From Canyon To Cove: Glimpses of Laguna’s hidden history

*******CORRECTION: The Canyon to Cove column, “Glimpses of Laguna’s hidden history," Feb. 19 should not have identified a coastal property as being associated with the Contadina family.


If you’ve ever wanted to peek at the hidden homes "” and spectacular views "” of the rich and famous who cluster along Laguna Beach’s secluded coves and shoreline, now you can.

Dana Wharf Sportfishing is branching out with a new “Laguna Coastline SightSeaing Cruise" that combines a historic perspective of the coast from Crystal Cove to Three Arch Bay with the possibility of seeing some fun-loving dolphins, and maybe even a whale, along the way.


I took the tour Sunday, and before the historic part started, we had the thrill of being in a pod of an estimated 1,000 common dolphins. The dolphins were chasing along side our catamaran, jumping for joy (or just to show off), and swimming between the pontoons. It was like a dolphin festival. I could hear the dolphins breathe right next to me as they surfaced and dove. What fun! The dolphins apparently just love to swim as fast as they can and to “surf" the waves created by the swooshing of the boat through the water. It was a spectacular start to our three-hour tour.

Once we got to Irvine Cove and Eric Jessen of the Laguna Beach Historical Society started talking, we all fell silent with awe as we took in some of the most spectacular dwelling spots in the world.

Jessen, who conducts the tour on Sundays, grew up in Laguna and has an incredible store of history and trivia to share. Not only that, he ran the county Beaches and Harbors Department for 30 years, so he knows the coast like the back of his hand. Now that Jessen has joined the historical society, it’s become his mission to educate and entertain with his vast store of knowledge. He not only knows Laguna, he loves Laguna, and his admiration for the city and how it grew is evident from the moment he picks up his microphone.

And there is no better vantage point from which to take in this rich history than from a boat, because the history of Laguna Beach is really all about the “beach."


Filling in with tidbits about the ocean and marine environment was boat Capt. Larry Hartmann, who also grew up locally and is an expert on all things oceanic. Did you know that the kelp forest which is “greening" the ocean right now grows incredibly fast? The kelp strands grow an inch an hour in sunlight, Hartmann said.

He also was able to spot for us three of the four kinds of dolphins that live in these waters. We saw common dolphins, bottle-nose and white-sided on our trip.

Apparently the common dolphins are the only ones that will seek out and “play" with humans in boats. Interestingly, the small pod of white-sided dolphins we saw were accompanied by a lone sea lion who swam along with them, in the lead no less, a little multi-species troupe presumably in search of food.

Jessen explained that James Irvine acquired the enormous Spanish Land Grant ranch land "” 110,000 acres that stretch from the coast far inland "” in the mid-to-late 1800s and that Irvines still live in the lovely cove that bears their name. From Irvine Cove in North Laguna and its cliff-hanging homes we took a leisurely look at Emerald Bay, where financier Warren Buffet has a home, according to Jessen.

“But he has a lot of homes," Jessen added.

Then it was on to Crescent Bay, and the spectacular compound owned by the Contadina family (of the tomato sauce empire). This is one of the top ocean properties in all of Laguna, with a small golf course and spectacular rock formations and is demarcated by two palm trees that form an elegant U-shape.

Then, on another note, it was on to Rumrunners Cove, rumored as a popular spot for smuggling liquor during Prohibition. There’s also a mysterious cove around here called Secret Cove but it flew by so fast I missed it. It’s still a secret.

Moving on to Main Beach, Jessen noted that there had at one time been a long pier jutting out near the beach, but the pier was destroyed in a huge storm "” deemed a “tempest" "” that occurred Sept. 30, 1939. It also decimated Seal Beach, destroyed most of Huntington Beach, and flattened Balboa Island.


That historic storm was preceded by a freak heat wave that sent the temperature to 119 degrees, the warmest ever recorded in Laguna Beach, Jessen said.

Meandering south, we passed homes of the late Roy Disney; and the adorable sand-adjacent cottage of the Ozzie and Harriet Nelson family. Jessen said he had grown up nearby and was accustomed to seeing the Nelson brood of TV sitcom fame playing on the beach “like regular citizens."

The younger set on the boat were agog when Jessen pointed out a former home of Heather Locklear, apparently used just last month by Bon Jovi when the band was in Los Angeles to play at the Grammys. (Locklear, by the way, was married to Bon Jovi rocker Richie Sambora and is now said to own a bungalow at the Montage Resort & Spa.)

Other famous and infamous names dropped along the tour: John Wayne (known for his Newport Beach manse but he also apparently had a Laguna hideaway); Van De Kamp (of the bakery empire); and O.J. Simpson.

Laguna Beach has always been a place for the rich and famous to play in seclusion, and the coastline seems built for that purpose. Jessen pointed out one magnificent property on an outcropping that he says was used by early movie moguls to entertain prospective starlets such as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Davis apparently loved Laguna so much that after she became a star she built her own house here: It’s the one at Woods Cove with a big “D" on the chimney, so no one could miss it.

We stopped for a time outside the Villa Rockledge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Hewed into the rock, it was built in the 1920s by the man who created the renowned Mission Inn in Riverside, where, Jessen noted, Richard and Pat Nixon honeymooned. (I’ve toured Villa Rockledge, where Old Hollywood used to party, and it is magnificent from the land side, too.)

Just south was a fascinating property with a turret-style beach staircase, also dating from this early movie-mogul era.

Nearby is a spectacular modern home of glass, teak and mahogany that you would think would be owned by someone rich and famous, but Jessen says it was owned for a time at least by a plumbing contractor who wanted to give his wife a beautiful place to end her days as she succumbed to cancer.


Then there’s the charming old wooden cottage with a huge front porch and an American flag out front, also one of the oldest on the coast, which had hosted President Woodrow Wilson on occasion, Jessen said.

Near Aliso Beach, we were astonished to learn from Jessen that a large, modern-looking concrete home on the upper hill was actually built in the 1930s by a Halliburton "” yes, the founder of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. That shows you how deep Jessen’s knowledge of this area is.

Jessen also pointed out the fantastic “rock house" that overlooks Aliso Beach, built into a large rock formation. From the ocean side, you can see the part of the house that is not covered in rock.

Then we churned on past Three Arch Bay, where we got a good look at the three arches "” hidden in a cove "” for which it is named. Known for being a very private gated community, here’s a tidbit that few know "” there’s a public beach, albeit a very rocky one, on the south side of Three Arch. But it’s only accessible by a long walk from Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point.

While the tour is a lot of fun and informative, it’s also “different every time," says Donna Kalez of Dana Wharf Sportfishing, based on the marine life present in the waters and the speakers.

The tour has been going on for about six weeks and it can only get better as it develops. Jessen provides the commentary from a historical perspective Sundays and one of Dana Wharf’s boat captains talk about the coast and marine environment Saturdays.

The tour is $49 per person, and includes lunch, plus a free glass of wine from Laguna Canyon Winery. (Our sampling of Wyland wine was pretty darn good.)

It leaves at noon Saturdays and Sundays from Dana Wharf Sportfishing. For a reservation, call (800) 979-3370 or visit

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or