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By the Sea: Laguna Beach, California

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In the second installment of our “By the Sea” summer destination series, TPG Contributor Drew Limsky assures you that you actually can go home again—to Southern California’s stunning Laguna Beach, where he spent several happy years.  

I absolutely adore Laguna Beach
I absolutely adore Laguna Beach. Photo by Drew Limsky.

Full (and proud) disclosure: I lived in Laguna Beach from 2008 to 2013. My place was across the street from the Heisler Park, which overlooks the Pacific, and sometimes I’d sleep out on my patio under a faux-fur blanket, listening to the waves and counting the palm trees above me (there were 17). So I’m obviously biased, but honestly, of all the accessible places in the world (it’s within an hour’s drive of three airports), I feel that Laguna Beach is the most beautiful. It has the best-tasting air in the world, and the scenery—coves, cliffs, rock arches and colorful foliage—is kind of a cross between coastal Italy and Hawaii. Happily, it also has a high concentration of top resorts.

Getting There

John Wayne Airport (SNA)—15 miles away—is the closest and very easy to manage; there’s valet parking, and you can get in and out very quickly. Long Beach Airport (LGB)—34 miles away—is also small and quaint, and a favorite for those who like to fly JetBlue. However, I always fly into Los Angeles (LAX) so I can take American Airlines nonstop from/to JFK. (Like The Points Guy, I’m an AAdvantage Executive Platinum, so if I get upgraded to Business Class, then I score a sleeper seat.) The drive to Laguna takes anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and a half in the unpredictable traffic along the 405 South.

Treasure Island Beach, one of my favorite Laguna Beach spots
Treasure Island Beach, one of my favorite Laguna Beach spots. Photo by Drew Limsky.

Where to Stay

The Laguna Beach area is home to two breathtakingly beautiful resorts, both set on the cliffs above the beach. The Montage, part of a growing luxury boutique chain that began here, boasts California Craftsman design and local plein air art that immediately conveys a sense of place. Overlooking the coves and cliffs of Treasure Island Beach—and a winding, beautifully landscaped park that was built at the same time as the resort, a decade ago—the Montage is known for its gorgeous grounds and signature mosaic pool, inlaid with the pattern of a sunburst over the waves.

pool and hotel
Pool at the Montage in Laguna Beach. Photo by Drew Limsky.

The spa here is one of the country’s best, with an expansive indoor-outdoor wet area, but for many, the resort is synonymous with its restaurant, Studio, which serves sophisticated French-California cuisine. My last meal there consisted of chilled oysters with white ponzu and a decadent crab and ricotta cavatelli. The service is flawless and well-choreographed yet warm and friendly. Nightly rates start at $995 during the summer, and American Express Platinum cardholders should be aware that the Montage is a member of American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, offering them exclusive benefits such as room upgrades and early/late-check-in.

Pool at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
Pool at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Photo courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton.

A few miles south of the town center, The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, one of the chain’s most popular, beautiful properties (featured in my recent roundup of the Best U.S. Hotels for Gay Weddings), occupies a commanding position above a famed surfing beach—an amazing view framed by the huge, arched windows of the resort’s Raya all-day restaurant. Ocean-facing rooms offer glimpses through the palm trees, while rooms on the ground floor feature the newish addition of outdoor fireplaces.

Room rates at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel start at 60,000 Ritz-Carlton Rewards, 50,000 Marriott Rewards or roughly $479 per night. The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card can not only help you bank Ritz-Carlton Rewards points quickly, but it also earns you automatic Gold status. (For more on this card and the Marriott/Ritz-Carlton redemption affiliation, check out this post.)

The Island Hotel in nearby Newport Beach
The Island Hotel in nearby Newport Beach. Photo courtesy of Island Hotel on Facebook.

Another points-accruing option is the nearby Island Hotel, which is awesome for shoppers, as it’s located at the luxurious Fashion Island Mall. The glam hotel offers sweeping views of the Newport Coast, a lovely pool, a fully equipped poolside gym and the year-old Oak Grill, a gorgeously festive al fresco dining venue. Nightly rates at the Island start at $269, but members of Preferred Hotels & Resorts iPrefer rewards program can book rates starting at $239, or packages that include complimentary upgrades and parking, hotel credits and more.

In addition, the Island’s listing on online booking portal Visa Signature Hotels allows holders of Visa Signature credit cards If you’re a Visa Signature cardholder (e.g., Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier, Southwest Premier, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines card, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve and US Bank FlexPerks), to score perks such as room upgrades, free Internet and breakfast and food and beverage credits.

Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa
Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa. Photo courtesy of Marriott.

Marriott Rewards options in the area include the sprawling Renaissance Club Sport Aliso Viejo Laguna Beach, which has a a full-service spa and rates starting at $159 or 35,000 points per night, and the elegant, clifftop Category 8 Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa in nearby Dana Point, which starts at $239 or 40,000 points per night.

The Cove, where Bette Davis once lived
Looking over Treasure Island Beach. Photo by Drew Limsky.

What to Do

Driving into Laguna Beach, there are twists and turns and high canyon walls, a startling change from the hardscape of the 405 Freeway. Open the windows and breathe the woodsy, salty air, and rest assured that Route 133 will drop you right off at Main Beach, which serves as town center. Check out the galleries, boutiques and eateries on Forest Street and on Coast Highway. Definitely stroll along Heisler Park, pause at its spectacular viewpoints and explore the beaches and tide pools below. Many of the best coves are hidden from the road. One of my favorites is Woods Cove, where Bette Davis had her Tudor-style weekend home. Just turn toward the ocean on the streets named after jewels—Ruby, Diamond, Pearl.

People rise early and get to bed early here, so breakfast is a big deal. The setting and buttermilk pancakes at The Loft at the Montage are incomparable. And a quintessential Laguna Beach experience can be found at the Orange Inn—it’s a surf shack, dating from 1931, that draws in locals for its breakfast burritos, smoothies and muffins.

I like Cafe Anastasia for its salads, fresh juices and quiet outdoor seating, while for gelato, the town has at least two fine choices: Gelato by Dolce, with its cool vibe and ever-changing menu of flavors, and Gelato Paradiso, where you can smell the fresh-baked cones from a block away.

Every summer, the Festival of the Arts is a huge draw for its art shows and nightly outdoor “living pictures” performance called The Pageant of the Masters. Throughout the village, trolleys run for free.

Ever been to Laguna Beach? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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