By { Beth Weitzman

It’s only two hours outside of Los Angeles, yet The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara feels worlds away. Driving up the porte cochere, the white architecture set against a bright blue sky is truly stunning. A welcoming team of bellmen escort me and my weekend companion—Lucca, my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel—inside the recently modernized, open lobby, where a sense of well-being instantly sets in. It takes a special resort and level of hospitality to envelop you in serenity immediately; and this is one of those kind of places.

Spread over 78 acres, there’s plenty of room in which to breathe and wander, even when the 358 guest rooms and suites in 19 buildings are fully occupied. Perched in grand fashion above golden beaches and set among lush mountains and gardens, the resort feels surprisingly intimate. There are three salt-water infinity pools; a reimagined 42,000 square-foot spa and wellness center; six culinary venues; new Ritz-Carlton Club® Lounge;  70,000 square feet of fully updated indoor and outdoor meeting and event space; and varied, thoughtful activities for guests of all ages. 

While the landscape, views and new design are all pretty epic, the star of the show is the super-attentive yet unintrusive service and sincere hospitality. And to say the property is pet-friendly is an understatement. We met three other Cavalier Spaniels (as well as many other gracious pups) over our three-day stay, and Lucca was allowed to join me in most places (understandably, restaurants, the Club and Spa are off limits, but she was welcomed with open arms and large smiles everywhere else). She truly had the time of her life, which, of course, left me elated. 

Great service stems from an inspirational leader and Roberto van Geenen, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara, upholds The Ritz-Carlton credo with passion. Having been with the brand for nearly 35 years, he understands what comprises authentic customer service. Under his leadership for the past two years (since The Ritz-Carlton took over management of the iconic resort), this five-star oceanfront property has entered a new era of excellence. 

Helmed by hospitality design phenom Hirsch Bedner Associates, the recent renovation draws inspiration from the hotel’s distinctive location on the American Riviera. Influences include Santa Barbara’s rich Chumash and Spanish heritage, and the Pacific Ocean and Central Coast wine country. Gorgeous details, like the reception desk made from Italian marble hand-carved on-site by stone masons from Italy, are everywhere. A dramatically lit lobby art installation by Niki Zarrabi is comprised of 227 plexiglass disks on which photographs and paintings depict the area’s rugged cliffs and shoreline. An elegant glass chandelier glistens overhead.

The contemporary and cozy interior is designed in rich yet neutral tones reflecting the sand, shore and gorgeous landscape. Beautiful custom furnishings made of natural wood and leather feature organic textures, metallic accents and stone detailing; smartly designed seating areas provide lovely areas in which to socialize, read a book or get work done, if needed. 

Adjacent to the lobby, Bacara Bar features a large circular bar, plenty of intimate seating areas and large picture windows overlooking the Pacific. In a nod to the region’s history of basket weaving, a large woven sculpture dangles directly above the bar. A nice selection of wines and specialty cocktails (such as the Holy Paloma with habanero-infused tequila, St. Germain, grapefruit juice and lime juice) are available, as well as nonalcoholic Italian sodas (cream, strawberry basil, hibiscus and blackberry). A menu of shareable plates includes the not-to-be-missed Gruyere popover with craft butters; grilled naan bread and crudités with seasonal vegetables, roasted garlic hummus, za’atar oil and crushed pepitas; CA cowboy nacho skillet; and the Central Coast artisan cheese and charcuterie board. Cocktails and bites can also be enjoyed outside on the Ocean Terrace. Sitting beside a fire pit, with the brisk ocean breeze and unobstructed views of the shoreline below, is a great way to spend sunset, or time before or after dinner.

A few steps from the lobby and Bacara Bar is the brand-new Ritz-Carlton Club® Lounge, a signature Ritz-Carlton amenity. One of the few stand-alone Club Lounges in the brand’s portfolio, it’s available as an upgrade to any room. With five food presentations each day, starting with breakfast and ending with dessert and cordials, plus a WMF Coffee Machine, two WineStation® machines, an executive kitchen and as much imbibing as one might desire, this is a welcomed perk. The villa-style Club Lounge also boasts an expansive outdoor terrace overlooking the spa and adult pool, as well as works by renowned Santa Barbara artists who draw inspiration from this beautiful region. 

Also drawing inspiration from sunny, sandy SoCal is the reinvented 42,000-square-foot Ritz-Carlton Spa and Fitness Center. The soothing sound of gently bubbling water and a floor-to-ceiling water drop pendant light welcomes visitors into the multistory building. A stone path leads to the reclaimed wooden reception desk, where another work of modern art—an installation by Emily Mann reminiscent of sea water gathering in a tide pool—reflects the influence of the Pacific Ocean. Serenity is enhanced in the relaxation rooms by cascading sheer pods, plush seating in front of a fireplace and a pair of gravity chairs.

