With a gently curving coastline and backdrop of steep, rocky cliffs slashed by deep canyons, Laguna Beach’s stupendous natural setting has long beguiled artists. A seaside town that attracts free spirits, Laguna Beach is an island set apart from the rest of conservative Orange County by hills and canyons on three sides and the ocean to the west and by the disposition of its inhabitants, who seem more creative than mercenary and unusually tolerant of eccentricity. Laguna Beach began in the early 20th century not as an ocean resort like neighboring communities, but as an artists’ colony that spawned the American plein air (painting outdoors) movement.
Today, it boasts scores of art galleries. While other beach towns host surfing competitions, Laguna sponsors three art festivals every summer, among them the venerable Festival of the Arts and its highlight, Pageant of the Masters. The art scene remains lively year-round, thanks in part to Artwalk — when on the first Thursday of every month, galleries offer tours and local artists leave studio doors open for visitors.
Enjoy an elegant luncheon in the garden at Sherman Library and Gardens, a colorful, lavishly planted, two-acre botanical garden bordering busy Pacific Coast Highway in nearby Corona del Mar. The Sherman Foundation maintains this quiet enclave as a setting for its research library of the Pacific Southwest. Reservations: (949) 673-2261, www.slgardens.org
Crystal Cove State Park stretches over three miles along the coast. Grassy terraces grace the sea cliffs, and the offshore area is designated an underwater preserve. It offers long walks along undeveloped shoreline and on upland trails in El Moro Canyon. Call (949) 494-3539, www.crystalcovestatepark.com
Laguna Art Museum, the oldest cultural institution in Orange County, emphasizes the development of modern art in California. Call (949) 494-8971, www.lagunaartmuseum.org
Airy and well-appointed, the sea-view rooms at the top-drawer Surf and Sand Resort cantilever over crashing surf on Bluebird Beach. The excellent Splashes restaurant serves unparalleled breakfast, lunch, and dinner right above the waves. Call (949) 497-4477, www.surfandsandresort.com
Inspired by plein air artists, Montage Resort is the first large-scale luxury resort to open here in a generation. It features an oceanfront spa, and the Studio restaurant offers a refined menu. (949) 715-6100, www.montagelagunabeach.com
The sleek, urbane atmosphere at Five Feet puts a contemporary spin on classic Chinese cusine by world-class chef Michael Kang. (949) 497-4955, www.fivefeetrestaurants.com
Other favorites include Las Brisas (www.lasbrisaslagunabeach.com), White House (www.whitehouserestaurant.com) and Woody’s at the Beach (www.woodysatthebeach.com).