I discovered Laguna Beach about 13 years ago when InStyle did a cover story with Charlize Theron at the then brand new Montage Hotel, and I’ve been going back ever since. Located in Orange County, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, this gem of a beach town makes for an easy weekend getaway.
In the early 1900s, the area was accessible only by a winding canyon road but was still a favorite locale for silent filmmakers and Plein Air painters who loved its rolling hills, endless sunshine, rugged coastline and turquoise waters.
In the 1960s, Laguna became a bohemian community where surfers and hippies mingled with artists and writers. In more recent years, since the opening of some of the finest resort hotels in the state, the area has also become a bit of a playground for well heeled tourists from all over the world.
Here are some or my favorite places to stay, eat, and shop as well as a few great things not to miss!
Watch: How to Pack a Suitcase for a Long Weekend
Where to Stay
Montage Laguna Beach
The Montage in Laguna is one of my favorite getaways in the world. Yes, world. My family and I go there at least once a year—sometimes twice. The moment you walk into the lobby, you are greeted with a majestic view of the pool and ocean below, just beyond the cozy lounge where a pianist plays popular tunes (recently, it was the theme song to LaLa Land) and refreshing cocktails are served. Many an Instagram photo has been taken from this spot—just search #MontageLagunaBeach.
The whole feeling at this resort is luxurious but not too precious. They call it “comfortable elegance.” I call it, feeling like you’re a guest at your rich friend’s beach house.
Lounging by the gorgeous pool is a great way to relax, but there are plenty of other diversions.The 20,000 square foot spa is first rate—complete with its own adult pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and dozens of treatments to choose from, many with an emphasis on wellness.
Dining wise, The Loft is great for breakfast (California avocado tartine, bananas foster waffles, berry yogurt parfait), even if you just want to grab a cup of coffee. It boasts a great deck where you can relax with the newspaper—or your cell phone. The Mosaic Grill near the pool, is perfect for lunch (try the lobster salad, or mahi mahi tacos). Then there’s the foodie haven Studio, located at the foot of the property with panoramic ocean views. With an organic vegetable garden and high brow offerings such as Osetra caviar, roasted venison and a Guana Chocolate “sphere”, it’s definitely for those with more discerning taste buds.
But the best thing the Montage is its location. Nestled on 30 stunning acres, every room has an ocean or partial ocean view and the Craftsman-style architecture somehow perfectly blends in with the surroundings. There are also easy (I promise) hiking trails hugging the coastline in both directions, replete with gorgeous flowers and the beach, where you can explore tide pools, rocks and coves or take a swim is easily accessible.
30801 Coast Highway, 866-271-6953; montagehotels.com/lagunabeach Courtesy Montage Laguna Beach
THE RITZ CARLTON LAGUNA NIGUEL
When it first opened many years ago, I did a story about this hotel and while it was luxurious and impressive, I also found it a bit, well, too precious for a beach front property. It was just hard to feel completely comfortable walking through the tapestry and antique filled spaces in sandy flip flops. But in the ensuing years there were some major remodels and they really got it right. It’s now much airier, light and open—with a vibe of relaxed elegance.
Although I would prefer it if the pool were on the lawn above the ocean as opposed to being tucked into an inner courtyard, this is still a majestic piece of property on a 150 foot-high cliff with first class amenities and breathtaking views of the Pacific.
One of the coolest things about the Ritz are its friendly “beach butlers” who ferry you back and forth down the hill to the beach, set up your chairs, umbrellas and towels, offer food and beverage service and provide you with sun screen and bottled water. What’s not to love?
The food options here are numerous: elegant Raya, with pan Latin coastal cuisine; Eno Steak featuring prime pasture raised beef and fine wines; 180Blu, a sexy rooftop lounge; The Marketplace, where you can grab a quick latte and croissant and the Dana Pool café. There’s also a spa that incorporates soothing ingredients from the sea like algae and sea weed.
Current attractions include a custom-curated creative experience with the Ocean artist Wyland and in early September, in conjunction with the nearby music festival at Doheny State Beach, (featuring Eddie Veder, Jack Johnson, Haim and more) the hotel will host the Ohana festival, with Baja-inspired Food & Wine and live music.
1 Ritz Carlton Drive, Dana Point; 949-240-5088; ritzcarlton.com Courtesy The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
MONARCH BEACH RESORT
Fresh off a $40 million renovation, this is the place in town for true golf lovers, featuring an 18-hole course on 6,600 yards overlooking the Pacific, designed by Robert Trent Jones. Even if, like me, you’re not a golfer, there’s something peaceful about looking out over the lush green links rolling out to the blue ocean beyond.
And there’s plenty to do for non golfers too—three pools, a Mirval “life in balance” spa and activities such as a tall ship sailing adventure, jazz weekend and more.
Another plus is the vast array of dining options. There’s The Monarch Bay Club, serving classic California cuisine just steps above the pounding surf. To get here you have to hike down a long trail that hugs the golf course or hop on one of the hotel’s cute courtesy shuttles.
The Aveo Table + Bar boasts Mediterranean food and a great terrace with golf course and ocean views in the distance, while Club 19 boasts cozy fireplaces and big screen TV, just open the gold course’s first hole. The Mirival Spa Café serves up healthy in the spa garden while the Part & Parcel Market is the place for Grab and go coffee, pastries, yogurt and cute gifts. There’s also Sombra—poolside dining with a Mexican flare and the famed Stonehill Tavern where Chef Michael Mina offers classic tavern fare—including his famous lobster pot pie.
Bonus: All the rooms were renovated in 2015—with warm earth tones with splashes of soothing blues and greens.
1 Monarch Beach Resort N., Dana Point; 949-234-3200; monarchbeachresort.com Courtesy Monarch Beach Resort 1 of 3 Advertisement Where to Shop
This clothing store is like a hip, modern gallery filled with your chicest friend’s wardrobe artfully arranged by color. Owner Trey Russell is a true curator, who greets his loyal customers with a glass of wine or sparkling water and lets them peruse his array of carefully chosen pieces without breathing down their necks.
In addition to the sexy satin sheaths, cute jeans, crisp white shirts, cozy cashmere sweaters, colorful mohair throws, leather sandals and metallic sneakers, there are great gifts galore. Scattered artfully about are cool coffee table tomes, ceramic pottery by Mud Australia, Dyptique candles, Simon Pearce glassware and Nymphenberg table top pieces.
“You have to buy what you love," explains Russell of his refined taste. “What you really believe in.” I bought a peacock blue Nili Lohan dress and wanted to splurge on a Jamie Joseph ring with a pretty gray/blue stone but I curbed myself. Next time!
1155 N Pacific Coast Hwy; 949-497-8300; arislagunabeach.com Courtesy Aris Boutique
Boho beachy chic is alive and well at The Shop, which owner Jess Watson describes as, “A place where the surf vibes live!” She says her typical customer is a “Free spirited fashionable beach babe.”
There are scores of floaty flowery dresses, jeans cut-offs, sexy swimwear and plenty of accessories like straw hats, beach umbrellas and cool jewelry, such as Talon NYC’s zodiac sign necklaces. Featured brands include Spell and Gypsy collective, Amuse Society, Acacia Swimwear, Levis and Indah.
1020 S Coast Hwy; 949-715-8308; theshoplaguna.com Courtesy The Shop. Laguna Beach
This home décor shop with a modern flair offers eclectic and artsy items from all over the world, carefully chosen by owners Chris Oswalt and Martin Ulrich to reflect their functional yet stylish aesthetic. It’s a great place to find items to spruce up your own home: palm tree wallpaper, a cool red glider chair by Maarten Van, a French lamp that looks like a birdcage with birds—or pick up a unique gift: a George Nelson polygon clock, Orange Izipizi sunglasses, a Tom Dixon candle. My friend who lives in Laguna Beach describes the shop as ‘Danish Mid Century awesomeness!”
1550 S Coast Hwy.; 949-494-7547; vertigohome.us Courtesty Vertigo Home 1 of 3 Advertisement Where to Eat
SELANNE STEAK TAVERN
Eating at this cozy, two story cottage built in 1934 feels like eating at your friends home, and co-owner Teemu Selanne, former NHL hockey player for the Anaheim Ducks, apparently likes it that way. There are five different seating areas to choose from: The loft upstairs, the intimate wine library with a cozy fireplace, the tavern or outside on the veranda or terrace.
But the real reason to come here is the food. There are 8 different steak options, classic seafood offerings (Maine lobster, salmon) and plenty of classic comfort side dishes- baked mac and cheese, butternut squash. Don’t miss the 34-page drink menu and extensive wine list. This is a great spot for romantic dates or special occasions.
1464 S. Coast Hwy.; 949-715-9881; selannesteaktavern.com Courtesty Selanne Steak Tavern
THREE SEVENTY COMMON
This fun neighborhood restaurant owned by chef Ryan Adams, serves up new American comfort food such as deviled eggs, steamed clams and a “10-napkin” burger with cheddar, arugula, egg, bacon, mushroom, aioli and onion. Yum! But the eatery is known as much for its camaraderie and vibe as its tasty fare. If you buy a drink for a friend, they’ll put their name on a big chalkboard at the bar and your friend can redeem it any time.
Special events include a family style fried chicken dinner the last Sunday of each month (complete with mashed potatoes, gravy, coleslaw and more), “Wino Wednesdays”–a three course seasonal tasting menu with wine pairings and “brown bag” night where for $15 you get served a surprise bottle of wine in a paper bag. They also have an awesome drinks menu. Try “Lost in the Supermarket” a concoction of rum, watermelon, lime, vanilla, mint, basil and soda.
370 Glenneyre St.; 949-494-8686; 370common.com Courtesy Three Seventy Common
Broadway by Amar Santana
Although it’s mere blocks from the beach, Broadway has a distinctly New York vibe. There’s a neon sign, cinderblock walls steel rafters, exposed light bulbs, an open kitchen and a hopping bar where on any given night locals and tourists can be found sipping an array of cocktails with fun names like Berries Bitches, Monsters Blood and Shake Your Date.
The entrees include classics such as Maine diver sea scallops, dry aged duck breast and grilled pork chop but the small plates are super popular especially on Tuesdays when a huge tapas selection is offered. On Mondays, there’s a 3 course prix fixe menu that changes weekly and Wednesdays feature whiskey tastings. The desert to order? The Chocolate Praline Crunch—salted caramel ice-cream with a candied hazelnut.
328 Glenneyre St.; 949-715-8234; broadwaybyamarsantana.com Courtesy Broadway by Amar Santana 1 of 3 Advertisement What to Do
WHALE/ DOPLHIN WATCHING
Dana Point at the south end of Laguna, is known as the Whale Capital of the West, and from May through November the giant Blue Whale gathers here to feed. The Ritz Carlton features a “Biggest Show on Earth" Program where expert naturalists take guests on guided educational ocean tours aboard a catamaran, but other firms offer tours as well. Just google “Whale watching in Laguna Beach” for a variety of options. Courtesy Dolphin Safari
THE FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS /PAGEANT OF THE MASTERS/ SAWDUST FESTIVAL
Every summer hundreds of Orange Country artists convene for the Festival of the Arts to show their paintings, sculptures, ceramics, jewelry, woodworking and more. This popular festival also includes workshops, live music, tours and restaurants. But the main attraction is the Pageant of the Masters—a 90 minute show featuring humans dressed up as famous paintings to create tableaux vivants or living works of art. This year mark’s its 85th and the theme is “The Grand Tour,” celebrating the European tradition of continental travel in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s pretty impressive—from the lighting to the costumes to the sets.
Just up the canyon, is the more casual Sawdust Festival which features work by local Laguna artists only, in an array of mediums. It too offers live entertainment, classes and food booths.
Festival of the Arts/ Pageant of The Masters: July 7 – Aug. 31; 650 Laguna Canyon Rd.; 949-494-1145; foapom.com
Sawdust Festival: June 20 - Sept. 3; 935 Laguna Canyon Rd.; 949-494-3030; sawdustartfestival.org Courtesy Visit Laguna Beach
THE RANCH AT LAGUNA BEACH
While it’s also a “place to stay,” I included this rustic lodge in this section, because there is so much to do here besides sleep. It’s a cool venue to listen to live music, have a cocktail, or get in a nine-hole round of golf—and its mountain setting offers an alternative vibe to those of the other hotels in the area.
Originally a 152-acre homestead, then a golf course/country club, it’s now a newly refurbished resort popular for weddings and other events. Some of the activities include stargazing, cooking and mediation classes, garden tours, birdwatching, hiking, s’mores by the campfire, painting, “Vino and Vinyl” nights and game nights.
There’s also the low key Sycamore Spa, and the lodge-esque restaurant Harvest doles out “California Comfort Cuisine” such as Kuna Bay Salmon, Bloody Mary Mussels and a signature Harvest Burger. The hotel also just received National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World Award for its commitment to sustainability, authenticity and excellence.
S, 31106 Coast Hwy.; 949-499-2271; theranchlb.com The Ranch at Laguna Beach
Other Things You Can't Miss
The Organica margaritas at La Sirena Grill, gelato at Paradiso (don’t let the long lines deter you. It goes fast and is worth the wait) and the banana shake at Ruby’s Shake Shack are all musts. There are also watersports such as surfing, jet skiing and kayaking as well as hiking, biking and beach volleyball at Main Beach. For more info on these fun outdoor options, go to visitlagunabeach.com. Courtesy Visit Laguna Beach 1 of 4 Advertisement