings — the Overlook building, near the tennis courts in what might be called the hotel's mid-campus area. The El Encanto is not just a few buildings or cottages, but a virtual neighborhood unto itself. With the exception of the newer Courtside Cottages, each of the accommodations is unique. Altogether, there are 84 units with 55 different floor plans.
Most of the accommodations at El Encanto were formerly used as faculty housing for the local normal school, and became part of the hotel when it opened for business in 1917. The California Craftsman style homes helped earn the El Encanto its membership in the prestigious Historic Hotels of America, and the accommodations have been featured on national TV. Our minds wandered back in time as we first glimpsed the hotel's cottages and the almost storybook village atmosphere of unique homes, connecting walkways and tropical vegetation all overlooking Santa Barbara and the vast Pacific Ocean. Walking the grounds, it was not hard to imagine Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Hedy LaMarr enjoying this respite from the tribulations of Hollywood.
The fragrances are striking. Jasmine is immediately noticeable as you begin to sense the care that has gone into choosing just the right botany for this location. It's a uniquely Santa Barbara mix of bougainvillea, poppies and all variety of plants and flowers including several different types of palms and flowering trees. Nearby are rose gardens, a lilly pond framed by a pergola, some small waterfalls and a wishing well.
The various floor plans include suites and units with multiple bedrooms. Our particular one-bedroom cottage was spacious, decorated in lighter tones and had an airy feeling, even though it was older architecture. Obviously a vintage building, the 1950s kitchenette played into that theme. The furniture, while not perfectly matched, seemed fine for a cottage experience — even a luxury cottage experience. No attention was spared on the bed, with its goose-down pillows, ultra-fluffy bedspread and heavenly mattress.
A trip to the El Encanto is all about the quiet. No freeway traffic nearby, no crowds, no need for hustle and bustle — just contented birds, a gentle breeze and the slight ruffle of the palms or birds of paradise. It's fun to pretend you can afford to live here in your own multi-million dollar home, enjoying what has to be one of the country's best combinations of classic archicture, spectacular views and vacation ambience.
It's also about the food. People drive from Los Angeles to enjoy the gourmet dining and charming atmosphere at the El Encanto. Gourmet Magazine calls the El Encanto "the most beautiful dining room in Santa Barbara," and chef Mark Kropczynski is so renowned that he has been featured on the Food Network. He's a local star, teaming up with the local ABC television affiliate to offer regular features on food preparation.
Lots of times we've experienced a bit of a letdown after someone — usually the hotel or restaurant's manager — has built their chef up to be some sort of culinary Superman. Not so with the El Encanto. We snuck in without a hint to our server that we were writing about the El Encanto and our meals were everything we had hoped. Both the salmon and the tenderloin were cooked to perfection, complemented by caring service and a spectacular view of Santa Barbara city lights and the Pacific.
Should you prefer to dine downtown, or if you just want to enjoy the excitement of State Street — an almost magical downtown area that brings together a mix of California beach culture and affluence — the hotel will give you detailed, turn by turn directions how to reach your destination. This city is a playground for sophisticates but the great thing is you don't have to be a snooty old-money type (or new-money for that matter) to enjoy it. Yes, it will be a bit more expensive than the average getaway — but isn't that what getaways are all about? Saving up and doing something you don't get the chance to do every day?
After all, it's not every day that you get to time travel back to the Hollywood lifestyle of the 1930s and '40s.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: El Encanto Hotel and Garden Villa is just a couple of miles west of downtown Santa Barbara, situated high on the hillside, in an affluent neighborhood, with no other Santa Barbara hotels or restaurants nearby. Santa Barbara is about a two-hour drive north from Los Angeles, or about five hours south from San Francisco, and is ideal for a Southern California vacation.
WHAT: El Encanto Hotel and Garden Villas is a destination hotel with the charm of a boutique hotel. The hotel is historical and offers a rare glimpse into a time and place far removed from every day life in 2004. To carry the theme even further, it's a three-minute drive to the famous mission. The city itself offers a myriad of vacation activities from the beach to shopping, from the zoo to performing arts.
WHEN: Santa Barbara is an ideal destination any time of year with one of the best year-round climates in the country. Weekends at the El Encanto fill up fast and will have a few more people staying at the hotel. If solitude is your most important goal, weekends are good but mid-weeks are even better. During the week it's almost guaranteed you will feel like you're spending time on your own zillion-dollar estate. Always ask if there are travel deals or vacation packages available.
WHY: There are several fine Santa Barbara hotels, but this is one that offers a product that is quite unique and historical. Don't expect everything in your cottage to be brand-new because that would destroy the charm of this journey back into yesteryear. This is not a cheap vacation (cottages run from $189 to $925 a night, depending on season and floor plan). But it's worth splurging on.
HOW: You can book directly with the hotel at (805) 687-5000. For a listing of other Santa Barbara hotels, click here.