Laguna Beach: Cool country on the Southern California coast

Laguna Beach stretches 9.1 square miles, complete with 20 coves and pristine beaches. (Courtesy

By Ed Boitano

Each blistering summer, the Terry and Jackie Nishimoto family of Scottsdale loads up its Volvo station wagon for a one-week vacation to one of California’s most spectacular and cooling destinations.

The Nishimoto’s destination of choice is nestled along the Pacific Ocean, less than a five-hour drive from Scottsdale. Their home for the week is Laguna Beach – The Riviera of California.

“It’s easy to forget, all the world-class attractions we have in the Southwest,” says Terry, with a laugh. “People travel from around the globe to experience Laguna, but it’s almost at our doorstep. Laguna is just far enough away to make us feel that we’ve gotten away – plus we save tons of money not having to pay plane fare and car rental. We love the beach and restaurants, and my wife and I like to slip off and explore all the galleries. Catching up on my reading on the beach is the main thing that helps me decompress. “

Terry was right. We’re lucky to live in the Southwest. There is so much here that is easy to take it for granted. But the brutal heat of a summer in Scottsdale does take its toll. And did Mr. Nishimoto say something about catching up on my reading on the beach? So, my wife and I decided to emulate the Nishimoto trek and spend a week in this vacation paradise to see for ourselves. But first a little research was in order.

Back story

Laguna’s history dates back to the arrival of the Ute-Aztecas Tribe (later referred to as the Shoshones). Attracted by the plentiful supply of fish and shell fish, they also hunted deer in the surrounding canyons. They referred to the area as Lagona (lakes), due to the fresh water lakes in the canyon. In 1933 a 17,000-year-old-skull was found in Laguna, indicating their early presence in the area. In the 1800s, the Spanish titled the area “Canada de las Lagunas” (canyon of the lakes).

Laguna’s first Anglo-American settlers arrived in 1870, followed by tourists who came for the cool ocean breezes as a reprieve from the southwest’s brutal inland weather. Accommodations were in tents, but this all changed with the building of the Hotel Laguna in 1889. Now christened Laguna, the area was on its way to becoming a popular tourist resort.

Hollywood was not immune to Laguna’s charm, with the likes of Bette Davis, Mary Pickford, Judy Garland, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Rooney maintaining homes in town.

Laguna was transformed into an arts community when painter Norman St. Clair set his eyes on this stunning landscape. He was so taken by the beauty of the area that he spread the word to his artist colleagues. Today Laguna boasts over 100 galleries, the Laguna Art Museum, Sawdust Festival, Art Walk and the Pageant of the Masters, a once-in-a-lifetime re-creation of paintings, staged using real people. The city fathers have established several measures that ensure slow growth and preservation of Laguna’s terrestrial and marine environments.

On to Laguna

My wife and I piled into our car at 9 a.m. in Scottsdale. Highway 10 was wide open, and we flew down the road with anxious anticipation. Not to interfere with our schedule, we decided to save Joshua Tree National Park for another trip, and before we knew it, we were at Laguna Canyon Road, the northern gateway to the Village.

We checked our watches: we had made it in four hours and 10 minutes. We were already impressed as we cruised down this “road to heaven” that cuts through the canyon to the Village. The first thing we noticed was the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, a seemingly endless array of connecting hiking trails which had to offer awesome coastal views. Somewhere in the canyon were the remnants of the old Timothy Leary Mystic Arts compound. I made a note that we should check it out, but then decided that that part of my life should stay in the 60s.

Soon, we passed the Pageant of the Masters and Sawdust Festival sites and then arrived at the tree-lined streets of the Downtown Village, complete with aforementioned galleries, quaint boutiques, restaurants, palatial resorts, intimate bed and breakfasts and seaside cottages. Then we saw it – the Pacific Ocean. Paradise found. We couldn’t wait to explore the 20 coves and pristine beaches, stretching 9.1 square miles. Yes, we could spend some serious time here.

Our accommodations were at Sunset Cove Villas, a collection of luxury themed villas, nestled on a bluff overlooking the ocean in the heart of the village. We scored big time by booking the two-bedroom, two-bath, fully equipped Seychelles Villa – a mere few steps to the beach. Furnished in leather, teak and bamboo, our home for the weekend featured large glass windows with breathtaking ocean views from the living area and master bedroom. Was that a complimentary bottle of champagne in the fridge? We could have stayed there forever, reading and luxuriating on the private deck, with the sound of cool ocean breezes and rolling waves in the background, already echoing the Nishimoto’s sentiment.

Later we remembered there was an important appointment on our schedule – a painting class at the home of the Sawdust Art Festival. The intimate class was conducted by John Eagle, a former stockbroker who became a full-time painter in his mid-fifties. Nationally known for his colorful paintings of the natural Laguna Canyon and beach settings, Mr. Eagle is listed in “Who’s Who in American Art.”

After a few brush strokes, it became clear I was not destined to be another Monet, but John was patient with me and I found the experience both insightful and, above all, relaxing.

After a week of reading, beachcombing, strolling through the village and gallery hopping – which featured a few of Mr. Eagle’s inspiring impressionist-style paintings – I concluded that an annual trek to Laguna Beach, the ultimate setting for a summer vacation – would now be part of our lives.

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Pageant of the Masters:

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