Laguna Beach, and its gorgeous coves and sunsets, is one of the first beach resort areas in Orange County — becoming perfect fodder for watercolors and oils as early as the 1800s. By the 1920s, the city of 300 had more than half of its population listing its occupation as “artist.”
Laguna is still considered an artists’ colony: The county’s very first art museum, founded in 1918, still stands sentinel at the city’s northern entrance as the Laguna Art Museum. Scores of art galleries dot Pacific Coast Highway. The city boasts a beautiful public-art program (second largest in the county), with more than 80 pieces hidden off sidewalks and under shady trees. Art schools line the canyons. And summertime brings out scores of plein-air painters, who still stand on the coves and canyons — much as they did in the 1800s — to capture the beautiful sunsets and coastline.
Modern-day Laguna continues the art tradition into several festivals in the summer. From late June to the end of August, the canyon is abuzz with three famous festivals: The Sawdust Art Festival showcases more than 170 local craftspeople and artists in a vibrant atmosphere with popcorn, live music, magicians, jugglers and outdoor cafés. Next door is the fine-art, fine-dining experience of the Art-A-Fair Festival, which features about 130 artists, national and international as well as local. Across the street is the elegant Festival of Arts, a juried show that features about 150 local artists for eight weeks every summer. Live music fills the air at FOA in the evenings, and the bougainvillea-strewn Tivoli Terrace restaurant on the grounds presents live jazz nightly. A free trolley transports visitors to all three festivals during the summer months.
One of Laguna’s most unusual summer shows, however, comes alive when the stars come out: The Pageant of the Masters. Tickets go fast for this event every year (we get ours at Christmastime!). It was originally called the Tableaux Vivants (or “Living Pictures”) when it originated in the 1930s. (Bette Davis even posed as part of the cast in the 1940s when she was a Laguna resident.) In this remarkable event, actors step into life-size paintings and sculptures that – with the magic of makeup and lighting – look stunningly real. Guests bring binoculars to see if they can catch the actors breathing and blinking, but even the binocular-gazers have a hard time believing they’re not looking at a life-size painting. A professional orchestra and humorous narration contribute to a spectacular show.
Not into art? No worries. Laguna has plenty of other fun, too: There’s plenty of shopping up and down Pacific Coast Highway (be sure to get to Tippencanoes in south Laguna); “hidden” beaches (Agate Street beach, Treasure Island, and Thousand Steps are all known for secluded beauty); great tide pools (low tide) and snorkeling (high tide) in the coves below Heisler Park; and constant volleyball and beach-blanket fun at Main Beach.
If architecture and history are your thing, be sure to pick up a free “Heritage Walking Companion” at the Visitors Center on Broadway and take one of Laguna’s historical walking tours. If you only have a minute for history, you can get a glimpse into Laguna’s story by strolling through the historic photo gallery in the lobby of Hotel Laguna (next to Main Beach).
Evenings get hopping with the date-night crowd who pop in and out of the downtown bars up and down Coast Highway. If you’re there on the first Thursday of any month, you might like to try the free First Thursdays Art Walk (6 to 9 p.m.), where galleries stay open late with refreshments and live music, inviting browsers to see special exhibits or to meet some of the featured artists.
There’s so much to do in Laguna, in fact, that many a local will confess to packing a suitcase to travel … well … okay, down the street, basically, to spend a weekend in this seaside town. We’ve done it a few times, at the recommendation of my former Register editor. Even though it’s just down the street, it makes you feel like you’ve traveled to a remote ocean village, complete with charming cottages, romantic coves and a laid-back, artsy feel.
Where to park: Parking is a little difficult here, especially in the summer months, but if you drive around for awhile, you can always find something. There are meters in Laguna proper, as well as lots that run $7 to $10. Free parking can be found in the far southern realms of PCH (you can take a trolley up to Main Beach in the summer), as well as in some of the residential communities behind Forest Ave.
What to bring: Coins for parking meters, water bottles, sunscreen, jackets in all but summer months — it gets chilly near the ocean here. Strollers okay. You can bring a picnic lunch for Heisler Park or Main Beach, but be prepared to haul it from wherever you park. Older kids may not be able to resist going down to the ocean, so bring towels and an extra change of clothes. Ice cream shops are an easy stroll, so snack money might be in order.
Best time to go: Spring and fall are best if you want to avoid crowds. In summer months, the free trolley is running, which is nice to get around. All art festivals are summer only. Saturdays year-round can be crowded with weddings at Heisler Park.
Are you a Laguna Beach fan? What’s your favorite part of this seaside town?