Rick Caruso walks into a clubby library bar and notices that the fireplace isn’t running. “This should be on every day, all day,” he says to a staffer in a friendly, firm tone. Caruso then slightly adjusts the arrangement of a group of chairs. “These aren’t in the right place,” he says, seemingly to himself.
This isn’t Caruso’s house, but it might as well be. It’s the Rosewood Miramar Beach, a 161-room luxury resort on a 16-acre stretch of beachfront in Montecito, California, just east of Santa Barbara. It’s the first hotel by Caruso, a Los Angeles–based developer best known for outdoor malls, including the Grove in L.A., the Americana at the Brand in Glendale, and Palisades Village in Pacific Palisades. With trolley rides, fountains that dance to music, and even fake snowfall at Christmastime, they have become high-end retail destinations. Caruso successfully bucked the national death-of-the-shopping-mall narrative and at the same time redefined the concept.
For his latest project he wanted to take on a new challenge: reimagining the resort hotel. When I visited the Miramar in late February, Montecito was in the midst of an unusually long cold snap, and there had been rain on and off for weeks. The resort was still about 10 days from officially opening, but it felt as though it was up and running. There were a handful of guests staying on the property, and the staff was preparing for a 400-person wedding. The sun had finally made a tepid appearance, bringing slightly warmer air along with some optimism that beach days might be around the corner.
Caruso, personable and handsome in a perfectly pressed suit, gave me a tour. The hotel sits right on a south-facing stretch of sandy coastline. In the other direction there are the Santa Barbara Mountains. The Miramar’s main building, the Manor House, has the feel of a classic estate, with white stone walls, leaded windows, and a black roof. Out front there’s a fountain and chauffeured Rolls-Royce Ghosts waiting to pick guests up at the airport.
The Grove, Caruso has said, was inspired by Charleston and Savannah. He liked the proportions of the streets there. For the Americana, he looked at Boston’s Newbury Street. For the Miramar his idea was to bring back the old-fashioned concept of a hotel that feels like a home—albeit a very luxurious one. Before the turn of the 20th century, travel was so arduous that guests would commonly check in for long stays, using hotels as temporary homesteads, which gave the properties a residential feel that Caruso thinks it’s unfortunate we have lost.
To help bring it back, Caruso brought in his personal decorator, Diane Johnson, who did his houses in Brentwood, Newport Beach, and Malibu. “I asked her to do this as if it were our home,” Caruso says. “I didn’t want anybody who had done a hotel before.”
Each of Caruso’s projects has a very specific storyline. For the Miramar, he explains: “It’s roughly 1930 and it’s a house designed for a family out of the East Coast that had their summer cottage.” The late Paul Williams, best known for designing the Beverly Hills Hotel, would have been their architect. Caruso says he has long been inspired by Williams’s work (and his story: An African-American, Williams learned to sketch upside down because some of his clients refused to sit next to him). The Miramar’s draped wrought iron railings were copied from Williams’s Cord Residence in Beverly Hills (circa 1933).
Rosewood, the hotel brand behind properties like the Carlyle in New York and the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, has partnered with Caruso to manage the hotel. Radha Arora, Rosewood’s president, says the company’s service philosophy dovetails with the residential vibe Caruso is after. Staffers are trained to welcome guests as if they were their own butlers or drivers—“if you could afford to have a staff of your own,” Arora says.
The rooms, which start at around $800 a night during peak season, are spread across garden cottage bungalows, the Manor House, and beachfront “lanai” suites. There are two swimming pools, including a scallop-shaped one surrounded by black-and-white-striped lounge chairs and private cabanas. To get the look and dimensions just right, Caruso flew his entire design team to Monaco to look at a pool at the Monaco Beach Club.
Caruso’s other goal was to build the kind of hotel where locals would feel as welcome as overnight guests. “Most hotels discourage it. They don’t want locals walking through the hotel,” Caruso says. His is a counterintuitive strategy, but it has worked well for his malls, which have become lifestyle destinations that draw non-shoppers and shoppers alike.
The Rosewood Miramar Beach has seven restaurants, and, of course, there’s retail, including a James Perse–curated store and a Goop sundries shop, where you’ll find beachwear and Gwyneth Paltrow–approved versions of the essentials, like dental floss made from coconut. And then there’s a private club. Launching with only 200 or so members, it’s invitation-only and targeted at locals and second-home owners in the area. They’ll get access to the gym and beach, as well as a private bar and restaurant. Caruso says he has invited people who “aren’t snooty” and are fun to hang out with.
Montecito has long drawn affluent families looking for a second home destination in a mild climate, though initially it was wealthy Midwesterners and East Coast industrialists who commissioned the major estates. Today Montecito, which has a population of less than 10,000, is a haven for wealthy and famous Angelenos drawn by its proximity and low-key vibe.
“There’s a very peaceful calm and positive energy that Montecito has,” says Nicole Avant, the former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. She and her husband Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix, purchased a property here last year from Ellen DeGeneres; they now spend most of their weekends in Montecito. They are founding Miramar Beach Club members.
Scooter Braun, the talent manager behind such acts as Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, also owns a home here. He puts it this way: “Oprah and Ellen can go anywhere in the world, and they choose Montecito. Every day I look at this and I pinch myself.”
Braun and his wife Yael Cohen are also club members, and they say they’re excited to see what Caruso does with a hotel and private club. “Rick seems as if he hasn’t held back here,” Braun says.
He hasn’t. At one point on our tour, Caruso points to a large bird flying above the Manor House. “That’s our hawk!” he exclaims. There’s a man with an arm-size glove standing on the roof, and Caruso explains that he was hired to wrangle the hawk to scare away seagulls, a potential beach nuisance.
The property has come a long way from the original Miramar by the Sea, which opened in the late 1800s when a farming family rented rooms in its house and later added tentlike canvas cabins, says Hattie Beresford, a local historian. Later the resort, under different ownership, became known for its blue-roofed white bungalows. In its heyday it was a relatively affordable beach destination, but in 1998 it closed, and hotelier Ian Schrager stepped in to buy it. He was unable to get his plans for improving it off the ground, however, and it sat vacant for years. Beanie Babies mogul Ty Warner bought it from Schrager but didn’t hold on to it for long. In 2007 he sold the Miramar, still untouched, to Caruso.
Years of neglect meant that the structures weren’t salvageable. “We couldn’t knock it down quick enough,” Caruso says. Before he could, there were emotional, 10-hour city council meetings, with pushback from locals, as well as California’s lengthy environmental review process. Beresford admits that that’s the way things are in Montecito. “We have a reputation,” she says. When the recession hit a decade ago, Caruso put the project on hold.
Then, last year, with construction finally underway, Montecito was hit by wildfires and devastating mudslides. The Miramar wasn’t damaged, but the long closure of a local freeway delayed construction. Today the town looks nothing like the news footage from a year ago, though there are still neighborhoods that remind you of how the area has suffered. “The people of Montecito have a really strong backbone and a very positive attitude in general,” Avant says. “That’s why it has come back so fast.”
One of the things you’ll notice at the Miramar is that an active train track runs through the resort. It’s something other developers might have seen as a deal breaker, or at least as something to obscure. Caruso decided to take the opposite tack: bill the train as part of the property’s charm. He put a bar next to the tracks that has a view of both the ocean and the trains. The bartender rings a bell when one goes by. (A 24-hour guard helps guests cross the tracks.) “It was a big gamble,” Caruso says, but one he thinks is going to pay off. Staffers say they have already seen early guests cheering as trains go by.
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