Why This Ultra-private Santa Barbara Hotel Was the Perfect Place for My First COVID-era Vacation

Belmond El Encanto's pool area

Like many travelers, I was ready for a getaway, even a road trip to a destination somewhere just a few hours away. Santa Barbara, the American Riviera, seemed ideal given that every other riviera was still off limits. This part of the California coastline is aptly named — and just two hours from Los Angeles.

My husband and I were pleasantly surprised by light traffic most of the way, even with a good part of the trip on L.A.’s dreaded 405 Freeway. The morning fog lifted and so did our moods as we looked forward to our vacation — just far enough away to not have to call it a “staycation.” The Pacific came into view along the way, blue and clear, and we congratulated ourselves for stepping out — carefully and sensibly — comfortable with our destination and the hotel we chose.

The Belmond El Encanto is set in the hills above Santa Barbara’s shores, among leafy eucalyptus trees in a neighborhood setting. We drove up winding streets, passing houses and a few serious bicycle riders, knowing we would have had difficulty finding the hotel in the days before GPS. In fact, the beautiful but unassuming entry could have passed for the front of one of Santa Barbara’s elegant mansions, landscaped to perfection.

Belmond El Encanto in Santa Barbara, California

We gave our car to a courteous, masked young man who offered to manage our bags once we checked in. We walked along red brick paths past bungalows, each one different, surrounded by grassy lawns and flowering shrubs. Our room, one of the Mission Style bungalows, had a large bathroom with a separate tub and roomy shower, king-sized bed, desk, spacious sitting area, and private outdoor patio. We noticed other buildings, some California Craftsman style, with wide porches and outdoor decks.

Belmond El Encanto's guest room interior

On visits to Santa Barbara, we’ve stayed at hotels near the beach and downtown Funk Zone for restaurants, wine tasting, and shopping. This time, we valued the secluded setting of the hotel, completely separate accommodations, and private outdoor areas. The expansive dining terrace made social distancing easy and natural, overlooking treetops with the ocean as a backdrop. The refreshing infinity pool provided the same view and plenty of space.

In keeping with our plan for a relaxing and safe getaway, the hotel arranged a private sunset sail with Santa Barbara Sailing and a four-course dinner on board. Our captain pointed out some points of interest along the coast, including the 23-acre estate and mansion of reclusive copper heiress and artist Huguette Clark. Named “Bellosguardo,” the mansion has remained empty for six decades, with a 1933 Cadillac seven-passenger limousine sitting in the garage. I made plans to read the book "Empty Mansions" that describes her mysterious life. 

Months of quarantine have made our cocktail hour a daily pleasure, and the hotel’s “hands-on mixology course” seemed like a good way to add something new to our repertoire. Another private experience, we were set up on the semi-outdoor terrace above the dining area. Along with Chris, our cocktail expert, we made one of the Belmond’s specialties, the “Holy Smoke,” a mixture of mezcal, St. Germain, lemon juice, and pomegranate syrup served on the rocks with black Kona sea salt on the glass’s rim. A lemon slice and rosemary sprig garnish made the pink cocktail look quite elegant, and the finishing touch was a flame to the rosemary sprig creating smoke and aroma. Our other cocktail was the gin-based “Channel Islands Sunset,” shaken with egg white and served in a martini glass bordered with freeze-dried strawberry powder. Now we know about “dry shaking” the ingredients before adding ice to get the egg white to create a layer of foam. 

After a couple of lazy days strolling around the hotel’s winding pathways and relaxing by the pool, we agreed to take an easy hike followed by a picnic lunch. Our guide, arranged by the hotel, suggested the Douglas Family Preserve on a bluff above the coast with stunning views of the ocean and rugged coast. We ended the hike in a shady spot and enjoyed lobster rolls, fruit, and wine, an indulgence that more than made up for any calories we might have burned on our hike. Oh well, vacation!

The idyllic setting and cottages are perfect for weddings and honeymoons, and the events continued through the COVID months, we were told by staff. Numbers of guests were limited, but photos near the wishing well and intimate dinners under the wisteria-covered arbor created memorable events. 

The spa is currently closed in response to COVID-19 requirements, but the fitness center is open with limited capacity. A stroll around the winding walkways of the property is a lovely morning warmup, and if you want to do more, the hotel will arrange experiences ranging from wine tasting to shopping, in addition to the ones I’ve described.

The trip confirmed our opinion that the American Riviera of Santa Barbara is up there with all the other rivieras of the world. Celebrities and dignitaries, past and present, have stayed at the Belmond El Encanto, and many well known names have chosen the area as their homes. We felt fortunate to spend a few beautiful days there.

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