— After a just-completed renovation that can best be described as cheap and cheerful, the former Vacation Village in Laguna Beach is now the Pacific Edge Hotel, the 33rd and most recent property in the Joie de Vivre family of California boutique hotels that includes Venice Beach's Erwin and Brentwood's Angeleno.
This three-acre complex of eight buildings with 130 rooms and suites, 49 of them oceanfront at Sleepy Hollow Beach, had for most of its 51 years been a family-operated and -oriented destination with few pretensions. It was the kind of place where people came as children and returned with their own children. But it had become a bit tired.
If you go
Pacific Edge Hotel, 647 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; (949) 281-5709,
. Rates, which are seasonal, range from $79 to $750, double occupancy.
The Beach House, 619 Sleepy Hollow Lane, Laguna Beach; (949) 494-9707,
. Entrees from $24.
When Joie de Vivre assumed management two years ago, it knew what it had — a challenging layout, outdated rooms, exterior corridors — and a great location. Utah-based Gemstone Hotels & Resorts had taken over management in 2006 and made some cosmetic changes, which JDV promptly undid.
JDV envisioned a complete redo, including the possible replacement of some buildings. But the economy dictated delaying major structural changes, choosing instead a modest makeover that "makes it a little less motel-ish," as general manager Kurt Bjorkman put it.
Checking into Room 120 in the Reef building one weekend in June, I was expecting something more upscale than what I found behind my flamingo-pink door. It was an ocean-front room just 14 steps from the sand that I had booked on the hotel's website for $379.90 with tax.
The yellow and turquoise walls, recycled rattan furniture painted white, contemporary bullet light fixture snaking across the ceiling, 32-inch flat-screen TV and colorful stylized geometric and floral fabrics could not disguise that it was basically a '60s motel room — with a tiny bath, an alcove with a vanity and a half-closet housing a mini-fridge.
The cottage cheese ceiling was gone, and there was an efficient new heating/air conditioning unit. But the old wall heater with its peeling paint remained, as did the cheap and worn plastic knobs in the combination shower/tub and the ghastly brown carpeting that looked like tire tracks in mud. (I'm told that all rooms will soon have new blue-, green- and brown-striped carpeting.)
A coat of yellow paint on the brick corridor walls hadn't done much to enhance a space that is dank and dark, with a soiled carpet. And those tattered plastic trash bins sitting in the hall? This wasn't shaping up as a positive $380 experience.
But returning from a nice dinner half a block away at the popular Beach House — which is not owned or operated by the hotel but is certainly an asset — I experienced an attitude adjustment that had nothing to do with the wine I'd enjoyed with my mahi-mahi in curry-infused broth.
Opening the sliding glass door onto my balcony, I'd settled into a bright yellow Adirondack chair. A brilliant half moon floated above the ocean, the stars were bright, lights glittered along the curve of the coastline and the only sound was that of surf breaking over sand almost at my feet. Nirvana.
The Pacific Edge is "one of those places you just kind of get," Bjorkman told me later as we discussed some of the hotel's challenges. My "get it" moment had happened on that balcony.
True, one could stay at the Holiday Inn just across South Coast Highway for less than $200 a night — but it's not on the ocean. Laguna Beach's Surf & Sand Resort and the Montage are decidedly more elegant.
"We're trying to not pretend we're something we aren't," said Bjorkman. "We're a terrific location property that's a little quirky."
Although some might argue that peak summer rates of up to $750 are steep for quirky, the view is, indeed, priceless.
Returning guests are noticing the changes, and they're not all to their liking. Valet parking is now mandatory at $20 a night. A woman I met on the large seaside deck off the Surf wing grumbled that it used to be for the exclusive use of guests whose rooms opened onto it. Now the deck is open to all guests, has a bar and in the future will have piped-in music in the evening.
Pacific Edge has a variety of accommodations, and I peeked into quite a few. There are one- and two-bedroom apartments in the Bahia building ($179-$279, peak season).
"Our guests expect a little flexibility in bringing their own food and beverage," Bjorkman said. "Housekeeping teams make a daily trip to Ralphs [just across the highway] to return shopping carts." KFC and Taco Bell are adjacent to the hotel.
The best, and priciest, rooms are the five oceanfront junior suites in the Reef Tower with king beds, queen sleeper sofas, wet bars or kitchenettes and wraparound balconies ($325-$750, peak season). If a large bath is more important than a spacious room, good bets are Rooms 101 through 113, but they aren't oceanfront. The least expensive and least desirable rooms are in the Seas building, which is separated from the highway by only a pool. The Surf wing, which also has a heated pool, is quieter.
The hotel lobby, just off the highway, is small but welcoming, with turquoise walls and a seating area with a big photo blowup of the surf. A blue and white surfboard fronts the registration desk.
Things I liked about Pacific Edge: plentiful feather pillows — and a pillow menu with options that include foam or buckwheat. The comfortable pillow-top king bed and fluffy all-cotton towels. Half-and-half (none of that awful powdered stuff) for the in-room coffeemaker. The little outdoor conversation areas. And did I mention the ocean?
My room had an iron and board, but no safe and no minibar. Guests may order drinks and snacks by e-mail before checking in. Room service is available from the Beach House.
Things I didn't like: Fiji water at $5 for 1.5 liters. Lack of privacy on the balconies, which abut one another. In the morning, I found myself face to face with my neighbor not 8 feet away. (Robes in rooms would be handy.) Because anyone can easily access one balcony from the next, I kept my sliding door locked at night — a shame, because the hum of an air conditioner can't match the sound of the surf.
Guest perks include complimentary passes to the Laguna Health Club two blocks away and an Edge Card good for a 10% discount at 54 local shops, restaurants and galleries. "Beach sherpas" are on hand with complimentary umbrellas, chairs and towels and will deliver food from the Beach House. There's free Wi-Fi at the beach and in guest rooms.
In keeping with Joie de Vivre's policy of giving back to the community, there was a little stuffed seal on my bed with a neck tag telling me that he was mine for a $10 donation to Laguna Beach's Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and rehabilitates seals and sea lions. At checkout, guests can choose a $2-a-night add-on to support the center and Dana Point's Ocean Institute.
There is ongoing work both on-site and at an adjacent property, so guests might want to specify a quiet location.
Down the road, Bjorkman said, Joie de Vivre "has big plans" for the Pacific Edge. For now, it is what it is. Think location, location, location.