Of all the sunny Orange County beach towns, Laguna Beach is probably my favorite. It’s a quintessential beach town with great food, interesting architecture and a scenic coastline that just won’t quit. Here’s what I like to do when I’m in the area:
Your first stop should be Hobie Surf Shop to outfit yourself like a local. This one-stop-shop is the Q to your surfer James Bond: aloha shirts, board shorts, hip surf tees, and every kind of beachside footwear imaginable (read: Vans and flip-flops). Vital beach gear like umbrellas, sun screen and boogie boards round out the selection. Thalia Surf Shop houses a similar collection and also offers surf lessons for fledgling kooks.
When you’re ready for the beach, head directly to Aliso Beach Park. When people use the phrase “nothing to write home about” what they really mean is that it is no Aliso Beach. The brindled sand is soft and clean and on a sunny day the color of the waves is a beautiful luminescent aqua. There’s even a few coveted fire pits for roasting weenies and s’mores come sundown. Bonus: clean restrooms and lots of them. The fact that the affordable paid parking area fills up fast should surprise no one.
The center of the action is at Main Beach where a boardwalk, basketball hoops, a new kids play structure, and an abundance of seating draws the crowds. It is the type of setting that people with ice cream cones naturally gravitate towards. What it does best is make you feel like you’re on vacation.
How to explain the appeal of California to Martians? Take them to Heisler Park. Its paved walkway meanders cliffside through landscaped hills and gardens that overlook a picture perfect cove. At every step, you’re treated to views of sculpted succulents, bright magenta blossoms and iconic palm trees that contrast perfectly against surfers gliding over the glistening waves below.
Further south, Treasure Island Park & Beach rivals Heisler Park for natural beauty, landscaped gardens, and vistas. Stroll along the cliffs that front the opulent, if not ostentatious Montage Resort. Descend any of the stairs for access to numerous pocket beaches with clear blue water and excellent swimming.
Laguna Beach is a pleasantly walkable town. As you stroll Pacific Coast Highway and the commercial center of town keep an eye out for two overlooked gems. The historic Water District Building has a gorgeous succulent garden that surrounds an ornately-detailed 1929 Spanish colonial building with fountains and vibrant ceramic tiles. Brown’s Park is a quiet landscaped alleyway that leads you to an expansive ocean vista. It’s a welcome respite from the crowds spread out on the busy beach below.
Grab your morning coffee or smoothie from California’s first juice bar, the Orange Inn. For lunch, check out Blue Fin where $35 gets you a 5-course meal of sushi and Japanese dishes. Or go SoCal healthy at 1970s holdover The Stand. Fresh juices and a vegetarian menu that stars a popular veggie burger have the flip-flop set lined up at this compact surf shack with outdoor seating.
For classic American fare flawlessly prepared, head to Nick’s any time of day. It’s the type of place that makes you wonder why there aren’t more restaurants like it. They serve archetypical salads, burgers, fish and brunch items in large portions within a comfortable and airy setting. The stylish sandstone interior and contemporary beach cottage facade feel perfectly at home in Laguna.
Come happy hour, a fresh citrus Margarita or a potent Caipirinha from Watermarc refreshes after a day in the sun. Make an early dinner of it with a sizable, half-priced burger that’s perked up by sharp cheddar and a decadent brioche bun.
Carmelita’s Kitchen churns out kick-ass Mexican food in a modern setting. They pull no punches as they layer savory dishes with spice and piquancy. Diners are immediately greeted with chips, salsa and a savory black bean dip, but don’t let that prevent you from ordering the killer guacamole. Carnitas, fish, steak, and enchiladas are all excellent. And the stars surely aligned when they concocted their popular grilled pineapple and roasted chile margarita.
Have grommets in-tow? Take ’em to House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer. It’s housed in an open and relaxed surf-themed atmosphere with the blue Pacific peeking through the windows. Kids get crayons and quesadillas. You get an impressive selection of beers and a chance to unwind.
For the complete Laguna Beach experience, shack up at 14 West, a stylish boutique hotel perfectly situated in the center of town. Rooms echo mini condos with kitchenettes, walk-in closets, deep soaking tubs and porches. A communal patio flaunts a hot tub, BBQ, dining table, and lounge chairs. Beach access is literally across the street and they’ll send you prepared with towels, beach chairs, and umbrellas.
Or try and snag one of the coveted Crystal Cove Beach Cottages. These restored, vintage clapboard bungalows conjure up a simpler time of wood-paneled surf wagons and beach blanket bonfires with the gang.
The endless summer of pictures continues here.