Such was my frame of mind when our car hit the winding driveway, flanked by olive trees and orange groves, at San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains with views of the ocean, the natural beauty of the 550-acre resort is hard to beat.
With more than a century of history catering to celebrities and world leaders, its reputation as a world-class resort is legendary. (As you’d imagine, the Ranch has a Forbes five-star rating.) With mature, lush gardens, vines that envelop most of the structures, and furnishings that are traditional, plush and comfy, you feel an Old World luxury vibe.
Part of the appeal is the fact that the Ranch is a survivor. Narrowly avoiding damage by the 2018 fires, it got pummeled by mudslides later that year. After a massive cleanup and rebuild, it reopened a year and a half later. And then … wham! COVID-19. Surprisingly, the resort was able to remain open throughout, and despite all the catastrophes, it looks as serene and beautiful as ever.
Thirty-eight cottages are set along the hillside creek, each one enclosed in its own private garden. Bungalows offer antique furnishings, original artwork, Persian rugs, a stone fireplace and a four-poster bed with Italian linens. Bathrooms have heated floors, spacious bathtubs and separate glass-enclosed showers. Each cottage also includes a private patio with rain shower and sunken hot tub, complimentary cottage-side parking and its own electric vehicle charger.
New at the resort is its dining program. All meals are now included in your room rate; wine and alcohol are extra. The resort started offering complimentary meals during the pandemic as a special perk, and when guests reacted favorably, they decided to keep it that way.
After visiting with the friendly reception clerk and checking out our cottage, we strolled through the expansive rose garden and wisteria-draped lanai. Farther up the hill, we played on the resort’s new par-3 nine-hole putting green before grabbing a cocktail at an adjacent al fresco bar. (More serious golfers can take advantage of the nearby Montecito Club, a private golf club with a Jack Nicklaus-designed, 18-hole, par-71 course, where ranch guests have privileges.)
Dining here is truly an experience. Located in a 19th-century citrus packing house, Stonehouse features a lounge with full bar service, a separate dining room with crackling fireplace and a deck with ocean views. A downstairs dining room opens to a charming patio. We chose to dine upstairs on the deck.
Longtime Chef Matthew Johnson’s farm-fresh cuisine was wonderful. Dishes are crafted from top-notch ingredients, many culled from the property. Herbs and vegetables are harvested from the on-site organic garden. The tart flavor in several entrées comes from the resort’s lemon trees, and the honey that sweetens other dishes originates in the ranch’s bee farm.
Once ensconced at our table in the glow of perfectly soft candlelight (dining lighting is a thing with me), we perused the Continental-style menu. With dishes like baked Alaska and steak Diane (flambéed tableside), it pays homage to retro cuisine. Yet there is also a fresh, more contemporary vibe to it. A Snake River Wagyu striploin comes with chanterelle mushroom risotto, shallot confit, garden pea shoots and a carrot-top salsa verde. A Chilean sea bass is served alongside miso-glazed turnips, maitake mushrooms, heirloom cauliflower, golden beets and soy ginger emulsion. The dishes are imaginative, plated attractively and delicious. For dessert, we splurged on the decadent chocolate soufflé.
Beneath the eatery, a wine cellar boasts a world-class collection. Wine Spectator has awarded Stonehouse with the Grand Award, its top honor for wine programs, for eight consecutive years. Packed with more than 13,000 bottles, the cellar has a mix of old and newer wines. “With our wine collection, there is no air of pretension,” quipped Marcus Baker, general manager of operations, as he showed us around. Although revered by oenophiles for its Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals, there are wow bottles across all categories. Want something rare? There’s a rare Chateau Petrus collection dating back to the famed 1945 vintage. Love big cabs? Go for the California-grown cult favorite, Screaming Eagle. Big crowd at your feast? How about one of the Silver Oak magnums from the ’70s or ’80s?
What really makes the ranch so memorable are the thoughtful little touches. Hotel reception greets you by name when you arrive. Enter your cottage and calligraphied, personalized stationery is atop the desk. The hot tub is already warm and bubbling. Debating with a room service waitress on how much coffee to order? A tray later arrives with extra coffee, just in case. You ask for very hot milk; indeed, it is piping hot.
This resort may not be for everyone, like my friends who favor ultramodern, chic hotels with sparse furnishings and minimalist decor. (You know, no bedside reading light but the room looks very cool.) But if you truly appreciate the quintessential Santa Barbara experience—seclusion amid age-old foothill oaks, the privacy of your own garden-engulfed cottage, traditional, sumptuous appointments and echoes of celebrity legacy, then by all means splurge, raise a rare vintage and savor a stay at San Ysidro Ranch.
Accommodations start at $2,495. For more go to sanysidroranch.com.
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