Laguna’s the Riviera of Pacific coast

Colorful Laguna Beach wall muralOld-fashioned beach town big draw for artists.
Coastline is also hangout for rich and famous.

LAGUNA BEACH, CALIFORNIA – “Hop in and I’ll show you Laguna,” said my friend, a local of 33 years upon arriving in a convertible with the top down at my hotel. From there we zipped onto the road and headed into town.

Laguna Beach (called simply Laguna by its residents) is a coastal haven. Here fast-food joints are a rarity, billboards are non-existent and its main drag is the renowned Coast Highway.

It’s an old-fashioned beach town that has always catered to artists, resisted attempts at commercialization and served as a playground to the rich and famous.

Nature was generous to Laguna. It’s reminiscent of the French Riviera. Dotted along its 10 km of Pacific coastline are 30 public beaches. They include those with names like Rockpile Beach, Thousand Steps Beach and Main Beach, situated in the heart of downtown and so-called because it is the “main” beach.

But Laguna is as recognized for its reputation as an artist colony as it is its prime locale.

It’s been said that this is where the corner art gallery is as commonplace as other communities mini-malls. There are over 100 galleries in town that specialize in some form of art – oil paintings, photography, pottery and glass art.

Each summer the town teems with art enthusiasts who come for the Sawdust Art Festival (features the work of 200 local artisans) and the Pageant of the Masters, where renowned artwork is transformed into “living pictures.”

In the art/entertainment world, Laguna is incomparable. Public art is prolific – you see it everywhere. John Steinbeck penned his classic Tortilla Flats while residing in town at 504 Park Avenue. And the Laguna Playhouse is the West Coast’s oldest continuously operating theatre company. It’s where an unknown actor named Harrison Ford performed in 1965.

But Laguna is more. And with the help of my informal tour guide, I viewed the town from an insider’s perspective.

We began with food.

Over a meal on the patio of Madison Square & Garden Café, I quizzed my host. I learned that the Penguin Café and Orange Inn are great breakfast choices. Cedar Creek Inn is a warm and inviting restaurant in a renowned historic building. Zinc Café & Market features exceptional food in an outdoor setting. And Javier’s Cantina & Grill is a happening.

Other “in” spots are 230 Forest Avenue, 5’0” Restaurant, Sun Dried Tomato Café, Husky Boy Burgers and Picayo.

Surf & Sand Resort outdoor pool and beachWe strolled the tree lined downtown area. A famous gate erected in 1935 stands in town at the corner of Forest and Park Avenues. It’s inscribed: “This gate hangs well and hinders none, refresh and rest, then travel on.”

“Forest is the street tourists visit and Ocean is for locals,” expounded my friend.

Further exploration of Ocean Avenue uncovered the Marine Room Tavern, the site of each Sunday’s hip music scene. Its motto: “If the music is too loud, then you’re too old.”

And in Laguna shopping is as varied as its art. It’s a magnet for visitors like me who seek more than national chain stores. This is where specialty storefronts abound, ones devoted exclusively to swimsuits, hats, purses, pearl jewelry, even a custom tattoo parlor.

Accommodation in this southern California town varies from bed and breakfasts to old-style hotels to upscale oceanfront retreats.

My choice, the Surf & Sand Resort, is a beach-side landmark. It opened in 1948 as a motor lodge with 20-odd rooms and grew up with the town. Today it’s a nine-storey seaside resort and spa.

Surf & Sand’s in-town location and freshly renovated facilities ($2 million U.S.) were the initial draw. But after retiring each evening to the sound of the surf (there’s no air conditioning; it’s not needed), visiting its newly opened spa, Aquaterra, for a massage with Zach (one of the spa world’s best) and lounging every day on the beach (assisted by a pool attendant who set up my chair and umbrella), I became a devotee.

Here are some tips if you want to visit:

For more information on Laguna Beach, go to lagunabeachinfo.com.

* For Surf & Sand Resort information go to surfandsandresort.com.

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