Left, the restaurant at the Ranch at Laguna Beach features American cuisine and panoramic canyon views. Right, rooms at the California hotel feature cozy coastal furniture and decor.

California Cool

An Orange County resort with deep ties to its community gets much more than a nip and tuck from a new owner

BY DON NICHOLS

Mark Christy calls the Ranch at Laguna Beach the "coolest hotel in the city." Of course, the Laguna Beach, Calif., native is a bit biased, having bought the decades-old and worn Aliso Creek Inn in 2013, renaming it, and spending the past three-and-a-half years transforming it into a boutique luxury property, a project just completed at year's end.

To inject a big dose of cool, Christy focused on giving the 97-room resort a "coastal ranch chic" look with emphasis on a relaxed, no-pretense vibe in keeping with its Southern California locale - thus the marketing slogan "live like a local." "I'm doing something authentic, something that feels local. I knew I wanted a hotel where people could wear shorts at dinner," says Christy, who roams the property casually dressed.

The resort, nestled on 87 acres in a canyon where deer roam, sits just across the Pacific Coast Highway from Aliso Beach on the southern tip of Laguna Beach, about 3 miles from downtown. A YMCA camp hidden away in the mountains comes to mind at first glimpse: Nondescript one- and two-story buildings blend into the setting with their brown stucco siding and tin roofing. But you begin to feel the resort's peaceful allure after you check in and start walking to your room, lulled by landscaping featuring grasses swaying in the breezes.

Step inside your room and, just as the marketing slogan promises, you'll feel like a local in your own cozy coastal hideaway, with a touch of ranch country thrown in for good measure. White board-and-batten, wood-clad walls play a big part in creating that vibe as do rope-suspended wrought-iron lantern lamps, vintage distressed leather chairs, plein-air art of local landscapes, coffee tables with lattice-patterned wood tops, and distressed-wood chests and credenzas. Similar pieces dress up public areas, including an antler chandelier above the guest reception desk and oversize mirrored windows with distressed wood panes that function as wall art outside meeting rooms.

Besides living like a local, you'll also be rubbing elbows with them. Many area residents come for the American cuisine and panoramic canyon views at its restaurant, but for more than 60 years most have come for something they can't get anywhere else in the city - tee times at its nine-hole golf course, the only course in Laguna Beach proper. "I learned to play golf here when I was 8," notes Christy.

The golf course dates back to the 1950s, when it opened as the Laguna Beach Country Club. Ben Brown bought the course in 1956 and added apartments in the early '60s, then calling the resort the Laguna Beach Country Club and Village. In 1970, he switched his focus to nightly rentals and changed the name to Ben Brown's Motel & Golf Course. His widow started running it after his death in 1974 and renamed it again in 1978, calling it the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course, the name that stuck until now.

Although Christy says "there was never anything compelling about the place," he wasn't the first to see its untapped potential. Aliso Creek Properties also had a grandiose vision when it bought the inn from Brown's widow in 2003. The company made few upgrades to the property while spending years unsuccessfully trying to get its plans approved by the city and the California Coastal Commission, which governs development along the state's coast. It finally gave up and sold the inn to Christy. "They had beautiful plans but it didn't feel like Laguna," he says.

Christy also faced some permit challenges that delayed the project's completion more than a year, but he kept the property open throughout, meaning guests watched every step of the transformation. Now he hopes they'll use that one phrase to describe his resort: the coolest.

From $350. 800-223-3309; theranchlb.com

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