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San Diego's 1950s Americana Motels

Villa Capri Inn By The Sea

Villa Capri Inn By The Sea

  • Villa Capri Inn By The Sea
  • The Inn At Sunset Cliffs
  • Dolphin Motel
  • Crystal Pier Hotel & Cottages
  • The Beach Cottages
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While driving California’s Highway 101, a rarefied glimpse of the few remaining 1950s motels transport visitors to the past. The motel’s name is announced on a large neon sign, inviting guests into a lobby just big enough to accommodate the front desk, and perhaps a coffee pot. To the 78 million baby boomers, these are not relics, but a symbol of their youth. A youth of summer road trips, with nightly stops at the Motor Inn.

For those of you who want a walk down memory lane, the following is a list of impeccably maintained California motels still welcoming its company the old fashioned way.

Villa Capri Inn By The Sea
1417 Orange Avenue Coronado, CA 92118 (619) 435-4137
Opened July 27, 1956, this beauty was the brainchild of a Naval Officer’s wife. After a transfer of duty to Coronado Island, Betty Vaughen’s entrepreneurial sense quickly realized the ocean view property’s potential. Originally a tropical garden on the John Spreckels estate, Vaughen, in co-ownership with her mother, purchased the land for $14,500 and built the Villa Capri. She and her six children lived in the motel, welcoming guests as part of their extended family.At age 88, this gracious lady continues to run her masterpiece, although she delegates day-to-day operations to innkeeper John Miller. With his two staff members, Miller keeps the 14-unit, two-story gem running 365 days a year.The motel’s neon sign, featuring a Jantzen diving lady, is a designated historic resource by the City of Coronado. The original pool remains as a focal point of the inn, with all rooms facing the geranium filled area. A purple, wrought-iron staircase leads to the second floor balcony, which provides views of the historic Hotel Del Coronado across the street.Spacious rooms offer meticulously preserved pink, peach, and burgundy '50s tile sinks, showers, and kitchenette counters as well as the original ovens and stovetops; even a few random pieces of 1950s furniture. Air-conditioning, cable TV, voice mail and Wireless Internet put the motel in the 21st century. (Rates start at $130 a night.)

The Inn At Sunset Cliffs
1370 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard Point Loma, CA 92107 (619) 222-7901
Not every hotel owner receives purchase offers exceeding the property’s value by millions, that is unless you’re the proprietor of this auspicious inn perched on Sunset Cliffs. The physician/owner (who prefers to remain anonymous) thwarts developers' numerous proposals because maintaining the 1950s integrity of the motel supersedes the money. His relentless devotion is matched by the guests 85 percent repeat business. Becky from Colorado, who is in her 40s, has been returning every year since she was five. Arizonian Mr. Hoey has her beat; now 105 years old, he’s been making the annual trek for over 50 years.An interior and exterior facelift on the two-story seaside complex resulted in amenities aplenty -- wifi, high-definition, flat-screen TVs in all 24 rooms, kitchens, waterfront fire-rings, patio barbeques, and the shuffleboard court was converted into a putting green. Fore! (Rates start at $125 a night.)

Dolphin Motel
2912 Garrison Street San Diego, CA 92106 (619) 224-9791
Located across the street from Fisherman’s Landing - the world’s largest sportfishing fleet - this casual 1956 San Diego Bay motel is a popular place for those wanting to haul in a big catch. Owners Holly and Alan Murdock are the father and son team running the property since its purchase 34 years ago.Cleanliness is paramount in the 31-room, two-story motel situated one-and-a-half miles from the airport. Papa Murdock insists on crisp, white, 100% cotton bedspreads and sheets on Serta Diamond beds. There are no telephones or clocks in the rooms, but a loaner cell phone and alarm clock are available in the office for free. Customer demand brought high speed Internet, air conditioning and cable TV to each room. From 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. complimentary coffee, muffins and juice are served in the courtyard.Businessmen, and tourists worldwide keep the Dolphin at 75 percent to 80 percent capacity year-round. During the summer months, half the guests are carrying rods and reels. Due to past experience, a sign in the patio reads “please do not take fish in the rooms - storage available.” Fisherman’s Landing offers guests ocean fishing trips in the local or Baja Mexico waters. Nature and ecology excursions are also available to spot migrating Gray Whales and dolphins. (Rates start at $50 a night.)

Crystal Pier Hotel & Cottages
4500 Ocean Boulevard San Diego, CA 92109 (858) 483-6983
The Crystal Pier Cottages are not only celebrating their 80th anniversary, they are thriving, with guests booking 11 months ahead for a summer visit. Winter weekends require a five month advanced reservation. Impressive in an economy where many hotels are shuttered before the patina fades on lobby floors. Two generations of family fortitude and a stellar staff maintain the 22 Cape Cod-style bungalows erected on the wooden pier. GM, Jim Bostians’, 43 years of service speaks volumes.Vacationers literally sleep over the ocean, dozing to the rhythmic lull of the waves beneath. Clientele is generally comprised of families. Children’s fishing tournaments off the dock and Christmas with Santa are crowd pleasers. The surrounding community offers its own fun with kayaking, cycling and other outdoor excitement.(Rates start at $235 a night.)

The Beach Cottages
4255 Ocean Boulevard San Diego, CA 92109 (858) 483-7440
What started as four pine wood cottages built by Albert Frost after WWII, has blossomed into a 78 unit property with 20 bungalows and a three story hotel run by Frost’s son and grandson. Apartments, cottages, studios, and suites accommodate anyone from snowbirds escaping the frigid winter months to road-trippers looking for a good nights sleep. Extended rentals with kitchens provide all the trimmings guests need in their home-away-from-home, and more, like views of the Pacific Ocean. The last vestige of mid-century entertainment can be found on the patio’s shuffleboard court. Steps away is the “boardwalk“ for skating, biking or a leisurely stroll. More adventurous vacationers hang-ten or rent sailboats. (Rates start at $80 a night).