Gray skies kept me out of the surf on a recent visit to Laguna Beach, but I found plenty to enjoy on dry land. When my husband, Paul, and I had our fill of browsing the art galleries, we strolled along the ocean cliffs, dined in an artisanal restaurant and relaxed by the pool at Casa Laguna, our charming boutique hotel. We even discovered a remarkable wildlife refuge: the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which rehabilitates seals and sea lions stranded on Southern California beaches. It was inspiring to observe the pinniped patients and learn about the extraordinary efforts that go into preparing them to return to the wild. The tab: hotel, $250 a night plus taxes and fees; dinner, $100 plus tip; gasoline.
The heart of Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa was originally the Spanish Mission-style home of Frank Miller, best known as the owner and developer of the Mission Inn Hotel in Riverside. Over the decades, new rooms were added and the property became a hotel and bed and breakfast. After new owners acquired it in 2014, designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard beautifully redecorated it in a style that evokes its 1920s heritage. The 23 cozy guest rooms are nestled in a labyrinth of tiled patios and rustling palms. Guests enjoy complimentary breakfast either outside or in the chic blue-and-white-tiled lobby. I was delighted to discover that although the hotel adjoins South Coast Highway, we could not hear the traffic in our room.
The year-old Oak Laguna Beach offers ocean views from its sleek dining room, bar and patio. Homegrown chefs Chris Tzorin and Fabian Sanchez prepare such SoCal favorites as a soy-and-Sriracha-seasoned “stack” of marinated, raw chopped albacore; mango and avocado served with fresh-made wonton chips; succulent short-rib tacos with house-made mole; and zippy Cajun shrimp tacos with grilled Jack cheese.
The weather was too cold for swimming, so we explored Heisler Park, a grassy expanse offering scenic views and art installationsatop the rugged ocean cliffs just north of Main Beach. We discovered a stairway embedded in the rocks that led to tide pools brimming with sea life.
THE LESSON LEARNED
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center resounds with sea-mammal vocalizations, from the usual seal barks to sheep-like bleats, infant-like yowls and crowing worthy of a rooster. Adding to the sensory overload is the overwhelming smell of fish: The 70 or so pinnipeds housed here at one time scarf down 500 pounds of fish a day. We learned that since the early 1970s, the center has cared for nearly 8,000 stranded harbor, elephant and fur seals as well as California sea lions and has a 75% success rate of returning them to the sea.
Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa, 2510 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; (949) 494-2996. No wheelchair-accessible rooms.
Oak Laguna Beach Restaurant,1100 South Coast Highway, No. 202, Laguna Beach; (949) 940-3010. Wheelchair accessible.
Pacific Marine Mammal Center, 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; (949) 494-3050. Free. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Wheelchair accessible.