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Deep Culture Travel:

Endless Summer in Laguna Beach

by Karen Misuraca, published in Odyssey

Heading west away from the tangled freeways between San Diego and Los Angeles, Laguna Canyon Road winds toward the ocean and the sultry little beach town of Laguna Beach. Draped on rugged, golden-hued cliffs along a seven-mile necklace of coves and beaches, the town is set apart from the busy cities and theme parks of Orange County by the deep canyons of the San Joaquin Hills. Weekenders and vacationers flock to this piece of paradise to surf and scuba dive, sunbathe and browse galleries, to sit in seaside cafes and doze under beach umbrellas.

Listed in the book, "The 100 Best Art Towns in America," and an artist's colony since the early 1900s, this charmer of a beach community draws sand- and surf-seekers and art lovers who flock to the over one hundred galleries; to the Laguna Beach Art Museum and to three huge summer art festivals. More than 400 artists and actors live and work here, contributing to a distinctly bohemian character. From the guidebook, California Beaches: "When people hear the name Laguna Beach, they... think of faraway places: the French Riviera, the Greek Isles, the coast of Italy. They think of anywhere but Orange County, where the town is an anomaly: a seaside village that attracts free spirits."

A Stroll Around Town

Although the reality MTV show, "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County", has portrayed local teens as spoiled brats leading seamy lives, locals disavow that depiction, heralding their town as a culture mecca and a family-oriented vacation destination. Park your car and see for yourself as you stroll to architectural landmarks and to myriad boutiques and galleries, espresso bars and friendly pubs in the tree-lined downtown village area and along the Pacific Coast Highway--the Visitor's Bureau provides walking tour maps.

Get your toes wet in the lapping waves and walk the path along Cliff Drive as a fiery sunset paints the sky, the sand and the sea. You are likely to see artists at their easels, surf boards and dolphins flying over the waves, and gentlemen and ladies all in white, tending to their lawn bowling and shuffleboard.

On the Pacific Coast Highway, which runs between the town and the shore, step into the lobby of the Hotel Laguna, where photos line the walls, documenting the town's history. Right above Main Beach, the hotel's Terrace Cafe and the Claes Restaurant offer panoramic views and succulent, locally caught seafood.

A treasured, Mediterranean-style hotel built in 1927 as a retreat for Hollywood stars, La Casa Del Camino has a rooftop terrace where guests linger to drink in the 360-degree coastal views. Even from before talking pictures, Hollywood actors have hidden away in this town in cottages and villas on the clifftops. Bette Davis, Bogey and Bacall owned homes, as did Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and other stars, many of whom helped support the Laguna Beach Playhouse. The oldest continuously operating theater company in the West, the playhouse celebrates its 87th season, 2007-2008, by presenting a musical about Hank Williams; "Menopause The Musical"; and a romance, "Red Herring", among other performances (http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com). Executive Director Richard Stein wrote, "Our audience is treated to everything from the frivolous to the serious, from the tuneful to the talky, from the predictable to the surprising. It's who we are as a theatre... "

One of many bungalows and cottages from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the sweet, clapboard Murphy Smith Historical Bungalow on Ocean Avenue exhibits circa-1920s decor and photos of early days. Tiny St. Francis By-The Sea on Park Avenue is the second smallest Catholic church in the world (according to the Guinness Book of World Records), a mini-cathedral with just forty-two seats. On Forest Avenue, the Mediterranean Revival style City Hall is shaded by a glorious pepper tree that was planted in 1881. And, the oldest house in town, at 154 Pearl Street, was built in 1883 with driftwood and pieces from shipwrecks.

Right across from Main Beach, the 1923 Mediterranean Revival movie house, South Coast Cinemas, shows first-run and art films; you can smooch in the balcony! Next-door, a '50s diner atmosphere with a jukebox, Johnny Rockets is a great place for burgers, shakes and malts--and homemade apple pie.

The Good Old Days

In the early 1900s, artists began to discover the astonishing light on this stretch of coastline and the dramatic canyons and their flora. Influenced by French impressionism, they aimed to capture the vivid sunlight, the eucalyptus groves and the poppy fields. The first art gallery opened in 1918 and by the late 1920s, half the full-time residents were artists, living in ramshackle cottages and in tents on the beaches. During the Depression, they hung their works in trees on the roadsides, hoping to appeal to passersby, and to promote themselves, they founded the "Pageant of the Masters" in 1933. A series of tableaux featuring live figures in elaborate recreations of masterworks by such as Van Gogh and Matisse, the spectacular annual event continues to draw large crowds today. In an outdoor amphitheater in the mild evenings of July and August, local residents pose in 90-minute sittings in life-size sets. The traditional grand finale is Da Vinci's "Last Supper".

