LAGUNA BEACH — California 133 doesn't look as though it means to go anyplace interesting after it leaves the San Diego Freeway about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles and cuts into the stubby San Joaquin Hills. But suddenly the canyon it follows widens and the town of Laguna Beach appears, followed in swift succession by the serpentine Pacific Coast Highway, beach and shining ocean.
A friend who grew up near here describes the sight of Laguna Beach on that approach as the perfect "oh, wow" moment. I initially missed it by driving south into town on PCH, which makes it hard to choose among the charms on the bracelet that is Orange County's Gold Coast: Huntington Beach, Newport, Laguna, Laguna Niguel and Dana Point. Wedged between the hills and ocean, with beaches at every turn, all look equally inviting.
Lately, though, little Laguna has distinguished itself. In February, Montage Resort & Spa opened on a sandy cove just south of town. This dreamy and expensive place joins the short list of height-of-luxury California coast hotels, including the Lodge at Torrey Pines, Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito, Bacara north of Santa Barbara and the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.
Better still, in the last 10 years or so more than 17,000 acres of stunning hilltop and shorefront land encircling Laguna has been set aside as nature preserves. Together with Crystal Cove State Park to the north and Aliso and Wood canyons to the south, the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park in the San Joaquin Hills above town buffers Laguna from suburban sprawl.
Beyond these new developments, the town has eccentricities that have long set it apart, beginning with the kitschy but beloved Pageant of the Masters, a festival of tableaux vivants based on great works of art, held every summer since 1935.
One of the participants in the 1949 tableau was Eiler Larsen, the shaggy-bearded fellow who came here in the '30s and took up a position at a downtown intersection saying hello to passersby every afternoon for 30 years or so. In 1963 the city proclaimed him Laguna's Official Greeter. Larsen died in 1975, so my official greeting was the hills coated with yellow wildflowers, as handsome as the English moors.
A parklike place
The midday drive from central Los Angeles took only 90 minutes or so because I missed the heavy traffic on the San Diego Freeway. Given a choice, I would have preferred a trip to Santorini or St. Tropez. But I could fit all the shoes I wanted in the trunk of my car, didn't need a passport and left home with just $40, fairly sure I would find an automatic teller machine along the way. Such are the benefits of a close-to-home getaway.
I was headed for the Montage. But when I reached the top of the hill that overlooks the mouth of Laguna Canyon, where the town is tucked next to a perfect crescent of public beach, I saw the sign for Las Brisas and made a sharp turn into the parking lot.
Like the Beach House to the south, Las Brisas is a view restaurant, situated on a cliff top, with prettily manicured Heisler Park in front, leading to beach access points north and a lawn bowling court. It was just about lunchtime, and seafood was on Las Brisas' menu, so I ordered crab and scallop cakes. They were hardly as good as the sight before me of clouds billowing over the ocean.
A 10-minute drive south on PCH, the low-lying Montage looks like a country club. It occupies a prime 30-acre beachfront parcel of land that used to be a trailer park and is situated so that all 262 rooms have an ocean view.
To appreciate the way the stone and gray-shingled complex spills toward the beach, you have to see it from the 7-acre seaside park, with wood benches, pavilions, pergolas, flower beds and artists at their easels. The city built the park, but the Montage donated the land and maintains it.
Montage President Alan J. Fuerstman, who envisions the resort as the flagship of a new chain of luxury hotels, says its California Arts and Crafts bungalow style gives the Montage "a sense of place that speaks to Laguna." He's a brave man to open a place like the Montage in the current economy.
Fuerstman's endeavor is one of several similar high-end resorts that have opened recently in the area, including the public part of the private Balboa Bay Club and Resort and the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. Since 1997 the number of accommodations in deluxe resorts on the southern coast of California has increased by 50%, says Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PFK Consulting, which monitors the hotel business.
We're talking rooms for $400 and up a night, leading me to wonder who stays there. But perhaps it isn't such a mystery. "Your fancy California coast places might benefit from the big trend toward regional travel," says hotel industry expert Harvey Chipkin. "A lot of people are not going to Europe and Asia. But, it seems, they have to go somewhere."