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How to Experience Southern California’s Unique Laidback Luxury
There’s an undeniably California take on luxury that’s distinct from what you might have experienced elsewhere. As a rule, it’s not fussy, and it’s never pretentious. Here, a day of indulgence may include a white-tablecloth dinner, but it may very well be preceded by a surf session, or marveling at the life in tide pools and enjoying the salt air on a calorie-burning walk. Here, before you enjoy an herbal wrap and a massage, you can play a round of golf on a breathtaking course that features the only two holes on the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. And while lots of places serve gourmet dishes, they’re less about elaborate sauces—it’s more about the allowing flavors of California’s fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs to shine.  

Dana Point and Laguna Beach are two towns that embody this unique mix of sophisticated and casual. This is due, perhaps, to the town’s histories as, respectively, a surfing capital and an artists’ colony. Today, world-class resorts look out over one of the state’s most beautiful stretches of coastline. Parks, trails, and beaches feature wide stretches of sand and hidden coves, providing plenty of opportunities to enjoy the sun and salt air. Restaurants here feature innovative dishes incorporating the best of the state’s bounty of produce and seafood. In fact, farm-to-table isn’t the latest trend here, it’s long been the norm—it just took the rest of the country a while to catch up.  

This five-day itinerary provides an introduction to a decidedly Californian take on luxury, with stops at some of Laguna Beach and Dana Point’s best resorts, restaurants, shopping, spas, and other sights. We expect that by the end of your visit, you’ll have a better grasp on this distinct attitude—and you’ll definitely enjoy the research.

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    Day 1
    Arrive in Laguna Beach
    Cultural and culinary highlights abound on this trip focused on the laid-back luxury of Orange County’s coast. Begin by checking into your hotel for the next two nights. The 259-room Montage Laguna Beach embodies a California take on luxury, beginning with its location overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a 30-acre property. Rooms—which just underwent a $22 million renovation—are done in a craftsman style, fitting the resort’s Southern California location, while the restaurant, the Studio, features the best of produce from nearby farms. Even the 20,000-square-foot spa offers a signature treatment that incorporates California wildflowers.  

    For someplace more intimate, consider the 23-room Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa, where the oldest of the hotel’s historic landmarked structures date back to the beginning of the 20th century. The Spanish-mission style buildings and all the guestrooms have been meticulously restored, most recently in 2016, while the Moroccan-inspired details create a magical oasis of glazed tiles and custom prints.  

    Spend some of the afternoon enjoying the amenities of your hotel—with a swim in the pool, wandering the landscaped grounds, or enjoying the ocean views from your bed. Later in the day you’ll head into town to visit the Laguna Art Museum, which houses one of the state’s most impressive collections of work by California artists. Laguna Beach’s history as an arts colony dates back to the early 1900s; this city by the sea has long drawn artists with its otherworldly light and incomparable setting. The museum incorporates the gallery built by the Laguna Beach Art Association in 1929 to showcase the works of some of the city’s pioneering painters. On Thursday evenings the museum is open late—until 9 p.m.—giving you plenty of time to admire the canvases. If your visit to Laguna Beach falls on the first Thursday of the month, you can also enjoy First Thursdays Art Walk, when around 40 galleries stay open into the evening, offering small bites, drinks, and artist meet and greets, and the museum offers free admission.   

    After you’re sated on art, head to dinner at one of the town’s many amazing restaurants. Nick’s Laguna Beach serves excellent renditions of classic American dishes, incorporating the best local produce, in a warm and welcoming setting. Just steps away, South of Nick’s Laguna Beach is the first restaurant’s Mexican sister, serving updated south-of-the-border favorites. Driftwood Kitchen overlooks the sea and dishes reflect the bounty of the Pacific, from the oyster bar to entrees like grilled swordfish, grilled octopus, or more casual salmon sandwiches. Sapphire Laguna’s menu offers a global tour, with dishes like Malaysian black pepper shrimp, Mexican cochinita pibil, and beef cheek bourguignon. These are just a few restaurant options—whatever cuisine or atmosphere you’re in search of, you’ll find one that perfectly suits your mood.
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    Day 2
    A Day of Sea and Spa
    After breakfast, choose between exploring the riches of Laguna Beach’s coast on a tide pool walk or visiting the Spa Montage at Montage Laguna Beach. If you opt for the former, you’ll get a close look at the town’s seven miles of coastline and some 30 different coves and inlets dotted with tide pools teeming with life. (Exactly when you go to the pools will be dictated by the timing of the tides—you want to visit them at low tide.) Main Beach and Treasure Island Beach have some of the most accessible pools, and often docents on hand to explain the dynamics of these unique environments. And if you want to get out on the water, take a lesson with La Vida Laguna or rent a kayak or paddleboard for the morning.  

