20 December 2012

Hotels - El Encanto arises

There is only one hotel with which I have had an emotional connection since I was a very small child: the El Encanto in Santa Barbara.  To say it is a special place for me, would be an immense understatement.

Though I'm not certain of the exact years, I figure my association with the El Encanto began around 1957 or 1958.   My mother took me and my brother on the train (Southern Pacific's Coast Daylight) from San Jose to Santa Barbara, where we would spend a week at the El Encanto with Aunt Minna.  (This also was the beginning of my fondness for trains.)

Aunt Minna and me at the El Encanto, circa 1958

You see, my mother's Aunt Minna lived in Los Angeles and every summer she would come up to Santa Barbara to spend several weeks at the El Encanto.

My brother Ken, nine years older than I, came with us until he was around 14 or 15.  At his age, he got more liberty to roam Santa Barbara on his own.  (He remembers catching the city bus that stops right below the hotel - and still does - to get down to Stearns Wharf and go fishing.)

My guess is that this week away from responsibility for my mother (other than keeping an eye on me) was a gift from Minna to my mother.

We would either take the train back to San Jose, or if my father could get off work, he would come down for a day or two and then we would drive back.

How my Aunt Minna became familiar with the El Encanto I don't know, but I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that at that time it seemed to be popular with Germans.  My recollection is that hearing German there during this period was not uncommon.  Minna's English was heavily accented, and she occasionally switched from German to English midsentence.  No problem for my mother who was also German, but it could leave my father, my brother, and me scratching our heads.

1950s postcard (this pool no longer exists)
I'm pretty sure that our last trip to Santa Barbara and the El Encanto was in the summer of 1963. Aunt Minna died in the spring of 1965, and the connections with the hotel then became sporadic. I remember staying there once in September 1975 prior to attending UC Santa Barbara, and then bringing my partner Keith there for a tour of the grounds and a drink in early 1998. It's always been a place to come back to and reminisce about.

Let's skip a few decades to the 2000s. Ownership of the hotel changed hands numerous times over the years, but in 2003 then current owner, local resident Eric Friden, died in a polo accident.  El Encanto was acquired by Orient-Express, the owner of luxury rail services and hotels mostly outside of North America.

After operating El Encanto for two years, Orient-Express closed it in 2006 to embark on a what would become a major project of renovations more extensive than even they foresaw initially. It turned into a saga involving disputes between the hotel's owner and the neighbors over the extent and nature of the renovations, and then financing issues. After an injection of capital late in 2011, the project was back on track, and construction has been proceeding rapidly ever since.  (A note about nomenclature.  Orient-Express dropped use of "the" prior to "El Encanto" so from here on out I am doing the same.  It makes sense considering that "el" means "the" in Spanish.)

Because I have mostly worked in the travel industry, and because I love Santa Barbara, and this hotel for its own sake and for its personal memories, I have kept a close eye on it for many years including during the long period of its closure.  I was excited to read earlier this year that the hotel was at last planning to reopen in 2013.

Me about 54 years later on my hard-hat tour
Ellen Thornton, director of sales for El Encanto, was kind enough to give me a very extensive inside/outside hard hat tour of the property when I visited Santa Barbara in mid-October.  In many ways, the hotel will be brand new when it reopens, but nearly all of the buildings - both the bungalows and larger buildings - will be intact.

The interiors of the rooms and bungalows will be stunning in a way that is technologically contemporary, yet in keeping with the classic period when El Encanto was constructed.  It will not be not over the top and trendy, and thus consequently out of date in fifteen years.

One thing that so impressed me about the project is how Orient-Express addressed the main building.  One of the first buildings of the original El Encanto, the intention was to simply renovate it along with the other buildings.  They quickly realized that the bones of the building just would not permit them to do what they needed to do to bring it up to current standards.  What they did is design and erect a new main building that from the outside looks identical to the original.