It’s easy to see why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle joined long-time residents Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres in choosing the town of Montecito, in Santa Barbara County, California, as their new home. And yet, for a couple in their thirties with their pick of Los Angeles neighbourhoods, it still begs the question — why settle down a 90-minute drive away from all the action, in a sleepy seaside enclave few people have heard of?
“The people who live here have made a conscious choice,” says Erik Haskell, an estate agent with luxury brokerage, The Agency, who grew up in Montecito (Spanish for “little mount”) and whose clients include Matt Damon and Rob Lowe. “For glitz and glamour, you have Beverly Hills. To live an anonymous existence, you have Montecito. It’s a gathering of like-minded people.”
It is beautiful, with lots of nature, and the homes are secluded and private. There is of course a dark side, centred at the moment on local politics and feuds with neighbouring Santa Barbara over who gets access to water during droughts. In his novel Black Money, Ross Macdonald described Montecito as a place where “almost anything can happen. Almost everything has.” He adds that “residents play at being simple villagers the way the courtiers of Versailles pretend to be peasants”.
Before Covid there were plenty of private parties in the hillside mansions, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are not short of friends here. “Oprah’s had Meghan’s mother, Doria [who lives in LA] to her estate [The Promised Land] for lunch a few times and of course Ellen is nearby — she visited them at Frogmore Cottage,” says Richard Mineards, a British former royal correspondent who’s been a columnist for the Montecito Journal for 14 years and lives minutes from Harry and Meghan.
“Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom [who have been quarantining in Montecito] have a daughter, Daisy, who’s a bit younger than Archie. I think they could make friends and play on the beach together.”
Butterfly Beach is a popular spot and likely to be where Harry was filmed walking with Archie and their dogs, Pula and Guy. “It would be lovely to see Harry teaching Archie to surf,” adds Mineards. While sightings of the family have, so far, been scarce, they have been spotted cycling and are likely to hike — Cold Spring Trail, Hot Springs Canyon and San Ysidro Trail are all on their doorstep.
The family’s arrival “put Montecito on the map”, says Haskell. “When Harry and Meghan purchased, it was a tipping point for Montecito real estate. There’s been an influx of influential people from LA and New York.”
That is an understatement. New home owners in the area — which has a population of about 8,610 — include Gwyneth Paltrow, Ariana Grande, Natalie Portman and Netflix boss Ted Sarandos. Harry and Meghan’s purchase of their estimated $14.65 million house was so low-key, many in the real estate world were not aware of it. They bought their house for less than the previous owner paid for it in 2009. It is a bargain compared to other houses in the area, for example Winfrey’s $50 million (£35.9 million) property or DeGeneres’s recent $49 million (£35.2 million) purchase.
So how does Harry and Meghan’s nine-bedroom, 16-bathroom estate, known as “The Chateau of Riven Rock” compare? Mineards says it is typical of “the beautiful houses” in the area. “It’s Mediterranean feeling with terracotta tiles. All the estates are behind high walls and have big gates.”
In the days after the Oprah interview, a German film crew tried for a sighting of the couple in their new habitat. They were shooed away — but not before being charmed. “Two men in their twenties came out to say, ‘you can’t film here,’ but they weren’t aggressive, they were very nice,” says Mineards.
Built in 2003, the chateau now has a library, gym, home theatre, wine cellar and spa. The couple’s bedroom is like the presidential suite of a five-star hotel, with fireplaces, chandeliers, a balcony, a separate sitting room and a marble bath. As well as the pool, tennis court and a coop of rescue chickens, the estate has rose gardens, century-old olive trees and an outdoor pizza oven. There’s a two-bedroom guesthouse for when LA-based friends such as Adele and James Corden visit.
Montecito’s culture of discretion should protect the couple. There are no celebrity home sightseeing tours, and the locals “don’t make it easy for paparazzi to be here,” Mineards says. In other words, even if the couple were out for dinner we might never hear about it. Resorts such as The Rosewood Miramar Beach offer private check-ins and private dining areas. “You’ll go to a restaurant and maybe a celebrity will be in there but it’s not like people are going up to them,” he says. Harry and Meghan have only been spotted in one Montecito restaurant so far, dining with actress and musician friends Katharine McPhee and David Foster at Lucky’s Steakhouse. It does a mean martini and has a Rat Pack vibe.
Mineards puts the elusiveness of the couple down to the pandemic, and hopes to see them out and about once lockdown is lifted. “Many people have said they’d like to see them in the community getting involved because we have so many non-profit organisations here.” There is a focus on the environment — the area is prone to wildfires, mudslides and drought. Montecito has paid for half of a desalination plant in neighbouring Santa Barbara in exchange for as much water as it wants from them for the next 50 years. It does not want to be criticised for using more than its fair share of water. And independence from Santa Barbara is important to Montecito.
Finally, Harry and Meghan’s new life wouldn’t be complete without the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club. Harry’s friend Nacho Figueras (a mutual mate of DeGeneres) and his wife Delphina are regulars and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited on their 2011 North American tour. “At the dinner, William said Charles and Harry were as green as grass that he was there,” recalls Mineards. “With lockdown ending we might well see them and have Harry riding in the summer. If he wasn’t a prince he would have made a very good professional polo player. He is a better player than William.” He is in the perfect place to get his practice in, undisturbed by any unwanted attention.