It is a quintessential summer afternoon when Santa Barbara pulls out all the stops to make you fall in love and never want to leave. The sun reflects off the turquoise infinity pool framed by azure umbrellas and towering palm trees; pretty people sip cocktails on the terrace and gaze at the sublime view of the city’s red-tile roofs and the glittering Pacific Ocean.
The scene is an irresistible invitation to relax and stay awhile. As I stare at the stunning expanse from the elegant Belmond El Encanto—one of the city’s finest hotels that has accommodated many celebrity guests over the past 100 years—I surrender to its charms and seductive sense of place. I claim a lounge chair, kick off my sandals, and order a cocktail. My unpacked bag will have to wait.
Tucked into the hills of the Riviera neighborhood and set among seven acres of lush gardens and centuries-old eucalyptus trees, the iconic Belmond El Encanto has been a luxurious hideaway for the rich and famous since its opening in 1918. The hotel has hosted former President Franklin D. Roosevelt; Golden Age stars such as Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, Hedy Lamarr; and today’s Hollywood elite.
While its classic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture celebrates Santa Barbara’s local heritage and culture, there is nothing stuffy about this grand-dame property. Belmond completed an extensive renovation in 2013 that preserved the hotel’s classic architecture and added modern comforts of a five-star resort, including a fitness studio and luxe spa. The hotel restaurant serves a superb, inventive menu using produce from its garden and fresh seafood caught daily.
On my arrival, I was greeted warmly by the hotel’s attentive staff and led to my accommodations along a path fragrant with intoxicating scents from roses, citrus, and eucalyptus. The pet-friendly Belmond El Encanto features 92 suites, bungalows, and rooms. My charming bungalow was bright and airy, with a cozy fireplace in the sitting room, a spacious bathroom, and a private patio blanketed with ivy.
There’s a lot to love about Santa Barbara. It’s one of my all-time-favorite weekend getaways, and each time I visit, I fall under its spell. This laid-back coastal oasis, tucked between the dramatic peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, lives up to its nickname of the “American Riviera,” with near-perfect weather of 300 days a year of sunshine, soothing ocean breezes, white-sand beaches, laid-back surf culture, and a glam quotient from the entertainment industry’s lasting legacy.
It’s no wonder that life here gravitates toward the outside. On my first morning, I met a small group in the hotel lobby for a hike guided by local naturalist Lisa Burns. We grabbed steaming cups of coffee and headed outside to the cool marine layer. Moving at a brisk pace, Lisa led us past the historic Riviera Theater, home to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and through the windy streets of the idyllic Riviera neighborhood, known for its majestic oak trees and classic Spanish-style homes built from the 1920s to ’50s.
“There she is, Queen of the Missions,” exclaimed Lisa, just as the pink-and-cream double bell towers of the Santa Barbara Mission became visible above the trees. But before we saw the historic landmark up close, the fragrance and hues of the Mission Rose Garden embraced us. The iconic garden bloomed with over 1,500 rose varieties, a spectacular show of color. Lisa singled out a vibrant yellow rose, called the “Julia Child,” after the beloved culinary icon who spent her last years in Santa Barbara.
Also a docent at the mission, Lisa’s enthusiasm for the landmark’s rich history was contagious. Founded in 1786 by the Franciscan Friars, the Santa Barbara Mission, located four blocks from the town’s main drag State Street, sits on 12 acres of beautifully maintained grounds. It’s a must-see gem for those who crave a glimpse of the city’s origins.
After our invigorating hike, I was ready to explore the city’s vibrant culinary scene. Located downtown and within walking distance to the beach, the eclectic 10-block Funk Zone, a rehabilitated industrial area, is home to an impressive restaurant scene ranging from old-school taquerias to hip Thai food and boutique wineries. I stopped for lunch at the casual Lucky Penny, housed in a building tiled with thousands of real pennies and popular for its thin-crust artisan pizza. Sitting outside on the patio, I enjoyed the best gluten-free pizza I’ve ever tasted—a savory pie of fresh arugula, fennel sausage, and parmesan. Bring on the wine tasting!
Over the last decade, Santa Barbara has become one of the most exciting wine regions in the country. According to experts, the region’s success is due to a geological oddity: coastal valleys that run east-to-west and serve as highways for chilly ocean air. The result is a Central Coast rich with an expansive variety of grapes and probably best known for its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Some of the region’s most notable wines are sampled along Santa Barbara’s famous Urban Wine Trail—a consortium of 33 local vineyards with tasting rooms situated within walking distance of each other. Sixteen of these tasting rooms are in the Funk Zone. An Urban Wine Trail map helps visitors plot their course by foot, bike, or shuttle.
My starting point was The Valley Project, a tasting room with an impressive wall-sized chalk mural by hip L.A. based artist Elkpen. I sipped crisp Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and followed the fascinating mural illustrating the region’s topography and microclimates. Next up was Municipal Winemakers, where I sampled a light, delicate rosé, perfect for summer. I learned it was made by hand-picking the fruit at night and pressing the five varieties of grapes.
As the sun lowered, the beach beckoned. My next stop was the Deep-Sea Tasting Room located on the historic Stearns Wharf, featuring a menu of quality wines. But honestly, I was smitten by the dreamy view of West Beach, fronted by rows of towering palm trees, and one of many breathtaking beaches in this coastal Shangri-la I will happily return to again and again.