Just as Maui has long lured artists and musicians, Laguna Beach, arguably the most charming of Southern California’s many shorefront towns, offers a unique blend of culture and nature. Artists began coming to this part of Orange County, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, at the turn of the 20th century to paint the landscape en plein air, a French expression for painting outdoors in natural light. Today the city counts 100 galleries, theaters (Laguna Beach Playhouse is known to hire on-their-way-up Hollywood talent), and numerous art festivals. None of it would be here if it weren’t for the 20 coves and beaches that edge seven miles of shoreline, inspiring beachcombers, sea kayakers, tide pool explorers, and, of course, painters.
Eat Smart: California’s agricultural bounty and artisanal foods star on the plate at worth-the-splurge Studio (949-715-6420) housed in a Craftsman-style cottage at cliff’s edge on the grounds of Montage Laguna Beach resort. Chef James Boyce’s ever-changing menus reveals a special affection for produce (look for the six-course vegetable tasting menu in summer). On the other end of the budget spectrum, stop by The Stand Natural Foods (949-494-8101) for vegan fast food like rice and bean tacos and organic smoothies to fuel an afternoon at the beach.
Be Fit: Paddle with La Vida Laguna (949-275-7544) on guided, two-hour ocean kayak tours that get you close to California sea lions basking on the rocky headlands. Or explore those rock shores from the terrestrial side at Crystal Cove State Park(949-494-3539), where you can poke around tide pools in search of sea stars and urchins.
Live Well: Aim to make the grand tour of Laguna’s many art galleries on the first Thursday of every month when galleries stay open late; a shuttle bus links participating dealers (949-683-6871, www.firstthursdayartwalk.com). If you miss Thursday’s tour, take a crash course in California art―from the original en plein air artists to today’s contemporary masters―at the Laguna Art Museum (949-494-8971).
Where to Stay: You can’t get any closer to the beach than at Surf and Sand Resort (rooms from $395, 888-869-7569) set on 500 feet of wave-lapped shore. Balconied beach-front guestrooms evoke a breezy beach house with shuttered picture windows and awning-striped furniture. The resort’s restaurant Splashes overlooks a mesmerizing wave break from 25 feet above, and the expansive spa features a garden for relaxation, a yoga studio, and soothing massages with heated sea shells. Alternatively, you can save money and still live the coastal lifestyle at one of two cozy Laguna Magical Cottages (from $180, 949-494-4554) with wood fireplaces and oceanview decks.