In the search for a luxury getaway, the coastal strip of south Orange County makes for easy hunting. The Ritz-Carlton and the St. Regis resorts are practically within a hot tub splash of each other in Dana Point. Most recently, the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach joined the group with a Craftsman-style ocean-side spread that exudes California-casual elegance. But the problem with luxury, even casual luxury, is that it comes with a luxury price tag.
A night at the Montage, for example, is $490, even in the cheapest rooms, and the hotel has a two-night minimum on weekends.
FOR THE RECORD: Montage Resort & Spa —The Weekend Escape feature in today's Travel section says the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach offers non-guests access to its spa for $25. In fact, access is available only to those who have booked a treatment at the spa.
Fortunately, right across the street from the Montage is one of the better-kept secrets of Laguna Beach: the Laguna Reef Inn, long among the least expensive places to stay here. Because it's a couple of miles south of downtown, off a shopping strip and without the cachet of the Montage, its prices are lower. A Saturday night at the inn, with continental breakfast, was $145 plus tax.
The Laguna Reef would work just fine for the 24-hour change of pace I planned, a mother's short respite from weekend chores, children's squabbles and animated movies. From there, I planned to take advantage of the many lovely things about the Montage that don't require being an overnight guest.
Below the Montage, the unspoiled tide pools, the beach and the beautifully manicured park on the bluffs are public. The hotel lobby also serves as a lounge where anyone can order a drink. If I booked a spa treatment, for an additional $25 I could pass the whole day there and still spend less than I would on an overnight stay at the ritzy hotel - if a single weekend night were even possible.
The Laguna Reef was once just a basic motor inn, with the classic two-story, courtyard configuration. Years ago, the courtyard was planted with a jungle of exotic plants, giving the inn a softer, more upscale look. My upstairs room didn't have the marble of the Montage, but the rattan furniture was pretty and new-looking, the open-beam ceiling a nice touch. There was even a simple kitchenette with a refrigerator, microwave and kitchen table. The bathroom was basic, with a shower stall.
It was a warm Saturday in early April, so I spent the afternoon in and around the Laguna Reef's small pool and Jacuzzi — a pleasant area with lots of plants and cozy groupings of chairs and lounges. But to greet the sunset, I wanted to be at the Montage, so my first excursion was a walk by the ocean and tea in the lobby lounge.
The walk to the Montage took three minutes, and most of that was spent waiting for the "walk" light to cross South Coast Highway. I took the steep flight of stairs next to the Montage down to the city's public park, with its meandering walkways, lush flowerbeds and strategically placed benches. As I looked out onto the ocean, dolphins danced offshore in the calm waters.
I walked back up the stairs to the Montage, where the first step into the lobby was breathtaking — the Pacific Ocean spread out through the floor-to-ceiling windows before me. Heavily cushioned sofas and chairs in cream and gold were scattered in intimate groupings, the seating for a pricey bar.
I don't spend as much for most bottles of wine as they charge for a glass here, with Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon selling for up to $35. But a big pot of oolong tea cost only $6 (it's plenty for two people), the cup and saucer were delicately traced with painted flowers, and the attentive server brought a bowl of chocolate-dipped biscotti pieces.
Attire here ranged from formalwear to flip-flops, mostly the latter, and no one seemed to care. Everyone was too busy smiling at the red-and-peach-colored sky and dark-blue ocean as the sun touched sea.
For dinner, I wasn't planning to pay anything like Montage prices. There are three restaurants there, two of which serve dinner. At all three, even a bowl of soup costs about $15. In the shopping center just across the street, at a little "fresh Mexican" eatery called La Sirena Grill, I got a huge veggie quesadilla, a little messy but wonderful, and a beer, for about $10. I sat at one of the outside picnic tables, with a view of the darkening ocean.
Sampling the spa
Sunday morning was for serious pampering. I bought a day pass at the Montage spa, and was shown around by a friendly staffer named Natalya. I started out with a guided beach stroll and stretch class along the beach — pleasant but hardly a workout. The spa has other classes throughout the day, such as Piloga, a mix of Pilates and yoga, and Beach Boot Camp, with interval training and sprints.
But the spa itself was a pleasant place to hang out. It has an ocean-view lap pool, a Jacuzzi and a gym in which the exercise machines have little pop-up TVs in case you tire of interminable ocean views. Inside, there's another hot tub, a sauna and a steam bath. I was given a soft white robe to wear and nubby sandals, and though I sampled most of the offerings, my favorite activity was sitting in the lounge area — a quiet, warm place — with my feet up, reading, sipping tea and honey from a proffered gourmet selection and popping tasty dried strawberries into my mouth.
I left the spa for a lunch of paella at the Montage's Loft restaurant, pleasant enough with its well-shaded patio. But considering the prices there ($4 for a diet Coke?), I liked La Sirena, the shopping center joint, better. It's hard to relate to a restaurant that gives you a confirmation number for your lunch reservation.
I was glad when early afternoon brought a low tide, good for a visit to the tide pools below the hotel.
Before the Montage was built, this land housed a mobile home park, where the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz picture "The Long, Long Trailer" was filmed in 1954. The mobile home park was private and fenced from the highway, so there was little traffic on the beach below. The tide pool remained relatively untrammeled for decades and still is one of the most life-filled in the region.
A patient visitor can see not only the usual anemones, sea urchins and mussels but also fat, red starfish, sea hares and an occasional octopus or a big orange-glow garibaldi, the state marine fish. Most weekends at low tide, docents are on hand to give out waterproof animal-ID pamphlets, describe the sea life and gently admonish visitors not to pick up the fragile animals or take the shells as souvenirs.
The first Sunday of every nonsummer month, there's a free chamber music concert at the Laguna College of Art & Design in Laguna Canyon (www.lagunabeachlive.org). It certainly fit my budget and my mom-away-from-kids plan, so I drove the three miles or so to the small college. I tossed a $5 donation into the basket and listened to a string quartet deliver a lovely performance of Mozart, Schubert and Ravel.
By then, I was relaxed enough to call it quits — just how much well-bred grown-up fun could I take? — but I had a massage appointment back at the Montage. I don't need a massage, I thought, as I slipped back into my soft robe. I changed my mind in the massage room.
Who knew just having oil poured on your feet and your toes gently pulled could feel so heavenly?