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Where is America’s best hotel?

As surprising as the fact that none of New York City’s great hotels made the list, is the fact that four of the five are in California.
Tucked away on 500 acres in the Santa Ynez Mountains, just south of bustling Santa Barbara, San Ysidro Ranch was originally a Franciscan mission founded in 1768.
Tucked away on 500 acres in the Santa Ynez Mountains, just south of bustling Santa Barbara, San Ysidro Ranch was originally a Franciscan mission founded in 1768. San Ysidro Ranch
/ Source: Forbes

For a luxury hotel in Europe, being 100-years-old barely rates a mention in the guidebook. There are bars in Barcelona that can trace their timelines back further. But in the U.S., where few top-end hotels surpass the century mark without falling into disrepair — or closing altogether — it’s more unusual.

Most unusual is being a hotel that is 116 years old that still offers world-class service, amenities and atmosphere. That's the case for San Ysidro’s Ranch being named 2009's Best Hotel in America, according to the Forbes Traveler’s expert panel. To say that it’s highly subjective — and debatable — of course goes without saying. But we’ve put a little math into the project.

To determine the world’s top 400 luxury hotels, the editors of Forbes Traveler assembled a board of discerning luxury travelers from a variety of fields. Some are celebrities, like new-media baroness Arianna Huffington and chefs Todd English and Rocco Dispirito; others are noted travel industry professionals, like the Today Show’s Peter Greenberg and Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler. All board members have one thing in common: They stay in at least 20 five-star hotels every year. They know which hotels are at the top of their game — and which are starting to lose their shine.

Forbes Traveler asked these elite globetrotters to rate nearly 800 of the world's finest hotels in a number of categories, including room quality, service, décor and cuisine; the top-ranked 400 were then reviewed by professional travel writers. The result is the Forbes Traveler 400, the only expert-driven list of the world’s finest hotels.

The board members were also asked to make a trickier choice: the Single Best Hotel Overall. When the answers were compiled and cross-referenced with the original ratings, five of America’s most beloved properties rose to the top of the list.

As surprising as the fact that none of New York City’s great hotels made the list, is the fact that four of the five are in California. The second most-cited hotel is the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, one of America’s great luxury hotels thanks to its dramatic cliff-side location and world-renowned golfing. A bit further north, number three is the Auberge du Soleil, a Napa Valley favorite for more than 20 years. On the other side of the country, number four is The Point, on Saranac Lake in upstate New York. And rounding out the top five is the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows, Los Angeles’ original scene to be seen.

The destination that took top honors as America's Best Hotel happens to be located on a historic California property. In 1769, while Spanish soldiers were busy building a presidio to defend Santa Barbara, a Franciscan friar named Junipero Serra was busy building a series of missions to save the area’s souls. For his tenth such retreat, he found a peaceful, isolated spot in Montecito, just south of Santa Barbara. In the early 1800s, Father Serra's mission was converted to a citrus ranch; then, in 1893, a hacienda was built — and San Ysidro Ranch welcomed its first guests.

But it wasn't until the 1930s that the Ranch — as it's known among devotees — became a world-class getaway, when actor Ronald Colman and State Senator Alvin Weingand transformed the former mission into an elite hideaway for Hollywood's A-listers. With its secluded location in the Santa Ynez Mountains, the 500 acres of quiet trails and sprawling gardens quickly became the celebrity go-to spot for luxury, privacy and relaxation.

Several decades later, the Ranch boasted a guest list that could substitute for a gossip page: Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Audrey Hepburn, Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill, Sinclair Lewis, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock have all stayed here. John Houston finished writing the screenplay for The African Queen while in residence; Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were married on the grounds; and Oprah regularly puts up her guests here. But the property is perhaps most famous for witnessing the start of Camelot when JFK and Jackie honeymooned in the cottage that now bears their name.

But San Ysidro Ranch is no historical throwback. In 2000, billionaire entrepreneur Ty Warner bought the property and soon after embarked on an ambitious three-year, $150-million renovation. Each of the Ranch's private cottages and suites now feature private outdoor patios with hot tubs, outdoor rain showers, heated bathroom floors and modern appliances. The cottages are uniquely decorated, and feature separate living areas with fireplaces for those chilly California nights. Despite the modern touches, the units retain a rustic European country-home feel, thanks in part to the antiques sprinkled throughout.

The Kennedy Cottage is the most-requested unit. This 1,800-square-foot retreat features two master suites with private bathrooms larger than many hotel rooms, three fireplaces and the Ranch's largest private deck. Then there's the Ty Warner Cottage, formerly the Eucalyptus Cottage and now the Ranch's crown jewel. This 2,200-square-foot residence-style unit is outfitted to recall a lush European country home. It, too, features two master bedrooms and three fireplaces, but there's also a private 33-foot swimming pool and a view of the Channel Islands.

A long, storied history isn’t a requirement for a hotel to gain world-class luxury status. After all, many of the best hotels were recently built in cities like Dubai, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They're thoroughly modern, and thoroughly impressive. But there's a particular charm to staying on a property with a long history that speaks to a region's character. And in the U.S., there's no finer example than San Ysidro Ranch, Forbes Traveler's expert panel choice for the Best Hotel in America for 2009.