Driving Range: La Dolce Vita

A ride in an Italian dream car
to a five-star resort where what’s old is new

Nice as it is where we live, there are times when we’ve just gotta get away. Ditch the kids, grab the honey and go. No newsflash: There’s no place like SoCal for a weekend road trip. Beaches, mountains, desert and, once out of the LA confines, miles and miles of beautiful open road.

So welcome to Driving Range, our periodic travelogue where we pilot some of the most awesome driving machines to the swankiest resorts within a couple of hours distance. Yes, dear VB reader, all in the name of public service. You can thank us now.

And what better way to kick off this column than in the driveway of The Auto Gallery in Calabasas, as GM Chad Hopkins handed me the keys to the new 2014 Maserati Quattroporte S. Our destination? The newly renovated El Encanto resort towering in the hills above Santa Barbara.

Unlike the drool-inducing Ferraris inside The Auto Gallery, the Quattroporte is a study in subtlety. This is one of the original super-luxury sedans. Four doors of rolling sophistication. Smooth lines that speak of trips to Disney Hall to hear the LA Phil. It’s only the aggressive, trident-encrusted grill and massive red Brembo brakes beneath 19-inch wheels that tip you off to what lies beneath.

Behind the wheel, I made quickly for Malibu Canyon. Clicking into sport mode, the Quattroporte took on a throaty growl and glued itself to the road. My definition of frustration is driving a Maserati on a canyon road and pulling up behind a Prius. Thankfully, we found an early passing lane.

Dropping into manual, I pulled on the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. In an Italian instant, the Prius was a memory. We turned north onto the Pacific Coast Highway on a gorgeous early afternoon. Windows down, sunroof open, take in the growl. Now this is living in Southern California!

As we broke past Point Dume, I had a chance to let the 425 horsepower, 4.7-liter V8 take the bit and run. And run it did. For all of its subtle design cues, this car has anger issues. Think Marcello Mastroianni on steroids.

On this perfect afternoon, I just knew there were no cops in my path, and I opened it up. This car does 0 to 60 in 5.3 seconds, but I’m pretty sure it does 60 to 100 in a lot less than that. There would be no Disney Hall this day.

To my wife in the passenger seat, talk of muscular engines sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. She has the memory of an elephant, and she cares about how the car feels. Several years ago, we drove in a 2006 Quattroporte on Vancouver Island, and she never forgot the jarring feel of that car’s manual transmission. She flat-out didn’t like that car.

Fast-forward to this rendition, and it’s a different experience altogether. While the G-forces weren’t wasted on her, she’s about the softer side of an automobile: smooth gearshifts, pleasing ergonomics and good sound. Our test car had Poltrona Frau leather (trust me, it’s good), touchscreen controls and carbon fiber accents. Okay, maybe the symphony is out, but the wife is happy.

Happy wife, happy life, they say … and the closer the Maserati crawled to our destination, the bubblier she seemed to become. Off the 101, we wound our way up the hills through ancient eucalyptus and gentile coastal view homes to the understated entry of the newly renovated El Encanto.

 

The resort has been perched up on that hill for nearly a century, and we had visited a number of years ago when it was under previous ownership. We loved it then and remembered it as incredibly charming, if a little bit dog-eared. El Encanto has been welcoming luminaries of all stripes for decades—from FDR and JFK to the Gables, Streisands and DiCaprios. There’s an undeniably away-from-it-all vibe to these quaint and oh-so-romantic seven acres just a short, high-powered drive from LA.

El Encanto was purchased in 2006 by the uber-luxury hotel chain Orient Express with an eye toward returning it to its original, understated glory. Orient Express weathered the economic nuclear winter before digging in on a massive renovation that began in 2011 and concluded with a reopening this past spring. The result can only be described as thoughtful and meticulous.

A quintessentially Californian mix of Mission- and Craftsman-style architecture, it’s best to first sip El Encanto from the sweeping lawn just outside the resort’s main building. From there you can glimpse brick pathways meandering through the property as well as a killer view of Santa Barbara and the coastline below.

Orient Express razed the original main building and in its exact footprint reconstructed a subtle Craftsman structure that houses the lobby, restaurant, bar, expanded meeting and event facilities, and The Spa. When we entered to check in, it felt familiar but, you know … better.

The view through the lanai was unmistakable, but the feeling was fresh, comfortable and sophisticated. Original artwork by Damien Hirst, Charles Arnoldi and Paul Villinski, among others, lends a distinctly curated air to the casual setting.

We were shown to our Craftsman bungalow that was shaded by an ancient Torrey pine and eucalyptus trees. A study in refined understatement, there’s almost nothing unaccounted for here. In a distinctly muted palate of greys, blues, bright white and soothing wood tones, the suite features everything from espresso machines to heated bathroom floors. Note to self: Get me some heated bathroom floors.

When we were here last, we stayed in the Oak Suite, a charming, two-room casita with a large, oak-covered patio in a Mission-style building. Visiting the suite today, it’s a tasteful blend of old and new: comfy, buttoned leather chairs, a mix of greys and fresh whites—both relaxing and inviting.

Our kid ran around that patio when he was a toddler. As a teenager, I think even he would appreciate it more now. It was and is the resort’s ultimate accommodation, and if your wallet permits, I recommend it.

A walk through the grounds is downright magical. Just outside our bungalow we found the wisteria-covered arbor and lily pond. Countless couples have been married in this idyllic little spot, today it serves as proof that Orient Express was damn serious about authentic renovation.

The arbor was dismantled, retrofitted and reassembled brick by aged brick so that each of the 40 columns surrounding the lily pond is exactly as it was. Even the old vine wisteria was delicately cut back and retrained to curl back through to create a new canopy. An overgrown waterfall was rediscovered and quietly makes its presence felt.

A bungalow balcony

A word of warning: Once you’re at El Encanto, you’re probably not going to want to wander down to mix with the hoi polloi in Santa Barbara. It’s pretty good up here.

We had both dinner and breakfast on the terrace at the restaurant and found it to be solid. I suppose I’ve had better short ribs, but the special lobster gnocchi and the fresh sea bass were spectacular. Breakfast, on the other hand (eggs benedict and “smoked salmon scramble”), was not to be missed.

There’s no shortage of upscale resorts within reasonable driving distance, but  El Encanto feels unique. It’s got everything that has become the price of entry in this class of hotel—great fitness center, beautiful meeting rooms, lovely pool—but it’s the collection of singular elements that gives the place its charm. And let’s be clear, El Encanto is nothing if not charming.

As we prepared to leave, it was no surprise that our Maserati was parked in the front circle. It made leaving just a little bit easier.

From Italian touring power to California casual and back. Not a bad little getaway.

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