LAGUNA BEACH - Sapphire sky, car windows open, radio blasting top-10 hits from the '60s. Turning off the freeway from Los Angeles - where the road stretches endless and flat - the hills of Laguna Canyon rise up so green and vibrant I have to take off my sunglasses to see whether the color is real. It is.
Eventually, wildflowers and boulders give way to civilization as houses appear atop sandstone ridges. The air grows cooler and before I can sing another chorus of "California Dreamin' " there it is, the great Pacific, wide and muscular and dazzling in the midday sun.
I'm certainly not the first traveler to be seduced by Laguna Beach's charms. Since the late 1800s this 7-mile stretch of sandy coastline resting below rolling cliffs about 50 miles south of Los Angeles has attracted tourists and travelers, including many artists who made the town their home.
Today, besides the landscape's raw beauty, and the town's well-preserved architecture and independent shops, Laguna Beach hosts an arts community that imparts a funky, if upscale, authenticity that's getting harder to find in a homogenized world.
It's easy to navigate around this city of about 24,000. The Pacific Coast Highway, PCH in local jargon, runs north-south through residential and commercial neighborhoods. (It takes a while for an East Coast gal to get her sense of direction aligned; it always feels like the ocean is on the wrong side.) The center of town abuts the conveniently named Main Beach and North and South Laguna both offer areas to eat and shop as well as secluded beaches.
"The nicest thing about Laguna is there's out-of-the-way cove beaches. A lot of people don't know about them," says Ron Reno, owner of Andree's Patisserie.
Speaking of out-of-the-way, I had heard that Andree's had the "best ham and cheese croissant in the world," but first I had to find it in South Laguna, tucked behind a restaurant named French 75 and next to Bounce, the last remaining gay bar in town. (Look for a fading rainbow flag along the PCH.)
Reno gave me a warm and savory croissant, and sent me off to find Thousand Steps Beach and Crystal Cove State Park, two gems I would have missed without his guidance.
"Crystal Cove is like walking into the 1930s. It gives you a sense of old Laguna Beach," Reno said.
The park, which offers 2,400 acres of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, includes a historic beach district where cottages built in the '30s are being restored for public use. (Fourteen out of 46 are available; rentals are scheduled six months in advance.) At the newly opened Beachcomber restaurant, the tradition of raising a martini flag at cocktail hour has been revived.
Crystal Cove's scenic 3 1/2-mile beach with tidal pools zigzags along the base of 80-foot bluffs. To get there, you can either walk though a tunnel below the PCH or ride a red bus ($1 each way) that loops from the parking lot to the visitors center in 10-minute intervals.
Thousand Steps Beach is a single, secluded cove. The good news is there are only 223 steps (I counted) that lead down through a fragrant tunnel of bougainvillea, ivy, twisted pines, and peeling copper-barked trees bearing small white blossoms. The bad news is you take your life in your hands parking along the PCH (look for 9th Street in South Laguna and pull over), especially if you have to dash across five lanes of traffic whose speeds are a good 10 miles over the 40-mile-per-hour limit. But if you like a beach that isn't crowded, it's worth it.
This being sunny Southern California, outdoor activities abound, including hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, surfing, basketball, tennis, horseback riding, bird-watching, whale-watching, sport fishing, and golf.
For its size, Laguna Beach has an abundance of art, with a museum, an art college, a theater company, close to 40 galleries, and four summer arts festivals.
Architecture buffs will appreciate the Heritage Walk, a self-guided tour of more than 30 historic bungalows and cottages built between 1884 and 1939. The city provides a small bus - for the bargain fare of 75 cents - that makes the rounds in quiet neighborhoods. Maps list the address, history, and date of each home on the trail, so you can hop off and stroll as you please. I meandered on my own since the North Laguna bungalows are only a 10-minute hike uphill from Main Beach.
Locals refer to the downtown area near Main Beach as the "Village," and it does have that small-town feel with tree-lined streets and small cafes and shops. Though a few corporate logos have sneaked in, for the most part stores remain one-of-a-kind and fun to explore. As you would expect, there are surf wear, T-shirt, sunglasses, and jewelry shops galore. There are also unexpected finds like a gallery of minerals, meteorites, and fossils (The Crystal Image), a gigantic candy emporium (Candy Baron), party-girl clothes displayed beneath crystal chandeliers (Randy), handmade textile fashions (Duet), and a pet boutique and bakery (Bark, Bath and Beyond) on the south side of town.
After enjoying the outdoors, looking at art, and shopping, there's nothing left to do but eat and drink, both of which you can do well in Laguna Beach.
For fine dining, Studio offers modern French food with a California twist prepared by executive chef James Boyce. The setting can't be beat: overlooking the Pacific, in a Craftsman-style building on the grounds of the Montage Hotel and Resort.
Studio's menu features regional ingredients in a seasonal a la carte or tasting menu. Recent dishes included butter-poached Dungeness crab with coddled hen egg and leeks, oven-roasted Spanish turbot with smoked garlic and cashew cream, pan-seared local sea bass with caperberry butter, and an ambrosial heirloom chestnut and Asian pear soup.
For Technicolor sushi head to 242 Café Fusion Sushi run by chef-owner and artist Miki Izumisawa. Female sushi chefs are rare and Izumisawa, who apprenticed at Nobu, creates dishes you won't find anywhere else. Try the baked scallop with creamy sea urchin sauce appetizer and don't miss the "Sexy Handroll," a combination of spicy ahi tuna, scallops, shrimp, avocado, cilantro, mint, and a crunchy potato crisp. With only 21 seats, this tiny place on the PCH fills quickly.
I was repeatedly told 230 Forest Avenue was "the place" to go for fabulous eating. I admit to being skeptical as I perused the menu at the polished black granite bar. Ahi tuna tartare? Yawn. Pesto grilled chicken? Been there, done that. Then I ordered the ahi and took a bite. Wow. The fresh tuna, layered with crab and wasabi caviar, sat on a papaya relish flecked with jalapeno. Wonton chips were the perfect accompaniment for added crunch.
Bar manager Dan Vincent explained that 230 Forest Avenue has been in business for 13 years. "The chef, Marc Cohen, has been here since day one. I've been here since day two," said Vincent.
Vincent designs the martini list. Indeed, you can see his videos on YouTube, where he demonstrates how to make a variety of martinis in "60 seconds or less."
A dining alternative where you can both eat and learn something new is Laguna Culinary Arts. A cooking school, gourmet cheese shop, and wine cellar, LCA offers weekly wine and cheese flights and small plates in its cafe. Some of the cooking classes are one-night events where you can prepare a dish, such as walnut-crusted halibut or braised snapper puttanesca, and then eat it, with an appropriate wine, of course.
If you prefer al fresco dining or eating on-the-go, the Sapphire
And what would a vacation in the OC be without a little pampering? I signed up for a spa treatment called Surrender at Spa Montage where the range of services includes facials, massages, and water therapies. Stress? What stress?
Too soon, it was time to leave. My departure was a mirror image of my arrival: a perfect California dreamin' day.
Necee Regis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.