Three annual art festivals are held in the verdant eucalyptus groves of Laguna Canyon. 140 artists show and sell at the rigorously juried Festival of the Arts, which includes the Pageant of the Masters. Another juried show,Art-A-Fair, features over 130 artists and fine crafters from around the world. For the Sawdust Festival, now in its 41st year, an artist's village and stages for entertainment are built in a wooded glen with waterfalls, trees and exotic plants; about 200 local artists show and sell.

On Cliff Drive about 300 feet from the shoreline of Rockpile Beach, the oldest museum in the state, the Laguna Art Museum showcases the early California school of impressionism and plein air painting. The museum and many local galleries are open late for First Thursday Art Walk every month (http://www.firstthursdayartwalk.com).

Specializing in American impressionism and early plein air, the Redfern Gallery on the Pacific Coast Highway has posted on its Web site a vibrant catalogue of works produced between 1890 and 1940 (http://www.redferngallery.com). A major source for collectors and historians, the gallery has a second location, at Montage Resort and Spa. A new, California Craftsman-style luxury inn on a coastal bluff, the Montage shows California impressionist paintings in its lobby and public areas, and vintage photographs of classic beach scenes, and rare Arts and Crafts artifacts.

The largest work of many public works of art in town, installed in 1981 on the side of the Hotel Laguna is a dreamlike underwater scene of a California gray whale and her calf floating in an azure sea, one of 100 "whaling walls" around the world painted by the flamboyant artist known as Wyland (http://www.wyland.com). The Detroit native first visited Laguna Beach as a 14-year old, getting his first look at the ocean, and as it happens, he saw two gray whales spouting just offshore of Main Beach. He said, "The barnacle encrusted backs broke the surface... and they raised their enormous flukes. Ten years later, I moved to Laguna Beach and painted those two whales life-size on a building, not more than a hundreds yards from the spot they had first appeared."

His paintings and sculptures of whales and dolphins are shown in three Wyland galleries in town, located on thoroughfares that are lined with dozens more galleries: on the South Coast Highway, downtown on Forest Avenue and on Laguna Canyon Road.

Beach Time

A boardwalk runs the length of Main Beach, in the heart of downtown, where under the eyes of lifeguards perched in the circa-1929 tower, a playground, volleyball and basketball courts are ready for fun. At the north end of the boardwalk, Heisler Park is a flower-bedecked, half-mile greensward with wide coastal views and beach access. Along the high bluffs are lawns and picnic grounds under the trees and a children's play area; below on lifeguarded Picnic Beach are calm tide pools. Also below the park, Rockpile is one of several beaches beloved by the surfers and skimboarders, while scuba divers are often seen gathering at Shaw's Cove, Divers Cove, Crescent Bay, Woods Cove and Fisherman's Cove, before disappearing into the marine preserve offshore.

Leading to Thousand Steps Beach, a concrete staircase (only 219 steps) ends at a small, sandy, lifeguarded beach at the foot of steep cliffs; excellent surfing here, and tide pools filled with bright orange fish and crabs, blue anemones, purple urchins and big, ugly sea slugs. Just north, accessed by another stairway, West Street Beach is a cove frequented by local volleyball players, whose net is set up most of the year.

Sleepy Hollow is a swimmers beach with a soft, sandy bottom. Located right on the edge of the sand here, Vacation Village caters to families, offering equipped kitchens, ocean view balconies, two swimming pools, a game room and beach attendants who offer towels, lounge chairs, and bright blue umbrellas (http://www.vacationvillage.com).

Families also like Aliso Creek County Beach fronting "motel row" on the south end of town, where amenities include barbecues and fire rings, a playground, restrooms, showers and a snack bar. Lifeguards are on duty in the summertime, as swimming is rather hazardous in the pounding surf; skimboarders and surfers love the big waves. Tucked into a lush canyon nearby, the Aliso Creek Inn is a rustic retreat with a nine-hole golf course, condo-style units and a swimming pool (http://www.alisocreekinn.com). A mountain lodge-style steakhouse, the Canyon Lodge Restaurant at the inn has a cozy fireplace, beamed ceilings and a casual atmosphere.

The prettiest of all, Victoria Beach is a best-kept-secret by residents, who "forget" the location of the entrance at the end of Victoria Drive. As are all California beaches, this one is absolutely open to the public and should not be missed. Attractions are skim-boarding and body surfing, tide pooling, volleyball and "La Tour", a weird 60-foot-tall tower erected in 1926.

