New York Times


In Laguna Beach, Calif.

Ed Carreon for The New York Times



Published: December 5, 2003

FOX'S "The O.C." may make all of Orange County look like a vast and arrogant suburb by the sea, but there are still idyllic islands amid the sprawl and bulldozed billion-dollar hillsides. The county's crown jewel is tiny Laguna Beach, set on striking verdant slopes that plunge to the Pacific. Laguna, which started as an artists' colony in the early 1900's, has long been expensive, but the recently opened Montage Resort & Spa, with 262 rooms that start at $450 a night, has upped the luxury quotient considerably. Still, surfers, artists and a large cast of resident eccentrics give Laguna a bohemian edge.

5 p.m.
1) Visit the High Life

The rooms may be pricey, but two of the Montage's (30801 South Coast Highway, 888-715-6700) major attractions — its sweeping Pacific views and an elegant park filled with native vegetation — are free. Head out to the lobby lounge's deck and enjoy a glass of Cakebread Cellars chardonnay ($16) with the sunset, then stroll the Pacific or Ocean Lawns as the waves crash below you.

7 p.m.
2) Step Back in Time

The Art Deco décor at Dizz's As Is (2794 South Coast Highway, 949-494-5250) hearkens back to old Hollywood with dark wooden walls that hold an assortment of photos of long-ago Laguna, along with portraits of Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Rock Hudson and other movie stars who looked to this town as a rural refuge from their nearby studios. Every dinner in this intimate 1920's shingled house starts with chicken-and-pork pâté and a complimentary vermouth. Antonio Ojeda's menu includes grilled swordfish steaks, filet mignon, rack of lamb and a tomato-seafood stew filled with crab and mussels (entrees are $19 to $37).

9 p.m.
3) A Night on the Town

Many of Laguna's galleries and shops are open late on Friday nights, so head down Pacific Coast Highway to the vibrant downtown for an evening art stroll. The Fingerhut Fine Art Gallery (210 Forest Avenue, 949-376-6410) has everything from Picassos to Rembrandts, as well as paintings and sculptures by Dr. Seuss. Farther south, the Ruth Mayer Gallery (380 South Coast Highway, 949-494-8185) showcases paintings by its namesake; works by the artist Wyland, who is known for his depictions of marine mammals, are at the Wyland Gallery (509 South Coast Highway, 949-376-8000).

8 a.m.
4) Oh, the Things You'll Eat

Whether it is Le Monde or Die Zeit, you can pick up your local paper at the World Newsstand (190 South Coast Highway, 949-376-2029). Then walk east to the Anastasia Café (460 Ocean Avenue, 949-497-8903), a designer boutique, art gallery and indoor-outdoor restaurant with sublime breakfast food like poached eggs with prosciutto, caramel French toast and fresh-squeezed orange juice (breakfasts are $6 to $10). If that's not enough, a farmers' market is just across the street (corner of Ocean and Forest Avenues). Choose something from the impressive array of fresh fruit.

9 a.m.
5) Natural Wonders

Head north on Main Beach to Laguna's tide pools — natural aquariums filled with brilliant anemones, crabs, purple urchins, darting fish and huge sea slugs. Offshore, Bird Rock is usually crowded with brown pelicans and you may see dolphins or a seal in the shallows. Follow the rocky shoreline for a half mile to Divers' Cove, then climb the stairs to Heisler Park and walk back south past the lawn bowlers to the Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Drive, 949-494-6531). The current exhibition, "Greetings From Laguna Beach," features photos, paintings and memorabilia from a time when Laguna was a rustic, plein-air painters' paradise.

11 a.m.
6) Past and Present

For more views of old Laguna, head south along the coast and stop in at the Hotel Laguna (425 South Coast Highway, 949-494-1151), where the lobby is filled with photos of the town through the last 90 years. Then sample culture of another kind: surf culture. The shops lining South Coast Highway have everything from vintage boards to punk records. Try Tippecanoes (648 South Coast Highway, 949-494-1200) for vintage surfwear; at Underdog Records (812 South Coast Highway, 949-494-9490) vinyl still rules and an import album by the Fall from England will set you back $10 to $20. The Thalia Street Surf Shop (903 South Coast Highway, 949-497-3292) specializes in Hawaiiana and surf styles and boards from the 1960's through the 70's.

