MONTECITO — In this quiet little community south of Santa Barbara, there is never much hoopla when changes are made at its historic hostelries. But if you visit the Biltmore, Montecito Inn or San Ysidro Ranch you'll be happily surprised by the recent events.
For instance, the venerable Biltmore, a posh destination since opening at the ocean's edge in 1927, has a new owner and operator. It's the sophisticated Four Seasons hotel group.
The staff of that Canadian corporation began running the resort less than 12 weeks ago, after buying out Marriott Hotels for $58 million. According to the new general manager, Fritz Koeppel, another $15 million will be spent on refurbishing the lush 21-acre property over the next three years.
So far the changes have been subtle, mostly retraining staff and upgrading amenities. In the guest rooms you'll now find terry-cloth robes (for children too), satin-padded clothes hangers, king-size down pillows and hair dryers. Mini-bars should be in all rooms by early fall.
Although the hotel officially has a new name, Four Seasons Biltmore, its gourmet dining room is still called La Marina. Fountain Court, the less formal restaurant, soon will become the Courtyard. It already offers the Four Seasons' special alternative cuisine that features dishes low in calories, cholesterol and sodium.
That's where, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., you also can enjoy twilight dinners, a choice of six full meals ranging from $6.95 to $10.95 with beverage and dessert. A Biltmore tradition that continues is the elegant Sunday brunch, served indoors and on the lawn for $29, including champagne.
If you'd like to sample the Four Seasons style, a good time is from 3 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., when English high tea is served in La Sala lounge ($8.75). Or be there between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to enjoy a cocktail hour with a buffet of hors d'oeuvres and live music.
During its 11-year ownership, Marriott increased the Biltmore's accommodations to 228 rooms and suites, some in private cottages. A few rooms are available at $130 single or double, but most cost $190. (You'll pay $205 with a fireplace or pool view, $230 with an ocean view.) Suites begin at $265 and rise to $560 for the presidential quarters. Reservations: (805) 969-2261.
In 1928, a year after the Biltmore was born, Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle opened the Montecito Inn for their Hollywood friends. But the subsequent Great Depression was the first of the hard times this three-story hotel has suffered over the years.
Fortunately, the historic inn is welcoming guests once again under the ownership of Dee and Rob Barrett and Denise and Jim Taylor, who recovered the building from bankruptcy last year. They've added new carpets, paint and artwork to the major renovation of the property that was completed in 1982.
You now have a choice of 53 rooms decorated in French Provincial style with floral print fabrics. Charlie Chaplin movie posters adorn stairways and halls in honor of the famed comedian who owned the inn until 1945. Video tapes of his classic films are shown to guests on Sunday and Wednesday evenings.
A bank has replaced the popular Olive Mill Bistro on the hotel's ground floor, but recently the Montecito Cafe opened in smaller quarters and quickly became a favorite. Chef/owners Margaret and Mark Huston serve good food at reasonable prices; blackboard specials augment the regular lunch and dinner menu. Continental breakfast is available, too.
The Montecito Inn has an outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, sauna and exercise room. Bicycles are provided to guests for leisurely sightseeing or you can tour with an all-day trolley bus pass. Rates begin at $98 a room and rise to $190 for the honeymoon suite; two-night minimum on weekends. Reservations: (805) 969-7854.
Another Hollywood star, Ronald Colman, once was co-owner of another Montecito retreat, San Ysidro Ranch. Its history of welcoming overnight guests dates to 1893, but the ranch had run down considerably when Susie and Jim Lavenson took over the 540-acre property in 1976 and began a decade of renovation.
The couple is happy to report that restoration is complete on another of the 22 cottages that offer 43 accommodations with a wide choice of decor. Susie serves as San Ysidro's decorator, and among her touches are bathroom washbasins mounted in antique chests of drawers.
The furniture is as varied as each cottage and includes family heirlooms from the Lavenson's former Long Island manor to relics discovered at the Salvation Army. Susie says some people think of the ranch as being very chi-chi, but she considers the place as rather down-home.
Nonetheless, amenities in most rooms include terry-cloth robes and a wet bar with an automatic coffee maker. And meals from the ranch's Plow and Angel restaurant can be delivered to your room as well. Room rates for two range from $149 to $219; individual cottages start at $259. Two-night minimum on weekends.