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Laguna Beach, California City Trip

Laguna Beach has often been called California's Riviera for its laidback vibe and picturesque beaches
California's Riviera


72 Hours in Laguna Beach

by Sheryll Alexander

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Laguna Beach epitomizes the ideal Southern Californian getaway in many ways. Located in Orange County along the famous, shoreline-hugging Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Beach is a genuine slice of tropical paradise halfway between Los Angeles (50 miles to the north) and San Diego (70 miles to the south) tucked alongside several miles of scenic coastline. The city's stunning geography has given it the nickname "California's Riviera," which is a rather well-earned distinction. While it was largely considered a sleepy artists' village only 40 years ago, the city has grown worthy of comparisons to French or Italian "Riviera" towns because of the sophisticated style it has cultivated, which abundantly manifests itself through its bustling downtown area, art culture, boutique shopping, gourmet eats, charming inns and luxury resorts. The comparison to European-style elegance is further strengthened due to Laguna's dramatic natural scenery, which includes gently rolling hills, rugged cliffs, romantic coves and white sand beaches.

Although Orange County is known as a car-centric, mostly suburban society, Laguna Beach is more of a walking city. That said, be sure to secure some wheels anyway. The city's downtown is a twenty-minute drive from John Wayne Airport (SNA) and renting an automobile is essential if you are going to visit cities and attractions outside of Laguna like Disneyland or Newport Beach. It is also possible to fly into Long Beach Airport (LGB) or Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), but you should mentally prepare yourself for a long drive if you go this route, which could take an hour or longer depending on traffic. Regardless of where you fly into, you have two different, equally exquisite routes to get to downtown Laguna; either by traversing the undulating coastline via Pacific Coast Highway, or by cutting through the breathtaking rocky outcroppings of Laguna Canyon.

The city of Laguna Beach is essentially divided into three distinctive sections. North Laguna Beach is a residential district with many renowned art galleries, as well as the Laguna Beach Art Museum, drop-dead-gorgeous Heisler Park and Las Brisas restaurant, which is famous for offering a Sunday brunch atop a spectacular cliff. Downtown Laguna is a quaint, pedestrian-filled artistic village by the sea whose plentiful galleries, eateries, and boutiques are anchored by the crescent-shaped Main Beach. South Laguna is a quiet section of town buttressed against PCH and features laid-back locals, cool boutique hotels, dazzling beaches and some of Laguna's best restaurants and examples of haute living.

The Surf & Sand pool deck in Laguna Beach
Surf & Sand Pool Deck
Each section of Laguna features hotels that tie in rather seamlessly with the neighborhoods they represent. Inn at Laguna Beach, featuring spectacular ocean and cityscape views, sits next to Las Brisas and overlooks Main Beach in North Laguna. Hotel Laguna is a 1930's-era Spanish architectural masterpiece and stands proudly at the heart of Downtown Laguna. South Laguna is full of excellent boutique hotels and is home to the world-famous Montage Laguna Beach. One of the nation's most honored and beloved properties, the Montage is an utter jewel of a resort, featuring Craftsman-style bungalows built right into the cliffs, a stunning mosaic-lined pool, first-rate spa, world-class food and drink and access to one of the prettiest coves in the world.

South Laguna is also home to the coastal Surf & Sand Resort and Spa, a breathtaking on-the-beach venue which gained international renown for being the hotel of choice for former President Nixon's press corps whenever he retreated to the Western White House. Nearby, 20s-era hotel Hotel la Casa del Camino attracts the area's beautiful people with its ten specially designed "Surf Suites", a breathtaking panoramic view at the hotel's Rooftop Lounge and the charming K'ya bistro. Also in the heart of South Laguna is the family-run Laguna Riviera, which sits right on the water and has spectacular ocean views, a cozy indoor saline pool and Jacuzzi and suites with kitchens, dining spaces, fireplaces, porches and balconies.

Pacific Edge Hotel
sits on the sand just south of Main Beach and features sunny, brightly-colored accommodations replete with retro modern décor, plush bedding, and breezy, well-appointed cabanas that open directly to the shore. Casa Laguna Inn & Spa is an ocean view B&B near South Laguna's Victoria Beach with a renovated 1920s cottage, fifteen rooms, five suites, a lush brick-lined garden, spa services, nightly wine tasting and a full-service seasonal breakfast.

LAGUNA BEACH DAY 1: Main Beach, Downtown, Art Festivals

The serene and secluded Casa Laguna Inn & Spa
Casa Laguna Inn & Spa

No matter where you are staying in Laguna Beach, it's best to start your exploration of the city with a leisurely stroll in Laguna's downtown village. Begin your day along sleepy Ocean Avenue with breakfast at Café Zinc. Locals come here most mornings with their dogs to hang out on the sunny patio, drink strong coffee and eat healthy bagels and egg dishes. After breakfast, head down Forest Avenue and along the curves of the winding Pacific Coast Highway to take in the vast number of art galleries and boutique shops that sell everything from jewelry and shoes to surfing gear and clothing. If you are lucky, you may even get a street performer or two filling the air with music.

