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San Ysidro Ranch

Olivia Allwood-Mollon finds her surname mounted in oak letters at the door of her cottage at San Ysidro Ranch

The Credentials:

Voted America’s Best Hotel by Forbes Traveller, and regularly topping Condé Nast Traveller’s Gold List, San Ysidro Ranch had a lot to live up to. Now a Ty Warner property, dating back to 1893, the ranch exudes understated luxury and heritage.

Considered California’s most historic and exclusive hotel, the ranch has a heated outdoor pool, flower gardens and a working organic chef’s garden. It also offers private yoga instruction and in-room spa treatments.

Nestled in the Montecito foothills of Southern California, between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and set within 17 miles of beautiful walking and hiking trails, San Ysidro Ranch’s 500-acre grounds are just minutes from Montecito village.


The Ranch has two restaurants; the Stonehouse and the more casual Plow and Angel. The Stonehouse was originally a 19th century citrus packing house, with the Plow and Angel below. With its crackling log fires, lounge, separate dining room and outdoor patio complete with wood-burner, ocean views and heated stone flooring, the Stonehouse is a destination in itself. The Plow and Angel has stained glass windows, a convivial atmosphere and a sense of dining inside an underground cave. The food is hearty and where not grown onsite, locally sourced.

There is a separate, secluded adobe for private dining; tumbledown faded grandeur accented with mottled mirrors, candleholders and oil lanterns, peeling frescoes and a weathered stone hearth. High-back oak chairs with faded velvet cushions frame the round table, its pastel ticking stripe tablecloth below a ceramic jug of roses. Weathered windowpanes, hand-carved wooden benches, stools, stable-doors and ceiling beams complement the rustic textures and intimate setting.


Magnolia Cottage was magnificent. Elegant, old world furnishings were offset by every modern comfort. Each cottage is entirely private, with its own parking, gated front and separate back garden.

The palatial bathroom opened out into our private garden, complete with double outdoor rainforest showers and candlelit hot tub. There was a separate glass back door from the inside shower through to the outdoor showers and patio. Shelves were stacked with Bulgari products inside and out. The deep freestanding tub was almost redundant with the hot tub permanently steaming day and night.

The cottage had polished oak floors, a roaring log fire, four-poster bed with muslin drapes and Egyptian cotton linens, oak dining table, chairs, and several Victorian dressers. It felt less Wild West ranch, and more like a (very) well appointed home.

Who Goes There?

Guests include everyone from wealthy politicians, rock stars, artists and actors, to writers, trailblazers and luminaries; everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham to Groucho Marx. JFK and Jackie O spent their honeymoon here and Ryan Phillippe recently brought Amanda Seyfried for a romantic getaway. Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier were married at the ranch, along with Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill and Victoria’s Secret model Lily Aldridge.

Having retired to the four-poster to catch up on US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, I lazily remarked that I’d love to meet Raj, the show’s socially-inept physicist. Ten minutes later we wandered over to the Plow and Angel, where the only other diners were Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and his beautiful wife, Miss India.

Out & About:

About half an hour’s drive away is Circle Bar B – the riding ranch favoured by everyone, from President Reagan to the Kardashians, Jude Law, Scarlet Johannson and Josh Hartnett. We travailed cliffs and bush on Western-trained horses, climbing hundreds of metres to reach the perilous summit. There we dismounted to enjoy breath-taking views across the canyon to the Santa Barbara coast.

We continued on through Santa Ynez wine country to Brander, the Actor’s favourite vineyard. After a pleasant hour or so sampling the best Solvang has to offer, we wandered around the grounds and enjoyed sandwiches from the next-door deli. The vineyard is one of the finest, and Brander’s Sauvignon Blanc is to die for.

Nearby Santa Barbara is half super-chic fashion district, half art-house student town. The film festival was on while we were there, making it near impossible to get a dinner reservation. After pulling strings, having the ranch concierge call and several hours’ wait we finally got a table at Bouchon, our first choice. The delay was worth it. This bohemian Santa Barbara institution offers a selection of fresh, local Wine Country cuisine. Fish is sourced from the Santa Barbara channel, and produce gathered from the surrounding farmland. Wines are local and the sommeliers as good as they come.

If you’re feeling nautical, there are whale and dolphin watching tours leaving from Santa Barbara, just fifteen minutes, or Ventura, forty-five minutes drive away.

The Best Thing:

No detail had been overlooked; from our own driveway to park outside our cottage, to thoughtful truffles and trinkets dotted about by a fairy-godmother maid, who telepathically sensed whenever we’d popped out. Even my surname had been mounted in oak letters at the door, and elegant stationary adorned with the ranch signature and ‘Olivia Allwood-Mollon in Residence, Magnolia Suite’ headed on cartridge paper – should I suddenly feel an urge to catch up on correspondence.

Reclining in the hot tub with our Brander Sauvignon, gazing at a canopy of a million stars set against the jet black sky, the world seemed very far away. The air was silent; the occasional breeze in the bows above the only reminder that I was awake.

The Worst Thing:

I’m genuinely unable to pick fault. Except the obvious hefty price tag, the ranch was exquisite and exuded both comfort and rural Californian charm. The only downside is the legacy our stay has left – it will make it very difficult for any future escape to live up to.

The Details:

Accommodation ranges from $650 a night for a Ranch Room, to $5,500 a night for the Warner Cottage. Magnolia Cottage is $1,000 a night, not including meals. San Ysidro Ranch, 900 San Ysidro Lane, Santa Barbara, CA 93108; sanysidroranch.com; 001 805 565 1995