#292 - Casa del Camino in Laguna Beach
Our Casa in Laguna Beach
It's been 40 years since Don and I first laid eyes on this hotel.
It was the early 80s and we lived less than 2 miles north, in a much less impressive Laguna Beach casa. It was a drab little 4-plex rental unit, but we could hear sea lions and cows from our open windows.
The front doors and windows were wide open at La Casa del Camino, when we arrived last fall.
The inn with its Spanish revival-style, looked so welcoming! I'm sure it didn't look much different, when it opened in 1929. It quickly became a popular hotel, where locals gathered and travelers paid $3. for a room.
Before we stepped inside, I brushed leaves off the pavement to take this photo.
I wonder about the meaning of this face-like design. Waves and curly "whiskers"?
The Hotel Firenze Days and Before
La Casa was only a half century old when Don and I moved to Laguna Beach. It was then named Hotel Firenze, I believe. Don and I never went inside. It was either apartments or a B&B.
Lucky for the community, that the hotel made it through some rocky years in the '60's and '70's. La Casa's website shares stories about those neglected years. "Hippies" and "Surfers" moved in... surfboards could be seen riding down the staircase.. there were "love-ins" and drugs and the courtyard trees were unmaintained, so that branches grew through windows...
Peaceful and Pleasant
When we checked in on a Sunday afternoon, we found no orgies or smells of incense or pot. No peeling paint or worn fabrics.
The cozy lobby had a nice breeze of sea air blowing through. There was a fire in the tile fireplace.
We rang the desk bell and a serious-looking man came through the curtains. I was happy that we were could check in early. I was even happier, when the quiet man said he'd find us a room with the best few possible, even though we'd booked one or the cheap rooms.
1929 and 2022
I spotted a postcard with a drawing of the lobby. I'm guessing the image shows how the lobby looked in 1929, when it first opened.
The furniture has changed a bit, but the ceiling beams, courtyard doors and arched openings, looked the same.
There was a cozy, comfortable feel to the lobby seating. The walls were covered with artwork.
I learned later that displayed art was an important part of the hotel, back when local artist and city councilman William Riddell, dreamed up the idea of the hotel, over 90 years ago.
Mr. Riddell wanted the hotel to be a place where travelers could rest and locals could gather and artwork could be displayed and admired. Later in the evening this space looked like a modern version of William Riddell's dream.
Hints of the Past
I was glad to see that the hotel hadn't been totally slicked up and modernized. That meant we could afford a Laguna Beach hotel, just steps from the beach. The old inn had hints and smells of an older hotel, but I loved seeing arches, original windows and doors.
I was curious about the 2 narrow doors. A restroom with a frosted glass window? I read the word "engaged" on a circular feature, on the other door. I asked at the desk and learned that the doors originally opened to "Telephone Closets". Love that!
Up to Our Floor
There was an elevator, but it was tricky to find. We lugged our bags up the stairs, beneath a sign guiding folks to "The Rooftop" lounge.
Later in the evening these stairs got lots of use by tourists and locals. The Rooftop was a very inviting place to drink and dine! Going down the stairs, I made sure to wave to myself and then admire the chandelier. Then why not, I took a photo!
It was odd how the hotel was divided. As we headed down the hall towards our room, I spotted this old staircase down a different hall.
It led down to an area off the lobby. It also led up to the Rooftop, although I'm not sure it was the staircase we were supposed to use. Confusing.
Our room was almost at the end of the hall. The vintage photo beneath our number, showed me that La Casa hadn't changed much over the years.
The doors were updated, but the old transoms still remained.
Our Spanish Room
There were originally 52 rooms. After renovations there are now fewer, but all have baths. The Casa Surf Rooms are larger and more updated, with fun decor... many with surfboards.
We went for one of the Spanish Rooms. They were smaller and cheaper, but the Spanish style of our cozy room fit with the hotel's history.
Plus we saved some bucks, which we try to do on long road trips. The queen bed was actually very comfy.
There was a fridge hidden in the blue cabinet. And we had a decent TV and a large wardrobe. Nothing too special.
The small bathroom had a fitting rustic theme and a robe hanging on a hook. I'm sure I could have asked for another.
I was just pleased to have a bathroom, period. I'm not sure how many rooms had private baths, originally.
Best of all, we could see the Pacific Ocean out there! I loved having a sea view from the shower!
Sure, there were some rooftops to look over, but we were in Laguna Beach and spending less than 200, in an historic hotel. Laguna Beach's oldest hotel, I believe!
I was excited to get outside so I could try to figure out the building. First, I was intrigued to look up and see the umbrellas on the Rooftop Lounge.
On the side I could see the courtyard with a few window boxes and some kind of structure connecting at the top. I was glad we had windows that looked out toward the ocean, instead.