1 p.m.
7) Fast and Fishy

Over the last few years, the fish taco seems to have become the official fast food of Southern California. Wahoo's (a local chain with a store at 1133 South Coast Highway, 949-497-0033) has been serving these concoctions of grilled or blackened fish in hot corn tortillas for 15 years. For lunch, try a couple of blackened fish tacos with cabbage, Monterey Jack cheese and the excellent tomato-cilantro salsa ($1.85 each).

2 p.m.
8) Sun or Screen

Unless you're a surfer, you probably don't actually want to go in the water, but winter afternoons are often warm enough for beach sunbathing. Try the sand at Brooks Street, where you can watch the wave riders and skim boarders. Or if it's a rare rainy day, there is always a matinee — a first-run feature, a surfing movie or an art film — at the two-screen South Coast Cinemas, the 1923 movie house dedicated by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (162 South Coast Highway, 949-497-1711).

6 p.m.
A Margarita, a Hand Roll

Enjoy one of the specialty margaritas — they are named after Laguna's beaches — overlooking the ocean at Las Brisas (361 Cliff Drive, 949-497-5434), then start thinking about dinner. The best sushi in Southern California may be made by the experienced hands of Miki Izumisawa at 242 Cafe Fusion Sushi (242 North Coast Highway, 949-494-2444). If you don't believe it, ask the Angelenos and San Diegans around you who have made the pilgrimage to this 20-seat restaurant. But don't expect your typical California roll. One of the few women sushi chefs, Ms. Izumisawa sears her ahi with a blowtorch and makes her 15 or so sauces from scratch. Try the Sexy Hand Roll (dinners are $25 to $30 a person). No reservations; expect a wait if you arrive after 8 p.m.

8 a.m.
10) Breakfast at the Garden

Winter mornings in Laguna can be chilly, so warm up with German apple pancakes ($7.85) at Madison Square and Garden Cafe (320 North Coast Highway, 949-494-0137). Sit under the canopy of California pepper trees; they've got propane heaters, too.

9:30 a.m.
11) Saving Seals

Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center (20612 Laguna Canyon Road, 949-494-3050) is a volunteer-based nonprofit organization that rescues and rehabilitates native pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) that are sick or injured. On any given day you might find anything from huge northern elephant seals to tiny harbor seal pups waiting to be released back into the wild. Stop by for a tour and see how a rescue facility works.

12) A Picture of the Past

The 46 cottages that make up the Crystal Cove Historic District were built in the early 1900's by artists and squatters on the 110,000-acre ranch of James Irvine II, who allowed them to build their modest dwellings. The cottages are now part of the 2,800-acre Crystal Cove State Park (949-494-3539); the last of the year-round residents were evicted in 2001 as part of a plan to transform the ramshackle community into lodgings for park visitors. For now, the colony is a gorgeous beachfront ghost town. The park itself has 2,800 acres on both sides of the Pacific Coast Highway with 18 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails and more than three miles of beaches. Explore just a little of it and you'll be ready for lunch at the 60-year-old Shake Shack, where a veggie sandwich and a date shake will run you about $8 (7703 North Coast Highway, 949-497-9666).

The Basics

John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, 15 miles away, is the closest airport to Laguna Beach, with Long Beach Airport a close second. A cab ride from John Wayne is about $25, though you may want to rent a car; most major rental companies are found at both airports.

The oceanfront Montage Resort & Spa (30801 South Coast Highway, 888-715-6700) opened in February and has 262 rooms and suites at $450 to $4,500.

The more modest Manzanita Cottages (732 Manzanita Drive, 949-661-2533) are $135 (a studio apartment) to $195 a night (one of the cottages). Built in 1927 by Harry Greene, a film producer, the four guest cottages surround a beautiful little garden. Joan Crawford was known to prefer the Yellow Cottage