(credit: San Ysidro Ranch)

Drive up the path to this secluded Santa Barbara retreat and you’re instantly drawn in to its hideaway appeal, wondering what awaits. Wind around a bit further to the entrance and a bright bougainvillea-drenched Hacienda shows itself—in a subtle, understated way. Everything is so quaint, so quiet, so lush.

At check-in, you start to get a sense of the legendary nature of this century-old hotel. A framed photo of The Kennedys honeymooning on the property hangs by the oversized stone fireplace, and news clippings of guests from Winston Churchill to Audrey Hepburn decorate the walls. SYR is nostalgia, myth, romance and exclusivity. The Ranch has been dubbed the #1 Hotel in America, yet there’s no highfalutin ways about the place.

Nestled in the Montecito mountains, and just an hour and a half north of L.A., San Ysidro Ranch is a favorite celeb sanctuary for its discreet nature. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were married on the grounds, and Hollywood’s biggest stars stay weekly, but you’d never know it—and you won’t be bothered by it—as everything about SYR is private and low-key. It’s a rare gem for discriminating travelers (with rates from $650 to $5,500).

(credit: San Ysidro Ranch)

41 private country cottages with classic bungalow style make up the grounds. Each cottage is wonderfully accommodating. And all are screened from onlookers with strategic, lush greenery; vines wrap the abodes and statuesque evergreens towering. The cottages offer all you could want, so there’s really no reason to leave if you’d like to stay tucked-away for romance or relaxation. There’s a charming four-post bed with a sheer-draped wraparound, hand-selected antique furnishings, an Old World masonry fireplace, front and back patios and an outdoor Jacuzzi and rain shower. In-cottage dining is popular with guests, as are in-room spa treatments.

You’ll find even walking the property feels intimate with meandering pathways and hidden sitting areas. Stroll the Ranch up to the hillside ocean-view pool, and you’re met with wafting scents of lavender, roses and a vision of all things green. Olive trees are a fixture on the 500 acres of the property, as are citrus trees.

A day in the life at the Ranch starts with waking to the sounds of birds singing and ends with a cover of endless stars filling the sky. How you fill the time in between on The Ranch is up to you.

(credit: San Ysidro Ranch)

How it began

The hotel, which blends the lines between an exquisite country bed and breakfast and a world-class boutique hotel once belonged to Franciscan Monks in the late 1700s. After that, it became a working citrus ranch in the 1800s, and finally the guest ranch it’s known as today. To keep it in idyllic Ranch fashion, SYR has been significantly renovated and restored since being purchased in 2001 by Ty Warner (Beanie Babies tycoon).

(credit: San Ysidro Ranch)

Where To Eat

The Ranch offers two restaurants near The Hacienda. The Stonehouse, originally a sandstone-packing house built in 1889, offers contemporary American cuisine that is prepared with fruits, vegetables and herbs grown on the Ranch. And downstairs from the Stonehouse is the more casual Plow and Angel famous for its mac ‘n’ cheese (think: rich, divine comfort food) that’s served in a skillet with a crispy, baked seal. Both spots are a favorite with locals, who are invited to dine without staying on the property.
If you opt to leave The Ranch, Jeannine’s is a lovely local spot for breakfast in Montecito. And Arts & Letters Café is a perfect stop for lunch in Santa Barbara.

(credit: San Ysidro Ranch)

What To Do

Lounge, swim, hike or bike. Relax at your leisure and simply stroll the beautiful Ranch gardens. Or if you’re the active type, there’s 17 miles of hiking trails that surround the Ranch property and lead up to the San Ysidro Waterfall. The hotel concierge can arrange for your hiking adventure through the Santa Inez foothills or up the coast at Refugio State Beach. You can also bike.

(credit: Debbie Lavdas)

Sights To See

It’s picturesque-perfect with stunning views from atop the 114-feet high “El Mirada” clock tower. Completed in 1929, the Courthouse is striking in style and detail with inspired arches, iron rulings that accent the grand Spanish-Moorish architecture. You’ll get grand panoramic views of the mountains, city and sea from 85 feet above ground. No charge for this rich eyeful.

(credit: Debbie Lavdas)

Where To Shop

Leisurely stroll the shops of La Arcada along tile-lined walkways, fountains, sidewalk cafes and sculptures. It’s classic Santa Barbara style. The area features some of Santa Barbara’s top restaurants and art galleries, as well as a number of retail boutiques and services. Don’t miss Chocolats du CaliBressan, a brilliant French handmade chocolate boutique (the Buddha Beauty makes bellies smile).

(credit: sbma.net)

Local Culture

Take in the arts, over 27,000 to be exact. Founded in 1941, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is located in downtown Santa Barbara and features an eclectic collection of Asian, Contemporary, French and English 19th and early 20th Century Art. It showcases a collection of ancient through contemporary works and photography. And the museum makes for an inspired way to pass the time when away from historic San Ysidro Ranch.

Debbie Lavdas is a Southern California freelance writer with a slight JFK obsession, so staying just two doors over from the Kennedy cottage was unforgettable. Keep up with her and her writings at Debbie in the OC.