As I walked past the building a bit, I spotted a funny old clock, near the top of a stairway which led down to the beach.
Was the clock around, back when this old hotel was built? I stepped back far enough to take in the solid, simple building, with its old windows and red tile roof.
And what a wonderful old fire escape, with wavy railings!
The Comedor Dining Room
Since the early days of La Casa, there has been a restaurant of some kind. The first one had a 7-course meal for $1.50.
The Comedor is the latest to open in the space off the lobby, Back in the 1940's the dining area held a pharmacy and soda fountain.
Odd Table Display
The wooden doors eventually opened up and I spotted pumpkins on all the tables.
I pondered those pumpkins for quite a while. They seemed absurdly large!
I love pumpkins, but they looked silly. What was with the pumpkins?
I was glad to get an explanation when I inquired at the desk. They were doing a pumpkin decorating event. Glad I asked.
I never saw the artists or the finished products. But later the restaurant was open for business. The doors opened to a patio in front.
Guests eventually arrived for dinner. I was glad to see activity.
I peeked at the Rooftop earlier.
Tables were full and the views were lovely.
It was hard to think about dining inside, when these views were available. We knew we'd be back.
Walk to Main Beach
The hotel was less than a mile from Laguna's Main Beach. We took full advantage.
Main Beach was busy on a Sunday evening. It was fun to see that so little had changed since we used to wander up and down the paths beside the beach.
La Casa at Night
It was cooler and quieter as we headed back up the South Coast Highway.
We could see the door was still open, welcoming us in. We could hear music.
The cozy lobby felt completely different after dark. The couches and sitting areas were filled and a young musician performed in the corner.
We could have walked right on through, but there were 2 seats near the funny window (that opened into the restaurant/bar). We took a seat and enjoyed the music and people watching.
The singer was quite talented. The guests all seemed casual and comfortable with each other. There was a friendly spirit as guests offered generous applause and tips. I felt like we'd stepped into someone's living room for a private party. I think William Riddell would have been pleased.
Dinner on the Roof
We had no reservations, but headed up to the Rooftop, hoping for a table.
We lucked out with a good one and some fabulous burgers. Just perfect.
The view at night was cool and calm. You could hear the surf. I couldn't hear seals or cows, though. I'm sure the farmland near our old rental, is long gone.
In the morning I went for a walk and had a fun encounter across the street from the hotel.
First I spotted the statue of The Greeter, on the corner. From the '80's, I remember the man who waved to pedestrians and cars and called himself The Greeter. The statue shows the image of Eiler Larsen, who was Laguna's "official greeter" from 1959.
When I returned from my walk, "Michael" was at his post, on the corner. He's been greeting folks on the street, for 12 years. (He said he'd recently shaved off his beard) He was polite and gracious and playful, as he spun around on a record disc, on the pavement. Cars honked and waved back. It sort of made my day to have a brief little chat with this sweet guy. "I see my job as a public service. I make people happy." He made me happy.
The lobby was no longer empty when I stepped back inside. I grabbed some complimentary coffee and chatted with a woman on the couch. She said she'd been visiting Laguna Beach since she was a child in the 1950's. She remembered The Greeter, from 60 years ago. The young woman at the desk chimed in with our chat. I dashed up and got Don to come down and enjoy some of the breakfast treats. We hung out by the fire for quite a while.
We learned a little more about the hotel. Early on, Hollywood stars often gathered in the lobby. Back in 1929, some of the stars in "All Quiet on the Western Front" stayed in the hotel. (some scenes were shot in the area) It is also rumored that J Paul Getty and Howard Hughes played backgammon in this same lobby. Fun to imagine.
We stay at a lot of historic hotels, so it would be lame to say it's the history that makes this hotel notable. But the fun part is that you can actually imagine this hotel in every decade since 1929.
The past hasn't been hidden with endless renovations. The history and charm of this 90+ year old building still remains. Best of all I can imagine the vision that Mr. Riddell had when he opened in 1929. There really was a nice mix of locals and tourists... young and old... coming and going... sitting and relaxing... enjoying the art and conversations. I'm so glad the hotel made it through some difficult years (pandemic years included) and appears to be doing well!
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My New Year's Resolution for 2014 was to start documenting some of the memorable overnights I've had in some very odd and curious motels and hotels. Like the adventures in my Dining Blog, I have learned to enjoy the surprises that happen when you step out of the comfort zone, far away from the well-known chains.
I began with a few entries recalling my very first home away from home memories from my youth. Then, I started sharing about some of the quirky and unforgettable motels, hotels and inns that my husband and I have discovered in recent years.
The best part about this challenge was making some lists with Don and getting on the road in search of new overnight adventures. I gave myself a 2-year goal to write up 90 stories and the goal was met. Now we just keep on adding!