This morning as I sit on the porch of the Tulip Cottage and pour myself a second cup of coffee, I watch hummingbirds dance around the bougainvillea that has completely overtaken the front gate. A bluebird lands on my breakfast table, hoping to share a croissant. The sky is clear but for a few puffy clouds drifting lazily overhead while scents of lavender and jasmine animate the air. From this lofty hillside vantage, I cast my gaze toward the distance, over the palm trees and rooftops of posh estates, to where the sun glimmers like sequins on the ocean’s surface. It is, by all accounts, a perfect morning in what might very well be called paradise — which is astonishing because three years ago this entire setting was buried in an avalanche of mud and boulders and tangled chaparral.
The resort narrowly escaped the historic Thomas Fire of December 2017 but wasn’t so lucky the following month. A winter storm triggered a catastrophic mudslide. The mountain’s face broke loose and cascaded through the resort and surrounding neighborhoods. The whole of Montecito evacuated. Three of the ranch’s cottages were completely wiped out. Most cottages dodged the worst of the avalanche but many were flooded, much of the landscape rendered unrecognizable. The cobblestone roads and power lines buried. There was no way in or out.
Looking around today, that story sounds farcical. The resort is absolutely pristine, like it never happened. It seems wildly improbable, but owner Ty Warner — who also owns Rosewood Las Ventanas in Los Cabos, the Four Seasons in New York, and the Four Seasons Biltmore just down the hill in Montecito, which was also impacted — embarked on an astounding nonstop, around-the-clock restoration.
The lost cottages were rebuilt from the ground up, not as flashier modern villas but almost exactly as they were. All the others received meticulous renovations: new oak floorboards, new Persian rugs, new limestone for the heated bathroom floors.
The most herculean task was restoring the landscaping — not merely replanting but turning back the clock and putting everything back in its place. Hundreds of new olive trees, oak trees and magnolias were planted — not saplings but fully mature trees. Citrus groves were salvaged, vegetable gardens rerooted. New privacy hedges and bougainvillea, rows of lavender and jasmine and massive ferns reinstalled. After only 15 months, in April 2019, San Ysidro Ranch reopened.
This is a remarkable comeback story. San Ysidro Ranch has always felt like a fairytale countryside village, secluded and lost in time, untouched for a hundred years. That’s as true now as it has ever been.
Less than a year after that, of course, COVID-19 ground travel to a halt worldwide. Warner used that unplanned pause to make one more fix: The resort had three cottages that were always much smaller than the others, which didn’t feel right anymore. So those three units (including the one in which I stayed 14 years ago) were either remodeled or combined to create larger cottages in line with the rest, dropping the total inventory from 41 to 38. The resort soon reopened once again, this time with stringent mitigation protocols in place for the pandemic.
This is a remarkable comeback story. The resort looks absolutely stunning. The gated ranch has always felt like a fairytale countryside village, secluded and lost in time, untouched for a hundred years. That’s as true now as it has ever been.
At the heart of this hamlet is the Hacienda, a wood-paneled ranch house with vaulted ceilings that has served as the hotel lobby since 1893. Furnished with oversized leather sofas and rustic antiques, the Hacienda’s living room and library are charming places to gather — if indeed you came here to gather, as many do for weddings. Most guests, however, come to the ranch to isolate in a private cottage, to luxuriate in a sunken hot tub, to shower outdoors with no inhibitions, to read by the fireplace and frolic in a king-sized four-poster bed.
The beds are lovely, by the way, wrapped in Italian sheets and floral-stitched linen quilts with piles of goose-down pillows. Unapologetically old-fashioned and sumptuous, the rooms do not lack a single modern convenience.
You will want to work up an appetite because dining at the resort is complimentary for overnight guests. That’s right: As of late last year, breakfast, lunch and dinner are now included (except for alcohol). You will eat extremely well.
Normally there are three restaurants onsite: the resort’s signature restaurant, Stonehouse; a casual pub called Plow & Angel; and the super-casual, guests-only poolside snack bar. Plus room service, naturally, which can be very romantic on your private terrace.
Stonehouse and Plow & Angel occupy a sandstone building built in 1889, which originally served as a packing house for surrounding citrus orchards. The sturdy vine-covered structure (Stonehouse upstairs, the pub downstairs) safely withstood the mudslide, but the underground wine cellar swallowed five feet of mud. A total loss, the cellar had to be gutted and rebuilt, then restocked anew by sommelier Tristan Pitre, who gathered 12,000 bottles of the world’s finest wines and vintages, including the deepest vertical of Chateau Petrus currently available in the United States.
Due to the pandemic, the pub is closed until further notice. Its dining room and terrace (along with a few favorite menu items) have been folded temporarily into the footprint of Stonehouse, allowing the main restaurant to safely accommodate more socially distanced dining, mostly outdoors.
If there’s a better restaurant in Santa Barbara than Stonehouse, I haven’t found it.
Chef Matthew Johnson joined the resort in 2008 and became top chef in 2011. He serves an eclectic menu largely inspired by local provisions: yellowtail crudo with local tangerines and sea grass; roasted California quail in Oaxaca-style mole with sweet-potato gnocchi; maple-glazed salmon with asparagus and wild rice; truffle-honey-glazed duck with morels and favas… But also in keeping with the resort’s Old-World bona fides, steaks are deftly flambeed and Dover sole artfully filleted at the table. (More about Stonehouse here.)
There’s also a spa, hair salon, small gym and miniature golf course. And if you’ve got time (or desire) to explore beyond the gates, the front desk will hook you up with bicycles.
Bottom line: This is a truly wonderful resort with thoughtful, personalized service. Yes, it’s a splurge, but with complimentary dining at Stonehouse (or anywhere on property) now included, the cost seems quite reasonable. You will not want to leave.
Rates from $2,000/night (breakfast, lunch and dinner inclusive); 900 San Ysidro Lane, Santa Barbara, 800.368.6788, sanysidroranch.com