By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
If you’ve ever wondered what the summer of 1969 was like in beach cottage No. 9 at Crystal Cove, Mark Christy can tell you. Better yet, he wants you to feel it.
Memories of summers spent there as a boy were the inspiration for Christy’s three-year, revamp of the Ranch resort in Laguna Beach, a sprawling 84-acre property that includes a nine-hole golf course all tucked deeply inside Aliso Canyon.
“This was a Laguna secret,” Christy said. “There are people, a lot of them, saying I have been here 25 years and I have never been back here.”
Christy is changing that and the world is noticing. Named as one of Architectural Digest’s 18 best hotels that opened in 2016, the Ranch is holding its own. At a Dec. 18 open house hundreds of visitors were ushered through a new entrance, a space reworked on both levels. The Ranch House includes the new Harvest Restaurant and bar. The second level transformation allows guests to enter a ballroom flooded with natural light or step outside on a new exterior patio overlooking the golf course and surrounded by sweeping canyon views.
Guests also took the opportunity to peak into another new addition, the Sycamore Spa, with its four treatment rooms and a fitness center, and the revamped hotel rooms. “Every building, including every guest room was completely remodeled,” said Jim Tolbert, the resorts sales and marketing director.
The road to remodeling has been a rough one for Christy and his group of silent partners. Laguna Beach resident Mark Fudge, whose historic Halliburton House perches on the south rim of the canyon bluff above the Ranch property, put up a fight over the renovations, first with an appeal to the California Coastal Commission over the city’s approval of the project.
Fudge alleged the property’s permit approvals were out of compliance with state and coastal environmental protection laws. Coastal staff reviewed the claims, and eventually found the project was consistent with the California Environmental Quality Act. The later lawsuit against the city and Coastal Commission was recently dismissed.
“Most importantly the local community has been hugely supportive during the process and we have enjoyed their encouragement and approval of all the changes we have made,” Tolbert said.
The Ranch occupies property rich in local history. Originally a 152-acre piece of land homesteaded by George Thurston in the late 1870s, it was purchased in 1950 and established as a nine-hole golf course. In the ‘60s, new owners added the resort. Christy remembers coming here as a kid, when Ben and Violet Brown owned the resort and restaurant.
“When I was a kid this was the place,” Christy said. “If I got straight A’s on a report card, we would celebrate at Ben Brown’s. My dad got a promotion? We are going to Ben Brown’s.”
As an homage, the golf course is named for Brown.
“My dad taught me to play golf out here, I taught my son how to play golf here. I met Hobie Alter out here and I used to spend some incredible days with him,” Christy said.
Guests to the rejuvenated Ranch can lounge next to ‘60s style salt-water pool with a palapa bar. The golf course relies on recycled water for irrigation. Though the Coastal Commission urged The Ranch to include $250,000 for a trail connecting a wilderness park behind the golf course to Aliso Beach, it was not included in the renovation. Tolbert declined to comment further and there are no plans for a trail.
The Ranch’s now 97 guest rooms were all remodeled to evoke the feeling of Christy’s childhood memories of a California summer at the beach: casual elegance meets cottage chic.
“We were looking for something more experiential. I don’t think that of the front-runner hotels here, that they were properly conveying the Laguna I knew when I grew up.”
Tolbert says the revamp is already getting raves on popular travel sites like Tripadvisor and Yelp. For Christy, the remodel is more than a construction project; it’s a restoration of Laguna soul.
“I can’t sing and I can’t dance, so this is my artistic expression,” Christy said. “And it was here. The place was always here.”