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.

The El Encanto's new/old main building
The day before my tour with Ellen, I went up to El Encanto and drove the adjoining city streets that surround the property.

While I knew in theory that the old main building had been torn down and a new one built in its place, I found it difficult to believe because it looked so much like the original.

It was kind of like meeting someone who is supposed to be a twin of someone else you know, but you think perhaps that your leg is being pulled and that in fact there is no twin at all.

On the tour, Ellen took me into the main building so I could see what was old and what was new.  The main level's floorplan is also remarkably similar to the original, especially reception, the dining room, and common area.  I think Aunt Minna would be delighted to see that the light airiness of the dining room made possible by large landscape windows, is utterly indistinguishable from the original building.   For me it felt like a walk back in time.  On the other hand the lower level and the second floor have been transformed by a spa and extensive meeting space respectively.

Why is El Encanto such a remarkable place?

Location.  Grounds.  Ambiance.

View from the main building of the El Encanto
Location.  Unlike the rest of Santa Barbara's hotels which are found mostly close to the beach or in the downtown area, El Encanto is perched high above the city in a neighborhood aptly named the Riviera.  (Santa Barbara markets itself as "the American Riviera".)  It is nearby, but at a higher elevation than the beautiful Santa Barbara mission.  No hotel in Santa Barbara comes close to offering the view that El Encanto does, taking in the city, the Pacific Ocean, and the Channel Islands.

1950s postcard of the lily pond
Grounds.  From the time of my first recollections of El Encanto as a child to many years later when I saw it again as an adult, what changed the least were the grounds.  There is one large lawn close to the main building, and then all over the rest of the property are trees, cactus, flowers - you name it; anything that will grow in coastal southern California's ideal climate.

And then there's the lily pond.  As a kid, I was fascinated by the big goldfish or carp, and especially by the large turtle, that called the pond home.  Over the years the turtle passed on, but perhaps Orient-Express will reintroduce another one.  The pond is rectangular, and framed with a brick-and-wood trellis-work.  Romantic doesn't begin to do justice to the setting, and I can guarantee you it will be the site for many weddings.  (Orient-Express dismantled the trellis-work, replaced the beams, and then reassembled it brick-by-brick to make it structurally sound.)  On the other hand the 1950s era swimming pool was removed, and a new pool and fitness complex constructed near but not on the same footprint as the old pool. 

Photo courtesy of Orient-Express
Ambiance.  The ambiance is linked closely to both the location and grounds, but it merits its own section.  In the 1920s and 1930s, California underwent a period of rediscovery and myth-making about the pre-American era.  The mission revival style of architecture was part of the era, and most of the buildings except for the main building at El Encanto are in that iconic style that is so closely linked to southern California.  Both the original buildings in that style, and the completely new ones built during the current renovation, are outstanding examples.  The combination of mission revival and the richly landscaped grounds sets a tone that is subdued and beautiful, with the view adding a touch of the spectacular.  But finally a hotel is more than just these physical elements.  Orient-Express will recast the hotel with an updated take on luxury that will include a lavish spa, gym, a new pool, and significantly more meeting space than the old property had.  But the feel will remain the same: it will be quiet and understated, and meant largely for couples and families to cocoon, with the occasional small corporate meeting.  This will not be a place to see and be seen, anymore than it was prior to Orient-Express taking ownership.  As it was before, I expect that for Santa Barbarans it will resume its position as a place to celebrate or just to have a drink on the terrace and watch the sun set.

When the hotel reopens on 18 March 2013, it will not be something that the 99% can book on a whim. It will take its place with the Four Seasons Biltmore and the San Ysidro Ranch among Santa Barbara's most expensive lodgings. In the off-season a lower cost room might run in the low $300s midweek, and in summer way beyond that. But if the occasion calls for it - a honeymoon, an anniversary, a memorable birthday - I haven't any doubt that what you will remember afterward will be the wonderful experience you had, and not how much money you spent.

Useful links:

- article from the Santa Barbara Independent
- El Encanto website
- earlier post "Santa Barbara: one thing well known and two things obscure"
- earlier post "Santa Barbara: West Beach and East Beach hotels"

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