With seven miles of craggy beaches and hidden coves, it’s little wonder that in the 1920s the isolated village of Laguna Beach — then, pop. 300 — became a favorite destination for artists and moviemakers; by the late ‘60s, it was a trippy-hippie outpost.
Laguna’s population is 24,000 now and the hippies are (mostly) gone, but its art and chill village vibe remain, even in the face of summer tourists. The warmer months are wildly popular with visitors, thanks to several annual art events — the Laguna Art-A-Fair, the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival, the Festival of Arts (a juried art show featuring 140 Orange County artists) — and, arguably the most famous of them all, the Pageant of the Masters, where live actors in extraordinary makeup, costumes and sets re-create famous paintings and sculptures by artists as diverse as Johannes Vermeer, Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dalí.
The Pageant’s chosen artworks vary year to year, but the shows always end with a life-size re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and the effect is astonishing, especially for children desperate to find a flaw somewhere in the 90-second poses (good luck — these actors are the epitome of frozen).
If you’re coming for an evening of art gazing, why not come early and spend the day? Laguna is a great place to wander around tide pools, take scenic ocean walks, explore a relic of the psychedelic era and find the quintessential O.C. bikini (or board suit).
A few insider tips: Laguna is about 50 miles southeast of downtown L.A. and crazy crowded on summer weekends, so plan ahead and arrive by 10 a.m. — or earlier. Free parking is available through Sept. 1 at the Summer Breeze lot on Highway 133/Laguna Canyon Road at the 405 Freeway, or at the south edge of town in the Mission Hospital lot off South Coast Highway, and then you can ride a free trolley into town. Trolleys start around 9:30 a.m. on weekends and hit stops along Laguna Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway every 20 to 30 minutes. Otherwise, parking prices escalate as you get closer to the water, and parking enforcement is vigilant.
The Sawdust Festival, Art-A-Fair and Festival of Arts all offer free or modestly priced classes and other activities for children and adults, so check out their websites before you go and plan your day accordingly. And check tide-forecast.com for low tide times and plan your tide pool visits when the tide is getting lower, rather than higher, for optimum observation and beach strolling.
With all that out of the way, let’s get started:
10 a.m. Start at Zinc Cafe & Market, 350 Ocean Ave., for a late breakfast or snack to sustain you until lunch. This all-vegetarian cafe with its spacious patio has been a haven for locals for more than 30 years. You can purchase any number of portable salads, entrees and veggie side dishes along with wrapped sandwiches, pastries and espresso drinks. The half mixed-vegetable sandwich on focaccia bread, with tapenade, arugula and a hard-boiled egg, for $6.95 was easy to munch during the remaining few blocks’ walk to the sea. Another option, especially if you’re driving in from the south: the famous Orange Inn, at 703 South Coast Highway, which opened in 1931 and claims to be the home of the original fruit smoothie.
10:30 a.m. Continue to Main Beach, 107 South Coast Highway, which lives up to its name with a vintage lifeguard stand, volleyball and basketball courts, restrooms, showers and plenty of sand and surf (for swimming — no surfing allowed). Walk north along the boardwalk and then onto the beach toward Bird Rock and the tide pool area, which is usually staffed by friendly, informative docents (who will warn you with a smile to look but not touch the sea critters). The rocks can be jagged, steep and slippery, so wear surf sandals or shoes with sturdy, nonslip soles. The waves have carved “chairs” or handy ledges into some of the rocks, so be sure to sit and take a few mesmerizing, soul-replenishing moments to watch the waves crashing on the rocks.
11:30 a.m. If the tide is low enough, walk up the beach to view the surfers at Rockpile Beach and beyond. If the water is too high, however, double back to the stairs leading up to lovely Heisler Park, where you can walk along the top of the cliffs, wander down steep stairs to other beaches below or take in a game of lawn bowling.
12:30 p.m. Head south again for the toughest task of all: lunch. There’s no shortage of good restaurants in Laguna. Some favorites: Las Brisas, 361 Cliff Drive, (a pricy but serene option at the south edge of Heisler Park) or the Cliff, 577 South Coast Highway, and the Deck on Laguna Beach, 627 Sleepy Hollow Lane, more modestly priced options accessible via stairs from the south edge of Main Beach.
For a post-lunch diversion, or to spice up your Instagram feed, you might swing by Catmosphere, 381 Forest Ave., which bills itself as Orange County’s first cat cafe.
2 p.m. Now that you’re revived, walk off lunch with a little shopping along South Coast Highway. Send your tawny teens in search of the perfect O.C. beachwear at stores such as Diane’s Beachwear, 370 South Coast Highway; Merrilee’s Swimwear, 790 South Coast Hwy.; Billabong, 903 South Coast Highway; or the Shop, 1020 South Coast Highway.
Nostalgia buffs can revisit Laguna’s psychedelic past at the Sound Spectrum, 1264 South Coast Highway. Established in 1967, the store specializes in classic 1960s and ‘70 vinyl and posters plus a groovy calendar ($15) designed for the store in 1971 by SoCal artist Bill Ogden. (Note: One of these would make a great stocking stuffer.)
When you’re done shopping, snag a trolley back to your car, stash your belongings inside, and you’re ready for an evening of art-gazing extraordinaire.