I’ve just returned from almost a month in a short-term rental in Sorrento Italy. Sorrento is very much like Laguna Beach—it is a charming seaside town of 16,000 residents set on cliffs. It has high-end hotels that attract the world’s wealthy and famous. It has a thriving artist community—ceramics, paintings and inlay wood. Its restaurants are sublime as they use fresh local produce and the bounty of the sea from local fisherman. Like Orange County, named for oranges, Sorrento is synonymous with lemons and its famous limoncello. Sorrento attracts tourists to their beaches, as does Laguna.
So, there’s the idyllic comparison with Laguna. But it also has its downsides, as does Laguna. There are beggars in the streets, some with children. There are a few homeless—a couple was sleeping inside a cave in the steps down to the port. Busloads of tourists come and invade the city daily, but thankfully leave at night. Traffic on hot summer weekends into town is horrendous, I’ve been told. There are cheap tourist shops hawking hats, T-shirts and bags that say Sorrento.
What’s interesting to me is the difference in the way the two towns handle tourists, traffic and short-term rentals. Tourists are the lifeblood of Sorrento and the residents know it. We were treated with humor, respect and patience by the Italians. The butcher helped me order when I couldn’t tell him how much prosciutto I needed. In his good English, he told me that a half-pound was a quarter kilo. When I returned, he joked with me when I asked for a quarter kilo—he said, “You want a half pound?” Laguna barely tolerates tourists. Visit Laguna says they are good for our local economy ($557 million per year) but we all complain that they take over our city in the summer. I know I personally dislike the hordes of day-trippers who spend no money but use our taxpayer-funded resources.
Traffic in Sorrento is a dance. Because there are no lights, it’s based on politeness and pedestrians. Pedestrians, as in Laguna, have the right of way in crosswalks. Cars usually stop—but scooters—well, you’d better dodge left, dodge right. They control the cars in town by having pedestrian-only streets, streets only locals with permits can drive on, and having peripheral parking lots. Parking in town is a nightmare—no tourist with whom I spoke tried it. It seems to work well—I wish Laguna would do that. The pedestrian streets were jammed with people shopping and walking. Imagine Forest Avenue like that?
Short-term rentals. Ours was in a residential area and we stayed for 29 days—less than 30 days which is not allowed in Laguna Beach. We wanted to be locals—to shop, cook, meet the real people. Our host responded within 20 minutes to any question or problem. He even gave us a bottle of his homemade tomato sauce and olive oil. The old woman checking on the world from her balcony would smile and wave at me as I put out laundry or was walking in the street. We met a local artist and became friends. Turns out his son was on his honeymoon in Laguna three months ago. His wife gave me lemons and her recipe for lemon pasta, which was unbelievable. They invited us to their home and their town food festival, “Taste of Vico Equense” where they live. We diligently sorted garbage into recycle, paper, organic and “everything else.” The most noise we heard was not from us—it was the dogs barking or the scooters revving. Our neighbors said “Ciao” and smiled every time we passed them on the steps. The host only asked for the hotel tax when our sons came to visit, and we were over the “allowed” four guests. Interesting that the town made money, not him. In short, we had a dream month of truly feeling Italian and living their life. Why can’t we give that experience to people in Laguna?
Because of the usual few vocal voices of Village Laguna bleating about the evils of short-term rentals, the City Council refused to consider a compromise ordinance in residential neighborhoods. No one wants a party house. No one wants them to be unregulated. No one wants to deny the city tax money. No one will be an absentee host. No one is making their home a dedicated STR. I wish the City Council had listened to reason and found a compromise with the people who want to give visitors to Laguna the same experience I just had in Sorrento.
Michèle Monda has lived in Laguna Beach for 15 years with her husband, Emil, and three sons. She is secretary of Laguna Beach Republicans and treasurer of Laguna Beach Sister Cities.