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How to Spend a Perfect Weekend in Laguna Beach
By Keri Bridgwater@keribridgwater,
Sitting between the San Joaquin Hills and the Pacific Ocean, Laguna Beach is a palm tree-lined slice of Southern California paradise. A colony for artists since the early 1900s, the city has attracted an eclectic who’s who of former residents — from Hollywood stars like Bette Davis and Judy Garland, to writer John Steinbeck and counterculture guru Timothy Leary and his Brotherhood of Eternal Love hippie group who pulled off a psychedelic airdrop during the 1970 “Christmas Happening” music festival (California’s Woodstock) attended by flower children and peaceniks.
Famous for its art scene, the OC enclave is synonymous with surfing and sun-kissed beach days, but the local community is big on conservation, too, advocating to protect 20,000 acres of open space now called the “Laguna Green Belt.” Although a fondness for New Age spirituality endures — if aura readings and chakra massages are your jam, chances are you’ll love Laguna.
Getting to Laguna Beach
Twenty minutes from John Wayne Airport (SNA) and a short(ish) and sweet hour and a half drive from San Diego and Los Angeles (depending on traffic), Laguna Beach is an easy-to-reach getaway for SoCal residents and a worthy stop on California coast road trips. Heading south, exit the 405 and follow the short but scenic State Route 133 (aka Laguna Canyon Road) to Pacific Coast Highway. Coming north, leave the I-5 at Dana Point and cruise up the coast.
Where to Stay
The former 1940s-era motor inn-turned-boutique Hotel Joaquin has a mid-century California-meets-St. Barths vibe thanks to cool kid designer Robert McKinley. Guests are encouraged to gather in “The Living Room” and listen to vinyl (flip through 400 plus records, including ’70s soundtrack staples by The Doors and Fleetwood Mac) or settle in for a few rounds of backgammon. Lobby bar-restaurant Saline serves breakfast, drinks and a small menu of light snacks from lunchtime (picnics can also be packed to-go for the beach) to just before dinner.
Spread across three floors, light-filled rooms are understated and chic with French names like Azur and Jardin, beds made up with white linens and decorated with Parisian flea market finds.
For ocean views, book one upstairs — from Perche, you can sometimes see San Clemente island. Design fans take note: statement bathrooms feature hand-painted tiles and marble vanities as standard, while several have soaking tubs facing the sea. Marantz turntables (grab records from The Living Room), custom artwork, mini fridges and baskets stocked with drinks, snacks and sleep gummies, respectively, add to the ambiance and list of nice extra touches.
With a tequila tasting, private yoga and St. Barth’s Experience (hand-picked French artist only LPs — standby for Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsborough — and a chilled bottle of Sancerre), the hotel’s Enhancement Menu can easily take things up a notch for special occasion stays.
What to Do
Surrounded by a generous number of loungers, Hotel Joaquin’s petite swimming pool catches the sun most of the day, which means there is plenty of space to chill, swim and read for a few hours without feeling crowded — or eked out — by the shade. It’s also worth popping down the street to Shaw’s Cove to look for sea stars in the rock pools at low tide or take photos at sunset.
Laguna has walkable sections around Main Beach, Heisler Park and the boutique and gallery-filled HIP District, but even during winter months traffic can be notorious and parking spaces tough to find. So hang up the car keys and use the free Laguna Beach trolley instead (stop eight is just below the hotel on Cliff Drive), which makes a regular loop from North Laguna to The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel or rent bikes and explore the 68 cycle routes across town instead.
Thanks to its Marine Protected Area status, Laguna’s more than 30 beaches and coves are some of the nicest places to spend time on the sand in Southern California, and, from its volunteer tidewater docents educating visitors to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center rescuing and rehabilitating seals and sea lions, ocean conservation is something the city takes seriously. Those keen to get out on the water for a surf lesson or SUP tour should contact local outfitter La Vida Laguna. For picnics, swims and scenic strolls the bluff-top Heisler Park and nearby Crescent Bay Beach are two of the most striking and oft-photographed sections of coastline.
With rotating exhibitions across its three galleries, the Laguna Art Museum is worth checking out along with the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival, which showcases work by local artists and draws over 200,000 visitors to its eucalyptus-lined “mini village” every summer. For aura photography and metaphysical supplies, The Chakra Shack has been around since the early aughts, while Experience Divine Vibes offers daily energy clearing sessions and angel card readings. But it’s not all beaches and woo-woo wellness, hiking is another Laguna highlight, and there are miles of trails to explore. The “difficult” five-mile loop at El Moro Canyon in Crystal Cove State Park, Dartmoor Trail in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Top of the World in Aliso and Woods Canyons Wilderness Park all reward with incredible views, plus wildflowers in spring.
Where to Eat and Drink
After enjoying Hotel Joaquin’s morning coffee service (let the front desk know when you’d like a large carafe of freshly brewed coffee delivered to your door), you can head down to Saline for breakfast. Eating healthy is de rigueur in Laguna, and the Saturday morning farmers market has organic everything — from honey and handmade crepes to tamales — while solid spots for lunch include Zinc Cafe and vegan go-to The Stand. After a lengthy and still ongoing restoration, the historic Hotel Laguna reopened its lobby and two new restaurants over a year ago: fine dining room Larsen (named after unofficial Laguna Beach ‘greeter’ Eiler Larsen) and Japanese concept Fin — both nice choices for a fancy dinner. And for non-traditional but stellar sushi, 242 Cafe Fusion Sushi is a local favorite. Its chef/owner Miki Izumisawa sadly passed away last summer, but her artful dishes and legacy live on in the 21-seat space, which fills up fast, so book ahead.
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