A full menu of beautifying and healing treatments for mind, body and spirit—massages, body wraps and scrubs, facial treatments—incorporate ingredients pulled from the locale. The new 80-minute Sleep Ritual Massage, the pillar of the sleep wellness program, features a DreamKit (which is yours to keep) and provides a journey in which the entire body (including back, core, neck, face and jaw), mind and spirit are soothed. Aromatic vegan and botanical creams and serums are applied. Relaxing music plays. Serious bodywork reverses the effects of stress, gravity and aging. The results: better sleep, improved energy flow and a profound feeling of lightness. 

The full men’s and women’s fitness facilities include steam, sauna, whirlpool, changing rooms and a large revitalized gym with top-of-the-line strength equipment and weights, plus a luxurious refreshment area. An expanded outdoor terrace features an alfresco multistation gym and special flooring for movement and stretching. A variety of classes, from yoga and meditation to spin, Power Blast and TRX, are on offer. 

In addition, the award-winning Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment Program, created in partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, educates guests and locals about the diverse ecosystems and natural wonders of the resort’s prime location on the Gaviota Coast—the  largest stretch of undeveloped coastline in Southern California. Cousteau-trained naturalists, including program leader Sara Welsh, teach participants of all ages about kelp forests, diverse species of birds, the Native American people who inhabited Central and Southern California, and more. 

When it comes to total relaxation, the adults-only, full-service pool adjacent to the Club and spa beckons. For captivating views and more excitement, the main pool, cooled by a Pacific Ocean breeze, offers plush cabanas (available by reservation), chaise lounges and full menu with poolside service. It’s one of the most coveted spots to swim and soak up the sun in Santa Barbara. Sunscreen is available at the pool concierge desk; always-personable staffers come by with treats and an afternoon popsicle cart. Leisurely days blend beautifully with the temptingly delicious fare and cocktails found at the Pool Bar. A cool vibe and menu of fresh salads, chips and guacamole, pizza, fish tacos and the like, signature cocktails and frozen drinks are on offer. After the sun sets, HD televisions, lounge seating and fire pits keep spirits high.

Another enticing option is The Bistro, with oceanfront terrace. Serving three meals a day, the restaurant’s varied menu highlights sustainable seafood and produce from local farmers. For breakfast, the avocado whole-wheat toast and hard-boiled eggs—with sundried tomatoes, asparagus, pickled radish and pomegranate—is to-die-for. Lunchtime brings a selection of brick-oven pizzas, seasonal salads and the signature bistro burger, while dinner offers an array of surf, turf, pasta, paella and vegan dishes. 

A real culinary treat, Angel Oak, which houses the resort’s coveted 12,000-bottle wine collection, is helmed by chef Alexander Bollinger and offers a most glamorous option. You can dine inside or, better yet, under the stars on the open patio, overlooking the ocean. Come to the large lawn adjacent to the restaurant before dinner to watch the sun set. The modern American steakhouse with heavy emphasis on sea-to-table fare boasts a playful menu that highlights inventive dishes and respects the classics. Appetizers include roasted bone marrow with oxtail marmalade and pistachio gremolata; tuna and salmon tartare with local avocado, radish, ginger, lime, citrus miso aioli, crunchy forbidden rice and toasted nori oil; and from the raw bar, the epic Angel Oak Grande Plateau. Main courses include the house specialty of abalone with fresh pasta, rainbow chard and lemon beurre blanc; and A5 Japanese Wagyu with optional 1/2 lobster tail; Alaskan king crab or Oscar-style (pure heaven). The restaurant also hosts one of the area’s most decadent brunches, as well as the chance to spot migrating whales (in season).

Guests on the go can pop into Blend, off the porte cochere, to grab beverages, fresh pastries and soft-serve ice cream, as well as quick breakfast and lunch dishes. To-go orders can be arranged for beach picnics, bike rides or sightseeing excursions. The resort also offers a unique tasting experience right on property at the Foley Food & Wine Society Tasting Room, with flights from the Society’s participating partners including Kuleto Estate, Chalk Hill Estate, Sebastiani and Lancaster Estate.

And when the time finally comes to retire to your room, seaside-inspired guest rooms (set to be remodeled within the next year or so) feature super-comfortable beds, marble bathrooms, spacious private lanais and views of the pool, gardens, ocean and golden sunset. An in-room iPad offers the utmost convenience and access to everything, ranging from housekeeping and turndown service to room service, wake-up calls, spa services, daily activities, information about the property and beyond. 

Additional activities (most are complimentary) include tennis on three courts, beach walks and lounging, nature hikes, wine tasting, mixology classes, movie nights and stargazing. There are many memories to be made at the reimagined The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara.