The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
Compared with much of Orange County, Laguna Beach (pop. 24,100) is a relaxed and enjoyable place. Bookstores, cafés, and galleries reflect the town’s beginnings as an artists’ colony, but while the beach and downtown area are still very attractive, the surrounding hills have been covered by some of the world’s ugliest tracts of “executive homes.”
During the annual summertime Pageant of the Masters (949/487-6582 or 800/487-3378, $20-158), Laguna Beach residents re-create scenes from classical and modern art by forming living tableaux, standing still as statues in front of painted backdrops. Proceeds go to good causes. It’s a popular event, so get tickets well in advance.
Right across Hwy-1 from the downtown shopping district, which is full of pleasant cafés and a wide range of art galleries, Laguna’s main beach (called simply Main Beach) is still the town’s main draw, with a boardwalk, some volleyball courts, and a guarded swimming beach with showers.
Many other fine but usually less crowded and quieter beaches are reachable from Cliff Drive, which winds north of downtown Laguna past cove after untouched cove; follow the signs reading Beach Access.
Laguna Beach has a number of nice places to eat. One place worth searching out is the small Taco Loco (640 S. Coast Hwy., 949/497-1635), at the south end of the downtown strip, where the ultra-fresh Mexican food includes your choice of three or four different seafood tacos, from shark to swordfish, in daily-changing specials from about $2 each.
Places to stay are expensive, averaging around $150 a night, and include the beachfront Laguna Riviera (825 S. Coast Hwy., 949/494-1196). At the top end of the scale, the Montage (30801 S. Coast Hwy., 866/271-6953, $595 and up) has everything you could want from a hotel.
South of Laguna Beach, Hwy-1 follows the coast for a final few miles before joining up with the I-5 freeway for the 65-mile drive into San Diego.