The art scene in Laguna has a long, illustrious history that is worth noting. It all began in 1903 when artist Norman St. Claire arrived from San Francisco and fell in love with the area's golden light and lovely seascapes. St. Claire couldn’t keep his find to himself, so within a few years, famous plein air landscape artists including William Wendt and Frank Cuprien flocked here. This passion for art still runs strong through Laguna's streets today, as the city is loaded with dozens of art galleries and is home to a world-class art museum and several art-themed festivals peppered throughout the year.

After you have strolled through the downtown village, experience the city's shoreline by cruising Main Beach. Start your jaunt by crossing Pacific Coast Highway at Laguna Avenue and walk down a slight hill next to iconic Hotel Laguna. You will be greeted by an idyllic scene from yesteryear, as waves from the big blue Pacific Ocean crash on perfectly smooth sand, couples snuggly walk along a weather-stained wooden boardwalk, kids play and seniors sit on benches. Farther down, a practically on-the-beach basketball court attracts ballers from all over, including the occasional NBA star during the off-season.

Once you've dipped your toes in the refreshingly cool Pacific, walk north past the basketball courts and up a rather steep hill towards Cliff Drive to check out the Laguna Art Museum. This North Laguna landmark boasts permanent exhibitions of California art as well as rotating exhibits of mostly modern art, and is arguably the best shrine to Laguna's esteemed art movement.

Locals and visitors alike come to Las Brisas to watch the stunning Laguna sunset
Las Brisas at night
Right next to the Laguna Art Museum stands the historic and iconic Las Brisas restaurant. Sitting on the edge of a cliff overlooking Main Beach, Las Brisas has a commanding ocean view and offers elegantly presented contemporary Mexican dishes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. If you don't want to sit down for a full meal, pull up a chair on Las Brisas' outdoor patio, which has the same fantastic views along with a rose garden and a nearby romantic cliff-side gazebo.

If you don't see the gazebo, don't worry; anyone at Las Brisas will have you covered. They will point you to a sidewalk along Cliff Drive where a romantic wooden gazebo juts out from a scenic cliff. If you continue along this flower-lined sidewalk, you'll end up in Heisler Park. This hillside common may be one of the most beautiful beach parks in the nation, as its majestic meandering sprawl contains a wealth of high cliffs, spectacular vistas, delicate tide pools, scenic walking trails, tiny coves and picnic areas. Don't be surprised if you see a wedding while you stroll through the common, as the City of Laguna allows couples to marry here on a romantic grassy knoll.

Are you planning on visiting Laguna Beach on a Thursday evening? Think about participating in the city's First Thursdays Art Walk. Every first Thursday of the month from 6 p.m.-9 p.m., free trams take art lovers from designated stops all over the city to Laguna's renowned art galleries, many of which entice visitors with glasses of wine and plates of appetizers.

When you are ready for dinner, downtown Laguna is chock full of intriguing choices that when culled together, make a strong case for Laguna being the epicurean epicenter of Orange County. If you want to catch a meal on Pacific Coast Highway, your best bet is to grab a table at Watermarc. Chef Marc Cohen uses the venue's sleek metropolitan backdrop to serve up a host of specialty cocktails, forward-thinking "grazing plates," and modern takes on traditional entrées. Those that venture northward from the coast will be rewarded with a pair of options that are arguably downtown's finest options; the upscale comfort food offerings of Three Seventy Common Kitchen + Drink and the bold, daring cuisine found at Broadway by Amar Santana.

The Art-A-Fair Festival is one of Laguna Beach's most popular attractions
Art-A-Fair Festival

Downtown Laguna isn't known for its nightlife, but it is not without options for late-night fun. The White House, established as the city's first restaurant in 1918, sits in the midst of PCH's bustle and is a late-night spot to eat reasonably-priced contemporary cuisine, listen to live music and dance the night away. Mare Culinary Lounge, located a few blocks away in an unassuming Holiday Inn, provides tasty Italian bites and a sleek, metropolitan ambience that is perfect for an after-hours chill session.

For those visiting in the summer months, Laguna Beach is an arts Mecca. Thousands of art aficionados descend here for its annual "festival season." The summer frenzy all started in 1932 when The Festival of Arts and its world-famous live tableaux performance, Pageant of the Masters, was founded as a means to keep the city and its residential artists steady during the Great Depression. Today, Pageant tickets remain one of the most desirable tickets in town, as people from all over the globe clamor to get a glimpse of this incredible exhibit's "living pictures," where real people pose as temporary recreations of classical works of art.

In 1966, local artists who felt that The Festival of Arts was under-promoting the local Laguna art scene set up their own summer festivals across the street from Festival grounds in a lush grove of eucalyptus trees and sage bushes. Today, the multi-sensory Sawdust Art Festival and Art-A-Fair have grown to become Laguna's most popular events. Typically held from the end of June through August, all three festivals feature art for sale, entertainment, food, demonstrations and kid-friendly activities. Snowbirds should note that there is also a Sawdust Winter Fantasy event that is held on festival grounds during the wintertime holiday season.

MORE LAGUNA BEACH INFORMATION

Laguna Beach Travel Guide


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(Updated: 11/18/13 CT)

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