By Jeremy Pugh
Laguna Beach, California, is an oasis on the edge of the inland sea of Orange County sprawl—a dreamy place where surfers stroll to the next swell via city sidewalks, and the whole town makes it a point to drop everything and watch the sunset every day. Just a twenty-five-minute drive from John Wayne Airport (SNA), this tightly knit beach community is surrounded by rolling hills that are part of a vast conservation easement, staving off the threatening stucco empires to the west. Meanwhile, its waters and beaches are protected as a California State Marine Reserve.
Laguna Beach is quintessential Southern California.
Initially populated by weekenders who eventually chose to stay, the community’s isolation and its scenic beauty attracted plein air painters in the 1920s and, later, filmmakers and photographers, creating the seaside village’s reputation as an artists’ enclave. Those early bohemian beachgoers built studios, summer cottages, and dream dwellings (Laguna is home to more than 700 historically and architecturally significant buildings). They created a town known for its emphasis on whiling away the days in languid creative pursuit. Hildegarde Hawthorne (granddaughter of Scarlet Letter scribe Nathaniel Hawthorne) described Laguna “as a child of that deathless search, particularly by persons who devote their lives to painting or writing, for some place where beauty and cheapness and a trifle of remoteness hobnob together in a delightful companionship.” And, except for the “cheapness” Hawthorne describes (Laguna’s limitations on development make its land exponentially more dear each year), much remains the same. Filled with public art, galleries, museums, and aloe bloom-festooned neighborhoods all situated on a gorgeous strand of grade-A California beach, this walkable town feels remote and far away from the traffic and headaches that plague the rest of Orange County. Its winking scruffiness sounds just like the opening strains of track one, side one of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and looks just like the silhouette of a tousle-haired blonde emerging from the surf as the sun sets. It is the perfect antidote to a long Wyoming winter.
Get Your Art and Architecture On
There are two historic Laguna neighborhoods, Laguna north and south. The northern hood is one of the town’s oldest, originally subdivided in 1906. It boomed in the 1920s and is abundant with Craftsman-style bungalows endemic to the area. The southern neighborhood grew around a resort hotel near Arch Beach. The hotel failed, but the summer cottages and beach houses built around it are known for their individuality and variety. Both areas are served by the town’s free trolley and bus service, and the Laguna Beach Historical Society (278 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, 949/497-6834, lagunabeachhistory.org) publishes a walking tour guide that, coupled with the friendly bus drivers, serves as a hop-on, hop-off education in Laguna’s architectural treasures.
In the 1940s, silver-screen legend Bette Davis lived in a Tudor-style home (1991 Ocean Way) in Laguna’s Wood’s Cove neighborhood. She reportedly read the script for All About Eve—a film that led to an Academy Award nomination—while rattling around this house and, presumably, gazing longingly out to sea with those famous eyes.
The excellent Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Dr., 949/494-8971, lagunaartmuseum.org)focuses exclusively on California artists and features rotating exhibitions from its permanent collection, as well as special exhibitions. By the by, it’s situated next door to Las Brisas restaurant (see page 39) if you fancy a postmuseum cocktail with a stellar view.
Bring It Home
Laguna’s old downtown is also its central shopping district, filled with the requisite cutesy boutiques, galleries, and trinket shops common in touristy towns. The discerning art lover will make sure to see what’s up at the Peter Blake Gallery (435 Ocean Ave., 949/376-9994, peterblakegallery.com). Blake specializes in single-artist exhibits of emerging modern talents.
Add a touch of SoCal style to your home decor and visit AREOhome (207 Ocean Ave., 949/376-0535, areohome.com) and Cottage Furnishings (802 South Coast Hwy., 949/497-3121, cottagefurnishings.com), where you will find modern and tasteful selections around a beach theme. Laguna Supply is a standout clothing and accessory boutique (210 Beach St., 949/497-8850, lagunasupply.com).
South Laguna is home to the one-of-a-kind boutique Merrilee’s Swimwear (790 S. Coast Hwy., 949/497-6743, merrileeswimwear.com), which has been in this location since 1977. Merilee herself—no joke—designs and crafts a line of swimwear that has created a loyal following among clients who return year after year. The store also has a lovely collection of beachy clothing and accessories. And although you will surely feel like you’ve walked into some too-cool millennial clubhouse, be sure to visit the Poler “space” (1360 S. Coast Hwy., 949/715-9918, polerstuff.com/pages/flagship). The Portland, Oregon, brand’s location in Laguna is in a large, open gathering area complete with a cold-press coffee/beer/kombucha bar that hosts music, spoken word, and other hipster happenings. Plus, the gear is cool and well-built, with a camping-cum-masonic lumberjack vibe.