Underground parking is available at the Treasure Island Park, a pleasant, green blufftop open space fringed with palms and gardens above sheltered, sandy beaches accessed by a path and handicap ramps.

Right on the beach just north of Laguna Beach near Corona del Mar, an historic enclave of hand built cottages is a rare vestige of Southern California vernacular. 1930s-era furnishings outfit the newly renovated Crystal Cove Beach Cottages, which are in high demand most of the year (http://www.crystalcovebeachcottages.com). Boardwalks wander from the wooden porches of the clapboard and shingle bungalows past vintage surfboards and old lobster traps onto the 3.5-mile curve of Crystal Cove, part of Crystal Cove State Park. While divers dodge the dolphins and prowl the waters offshore, tide pools and rocky coves are waiting to be explored. Thousands of acres of pristine woodlands and canyons in the park are popular with hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers.

Here in the Crystal Cove Historic District, Dungeness Crab Cakes and Catalina Sunset martinis are the menu at the Beachcomber Café, which was remodeled as an oceanfront restaurant from an existing cottage (http://www.beachcombercafe.com). Just up the Pacific Coast Highway toward Newport Beach, yet still within the park, the tiny, bright yellow Crystal Cove Shake Shack is a hot spot for burgers and fries, floats, malts and fresh date shakes.

Surf's Up

Surfers flock to Laguna Beach year round for some of the best waves on the Pacific Coast. Owner of the surfing instruction center and shop, Costa Azul, Rod Greenup has been teaching surfing for more than twenty years (http://www.costaazul.net). He said, "We get everyone from four-year-olds to people in their late fifties. Our lessons are at Thalia Beach where the reef is less prominent and waves are non-intimidating for beginners. What a lot of surfers like about Laguna is that the village atmosphere is part of the appeal. We may not get the huge wintertime waves since we are sheltered by Catalina Island, yet our spring-to-fall summer south flows are dependable at several beaches."

Surf reports are posted by a cadre of local professional lifeguards on their Web site, along with best beaches for surfing, tide pooling, diving and fishing ( http://www.lblg.org).

Just south of Costa Azul above the South Coast Highway beaches, the Thalia Street Surf Shop is surfer-central, selling board shorts, Vans, flip flops, surf boards, and Hawaiiana from the 1960s-1970s (http://www.thaliasurf.com).


Strangled with traffic in the summertime and on sunny weekends, the Pacific Coast Highway runs right through Laguna Beach--that's the bad news. The good news is that the scenic highway leads to Newport Beach, only ten miles to the north. A lively and colorful harbor for more than 9,000 boats and yachts, Newport Harbor is rimmed by a shoreline of breezy bluffs, sandy beaches and coves. Alongside the Newport Pier on the beach, the only dory fishing fleet on the West Coast has been selling its fresh catch of snapper, mackerel, lobster, crab and other local seafood since 1891. The Dory Fleet fish market is open every day, and you can watch the dorymen come in with their catches around 7 a.m. or so in the mornings. Near the pier, a red neon fish sign reading "Don't Look Up Here" announces the Crab Cooker, where shrimp and scallops, crab and fresh fish have been served on paper plates since the 1950s.

Ferries and small boats cruise merrily across Newport Bay to Balboa Island, a quaint village of Cape Cod-style cottages and seafood cafes. Don't miss the famous Balboa Bar--vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate and rolled in chopped peanuts or jimmies. A shack with a walk-up window, which opened in 1945, Sugar 'n' Spice, was the first to serve the Balboa Bar on the island. More treats on the Sugar 'n' Spice menu: homemade frozen bananas, chocolate-covered frozen cheesecake on a stick, tiramisu on a stick, floats and malts.

Of all the beaches on the Balboa peninsula, Balboa Beach at the pier is the most popular, complete with lifeguards, showers and picnic sites. A two-mile walk or swim runs between the Balboa and Newport piers, and you can bicycle and walk along an oceanfront promenade around the peninsula. On the harborside from the Balboa Pavilion, you can take a Newport Harbor Sightseeing Cruise and whale watching cruises, go deep sea fishing and hop on the huge Catalina Flyer catamaran to Catalina Island for the day ( http://www.balboapavilion.com). You can also pilot your own 12-passenger, "Duffy Boat" electric party boat around the harbor, and rent kayaks and seadoos (http://www.marinawatersports.com).

With Laguna Beach as headquarters, visitors drive a half hour to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, and to Anaheim to watch the Los Angeles Angels play baseball at Angel Stadium. Heading back to Laguna after their daytripping adventures, travelers are greeted by an historic sign that hangs at the corner of Forest and Park Avenue: "This Gate Hangs Well and Hinders None, Refresh and Rest, Then Travel On."
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