Laguna Beach, California, is track one, side one of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. It is the silhouette of a tousle-haired blond emerging from the surf, with a board under his arm as the sun sets. It is crashing waves, calling California gulls and barking sea lions out on the rocks, it’s ice cream on the beach, girls on bikes, fish tacos and Dr. Seussical aloe blooms blossoming amid the bungalows.
It is Southern California incarnate.
And the whole dreamy, creamy scene is just a 25-minute Uber ride from John Wayne Airport, which is an hour flight from Salt Lake City, which means you are basically 2.5 hours away from throwing your shoes and socks off and rolling up your pant legs to go run into those crashing waves.
As Brian Wilson’s immortal koan implores, “Wouldn’t it be nice?”
A walkable refuge
It seems strange that Laguna even exists amid the inland sprawl of Orange County. But in the 1960s, the town’s acid-addled mothers and fathers had the foresight to decree a conservation easement to protect the hills above the crashing waves, ensuring that the march of sprawl would be curbed at the entrance to Laguna Canyon.
Farther back in time, the town’s roots sprang from a bent group of bohemian weekenders who came to play and chose to stay. Laguna’s isolation and its scenic beauty attracted plein air painters in the 1920s, and filmmakers and photographers. Those early escapists built studios, summer cottages and dream homes (Laguna is home to more than 700 historically and architecturally significant buildings) and conjured a town known for its emphasis on whiling away the days in languid creativity.
Filled with public art, galleries and museums all on a gorgeous strand of grade-A California beach, the walkable town is a world away from the traffic and strip-mall awfulness in the rest of Orange County.
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—see all the Craftsman-style bungalows. South Laguna grew around a resort near Arch Beach. The hotel failed but the summer cottages and beach houses that grew around it are renowned for their individuality and variety. Both areas are served by the town’s free trolley service, and the Laguna Historical Society (278 Ocean Ave., Laguna Beach, 949-497-6834, lagunabeachhistory.org) publishes a walking tour that, coupled with the friendly trolley 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—in this house, presumably, gazing out to sea with those famous eyes.
The Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Dr. 949-494-8971, lagunaartmuseum.org) focuses on California artists. It’s next door to Las Brisas restaurant (see below) if you fancy a post-museum cocktail with a panoramic view of Laguna’s beachfront.
Dining simple and fine
The morning meal in a surf town is truly the most important meal of the day. Start with the fresh and organic offerings at Zinc Café and 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. Get yourself a mess of eggs, bacon and potatoes at the Orange Inn (703 South 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 beach are made better with Bloody Marys. For lunch, keep it simple with fresh fish tacos at Taco Locos (640 South Coast Hwy., 949-497-1635, tacoloco.net) or nibble on light, pan-Asian small plates at Another Kind Café (793 Laguna Canyon Rd., 949-715-9688, anotherkindcafe.com). And be 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).
No Car? In California? That’s a roger.
Laguna is amazingly walkable considering that it’s in the heart of car-dependent Orange County. Visit Laguna Beach (visitlagunabeach.com) has created an honest-to-gosh working smartphone app (visitlagunabeach.com/plan/app/, iOS, Android) that shows the real-time location of the free trolley’s stops. This, coupled with an Uber or Lyft ride from the airport (about $30 each way) and some good walking shoes make it unnecessary to rent a car.
Located right on the beach (and by “right on” we mean the back gate is at the high-tide mark), Sunset 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 Ralph’s grocery store across the road to stock up on provisions to cook in your full kitchen, and then there’s 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 South 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 beach-side boutique experience complete with killer views, try The Inn at Laguna Beach (211 North Pacific Coast Hwy., 800-544-4479, innatlagunabeach.com).
Places to play
Wake up to your first morning in paradise with Laughter Club Yoga on Main Beach (107 South Coast Hwy., lyinstitute.org/the-laughter-club-experience). The free, daily yoga session (BYO-mat) will center you to get you ready for a surfing adventure. But the waves, it should be noted, aren’t for amateurs. Take a lesson. LaVida Laguna (1257 South Coast Hwy 949-275-7544, lavidalaguna.com) offers two-hour sessions to get you started. But honestly, surfing is hard! And a little scary. Another option for ocean play is to rent a stand-up paddle board from Costa Azul (689 South Coast Hwy., 949-497-1423, casurfnpaddle.com). Consider a sea kayak tour with LaVida Laguna, who will guide you up the coast and narrate Laguna history (and tell you which mega-millionaire lives in which mansion—Beiber just bought a party pad). More of a land person? The hills above Laguna are riddled with single-track mountain biking trails. Stop by Laguna 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 skim boarders (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 skim boarders makes it exceedingly dangerous for you. Finally, do not. Miss. The. Sunset.