The Sawdust Art Festival (935 Laguna Canyon Rd., 949/494-3030, sawdustartfestival.org) has been running in Laguna since 1965. The permanent, year-round artists’ market is the heart of Laguna’s Arts District. In addition to the market, Sawdust is home to a selection of hands-on art classes, including pottery, glassblowing, jewelry making, and screen-printing.
Wake up to your first morning in paradise with Laughter Club Yoga on Main Beach (107 S. Coast Hwy., lyinstitute.org/the-laughter-club-experience).
The free, daily yoga session (BYO mat) on the beach will center you and get you ready for adventure. This is a surfing town, after all. But the waves that crash on the shore, it should be noted, aren’t for amateurs. Take a lesson. La Vida Laguna (1257 S. Coast Hwy., 949/275-7544, lavidalaguna.com) offers two-hour sessions to get you started. But, honestly, surfing is hard! And a little scary. La Vida Laguna also offers sea kayak tours; guides take you up the coast and narrate Laguna history (and tell you which megamillionaire lives in which mansion). Another option for ocean play is to rent a stand-up paddleboard from Costa Azul (689 S. Coast Hwy., 949/497-1423, casurfshop.com). Once you’re out past the breakers, you’ll paddle atop placid waters with the sun on your shoulders. More of a land person? The hills above Laguna are riddled with single-track mountain biking trails. Stop by Laguna Beach Cyclery for rentals and trail advice (240 Thalia St., 949/494-1522, lagunabeachcyclery.com). If observing the waves from a beach chair is more your style, make it exciting and watch some of the world’s best amateur and pro skimboarders (the sport was invented in Laguna) at 1,000 Steps Beach (31972 Pacific Coast Hwy.), named for the steep staircase access that feels like 1,000 steps but is only an actual 225. Note: 1,000 Steps Beach is beautiful, but the shore break that makes it perfect for young, athletic skimboarders makes it exceedingly dangerous for you. Finally, do not. Miss. Sunset.
Eat (and Drink) Well
Eating out in Laguna is as much of a sport as playing in the waves. The morning meal in a surf town is truly the most important meal of the day, and, for that reason, breakfast and brunch options abound. Let’s start with the fresh and organic offerings at Zinc Cafe & Market (350 Ocean Ave., 949/494-6302, zinccafe.com), where you can pound a protein drink alongside low-carb options or throw caution to the wind and get the avocado toast. Visit a local institution and get yourself a mess of eggs, bacon, and potatoes at the Orange Inn (703 S. Coast Hwy., 949/494-6085, cafelagunabeachca.com).
For the ultimate beach-town brunch, don’t miss Las Brisas (361 Cliff Dr., 949/497-5434, lasbrisaslagunabeach.com). Stunning views of the coast from its perch on the edge of Heisler Park are made better with perfect eggs Benedict and bloody marys. For lunch, keep it simple and munch on fresh fish tacos at Taco Loco (640 S. Coast Hwy., 949/497-1635, tacoloco.net), or nibble on a light, pan-Asian set of small plates at Another Kind Cafe (793 Laguna Canyon Rd., 949/715-9688, anotherkindcafe.com).
Come dinnertime, ask to dine beachside at Splashes (1555 S. Coast Hwy., 888/281-3502, surfandsandresort.com/splashes) and rest assured that your surf and turf will be prepared to exacting perfection. And make sure to include on your dining itinerary Driftwood Kitchen, where Chef Rainer Schwarz is plating some of the finest California coastal cuisine in the state (619 Sleepy Hollow Ln., 949/715-7700, driftwoodkitchen.com).
Located right on the beach (and by “right on” we mean the back gate is at the high-tide mark), Sunset Cove Villas is a full-suite, extended-stay property that will make you feel like a local (683 Sleepy Hollow Ln., 888/845-5271, sunsetcove.com). There’s a Ralphs grocery store across the road to stock up on provisions to cook in your full kitchen, and then there are the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the oh-so-close ocean. For a classic Laguna hotel experience, enjoy a dose of old Hollywood glamour at La Casa del Camino (1289 S. Coast Hwy., 949/497-6029, lacasadelcamino.com). The Spanish-style hotel has played host to the hoi polloi since 1929 but has kept up with the times with clean, modern rooms. For a beachside boutique experience complete with killer views, try The Inn at Laguna Beach (211 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., 800/544-4479, innatlagunabeach.com).
No Car? In California? Yep.
Laguna is amazingly walkable considering that it’s in the heart of car-dependent Orange County. Visit Laguna Beach (visitlagunabeach.com) has created a smartphone app (visitlagunabeach.com/plan/app/, iOS, Android) that shows the real-time location of the free trolleys and buses, as well as the stops. This, coupled with an Uber or Lyft ride from the airport (approximately $30 each way) and some good walking shoes, makes it unnecessary to rent a car.