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Warm stays at the Kon Tiki

Former motel owner Betty Markel recalls friendly guests who became her friends and few problems that would have brought out police.

September 25, 2013|By Lauren Williams
  • Melanie Markel lived at the Kon Tiki with her family who built, owned and operated the motel in the 1960s.
Melanie Markel lived at the Kon Tiki with her family who… (Courtesy Markel…)

Third story in an occasional series about Costa Mesa's troubled motels.

In the fleeting years that the Markel family lived on Harbor Boulevard, visitors to their tropical-themed Kon Tiki Motel brought their bathing suits — not the police.

Just a short drive from the shores of Newport Beach, and about 10 miles from Disneyland, visitors became friends of George and Betty Markel.

The Markels lent visitors their personal car. Melanie Markel, then in fourth grade, would ride her unicycle around the parking lot and throw on a bathing suit as each carload of kids wanted to jump in the pool. After their visits, the guests would phone long distance to chat with the couple.

That was in the 1950s and early 1960s.

These days the neon palm tree sign that once advertised room vacancies at the Kon Tiki has been replaced by a less flavorful red and white one reading, "New Harbor Inn." The sign isn't all that is different at the hotel.

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The clientele stands in stark contrast to that of its predecessor. Police are there more, responding to various problems. And the now-pink stucco building is missing the clean and open feel that made the Kon Tiki so welcoming.

The New Harbor Inn is one of 12 motels that Costa Mesa officials say draw a disproportional number of calls for police assistance and, as a result, are considered a drain on city resources.

Of the 12, the New Harbor Inn, 2205 Harbor Blvd., has one infamous distinction: an average of 16.4 public-service calls per room over a three-year period.

That is twice the number of the second one on the list, the Sandpiper Motel on Newport Boulevard.

When Betty Markel, 87, thinks of the 15 years her family owned and ran motels in Costa Mesa, only 10 or so flare-ups come to mind.

Most memories of opening, owning and operating the motels center on gallons of coffee and games of gin rummy played while Johnny Carson told his jokes in the background.

Among the few unusual characters to visit the Markels' motels was the woman who delivered a baby while a guest.

"We put two postcards in each room. She wanted to know if she could have a couple dozen ... that she was sending out her birth announcement. I thought, 'Well, that's good advertising,'" Betty Markel said during a recent interview at her daughter's Laguna Niguel home.

Then there was the sketchy duo whom George Markel spotted as they tried to make off with a room's custom furniture.

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