Tarting up historic properties is risky business: What’s new may be tasteful, even an improvement, but what’s old is the heart and soul. So it was with some anxiety that lifelong lovers of San Ysidro Ranch greeted the news that the exclusive getaway—purchased in 2000 by billionaire Beanie Babies king Ty Warner, who’s been snapping up hotels everywhere, including New York’s Four Seasons, Kona Village on Hawaii’s Big Island, and Las Ventanas in Los Cabos, Mexico—would undergo a $150 million renovation.
The site of John and Jackie Kennedy’s 1953 honeymoon, the ranch, which is now part of Rosewood Hotels & Re- sorts, is famous for its privacy and discretion. What Newport and Bar Harbor always were for the gilded East Coast set, San Ysidro was for Hollywood royalty.
Built in 1893 in a former citrus grove, San Ysidro is cradled in the Montecito foothills of Santa Barbara, California, and guarded by ancient oaks. The Du Ponts and Rockefellers used to arrive here by private railcar, the Gulfstream of its day. Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier married in a secret midnight ceremony in the lush rose garden, and director John Huston stayed for three months in one of the rustic bungalows while finishing up the script for The African Queen.
"It really is a magical place," says sales and marketing director Tamara Fangman of this legend set upon orange blossom-scented grounds, where lantana and bougainvillea add a riot of crimson. "But it’s not precious."
The restoration is now complete and the 40 individually decorated cottages, each with its own deck and hot tub, are again home to Hollywood heavyweights and others seeking refuge—only this time they come with plasma televisions, high-speed Internet access, and in-room spa treatments. Those who feared the architectural changes can breathe easy—new rough-hewn beamed ceilings and hand-cut stone fireplaces, along with radiant-heat bathroom floors and outdoor showers, only amplify the beauty of the place. Cottages have been redesigned with tasteful antiques and paintings, most of which Warner reportedly picked out himself. "Many guests can’t even bring themselves to leave their rooms," says Fangman, speaking from firsthand experience—she was a guest herself years before working for the ranch.
Despite the changes Warner’s team has blessedly managed to preserve the aura of San Ysidro, one that somehow evokes its almost mythical heritage (it helps that vintage photos of stars of yore who’ve stayed here have been framed and hung in the library among the leather-bound books and antiques). It’s easy to envision Groucho Marx sitting in one of the worn leather club chairs smoking a stogie, Sinclair Lewis typing away on Bethel Merriday, or Katharine Hepburn doing a backstroke in the pool.
With all the glamour, however, Ysidro is, at its core, a low-key haven for those who prefer solitude to socializing. The grounds, which have been spruced up (there’s a new lily pond, a chef’s organic garden, and vine-covered pergola), is the perfect place to lose oneself in the daylight hours. Come evening, while you’re strolling down to dinner under a blanket of stars, there’s only the crunch of gravel and the rustling of olive trees.
And later, in the hot tub with a flute of Veuve Clicquot in hand, there’s the sound of something so elusive it’s almost unrecognizable: silence, save the gentle burbling of the creek that runs beside one’s room. From $795; 800-368-6788
It’s All in the Details
Best dishes on the dining room menu The tortilla soup and the 17-hour braised short ribs
Most coveted bungalow The just-revamped 1,800-square-foot "Kennedy cottage," with its two master bedrooms, two bathrooms, three fireplaces, and deck with private hot tub
Brilliant Design Touch
Radiant-heat floors in the bathroom that warm at the flip of a switch
Why You’ll Have Trouble Getting Out of Bed
The Pratesi sheets, European down pillows, and handstitched French quilts
The San Ysidro Trail, which traces the periphery of the property—the main attraction is a waterfall about two miles from the trailhead
Favorite Quirky Detail
The small porcelain pig that is placed in each room as a symbol of good luck