    If a massage or an herbal wrap sounds appealing, the Spa Montage embraces a California approach to wellness in everything from its program of fitness classes to the ingredients used in treatments. The Couples Massage Escape and the Couples Romantic Journey, which includes a marine mineral bath, are ideal ways to spend the morning and get a relaxed California glow.  

    Later in the day, return to town and visit some of the almost 100 galleries, representing artists who work in a dizzying variety of media and styles. The Civic Arts District—which extends from the Laguna Art Museum up to the Sawdust Art Festival grounds—is proof that Laguna Beach’s heritage as an arts colony continues to this day. The city’s role as an arts destination includes not only being a place where many artists have created their works but also where collectors have long traveled to purchase their pieces. Gallery-hop using the Laguna Beach Trolley, a free open air shuttle service.  

    While you can explore Laguna Beach’s galleries at any time of the year, you may want to schedule your visit to coincide with one of the city’s many art festivals. Summer offers a culturally rich bounty with three great options: the Sawdust Art Festival, with demonstrations by local artists and live musical performances; the Festival of Arts, a juried art show; and the Laguna Art-A-Fair, which celebrates both locals artists and designers. You must also be sure to check out the one-of-a-kind Pageant of the Masters where you’ll watch art come to life! 

    Dine tonight at Studio. The restaurant overlooking the Pacific at Montage Laguna Beach features modern coastal cuisine with California influences on the ever-changing à la carte menus, chef’s tasting menus, and private dinners at the Chef’s Table created by Chef Benjamin Martinek. The setting—a dining room with ocean views and craftsman-inspired furnishings—is as captivating as the meticulously presented and always delicious fare served by the kitchen, as well as the perfectly paired selections from an extensive, carefully assembled wine collection.
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    Day 3
    Saturday Shopping and a New Hotel
    You won’t have to spend this Saturday morning running errands—you’re on vacation. Instead, spend the morning window-shopping for items you didn’t realize you needed until you saw them.  

    Part of the appeal of shopping in Laguna Beach is the many independent boutiques and stores selling the works of local designers and craftspeople, and which line the streets of the town’s compact shopping districts. As you wander among its stores, you’ll soon understand why Laguna Beach topped the list at #1 for Yelp’s Top 20 Cities to Shop Local in the U.S. in 2018.  

    Among the prime shopping areas you’ll want to stroll are Ocean and Forest avenues. On the former, Areo and Brass Tack are inviting stores filled with unique home items. At the Hobie Surf Shop on Forest, you can pick out a new board or some California surfer-inspired designs to wear. Black Bough, also on Forest, features a carefully curated and eclectic selection of items, from handcrafted soaps to handmade candle holders. Much of their inventory is produced by individual artisans in limited runs, so the items for sale are constantly changing.  

    Before heading to Dana Point, stop by the Laguna Beach Farmer’s Market, held every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to noon. While many locals come here to peruse the produce, the market also sells empanadas, sandwiches, and other light bites; you can also stock up on artisanal honey and jams as gifts or to fill your pantry back home.  
    A few minutes’ drive south will bring you to Dana Point for the second half of your Orange County getaway. Check into either the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa or the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel.  

    The 378 rooms at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, fresh from a resort-wide renovation, are a decidedly chic take on the Southern California beach lifestyle. Hardwood floors, palettes in tans and grays, and ocean views give guestrooms the feel of cool beach bungalows. Two pools, an enormous spa, and the OverVue lounge, with views of the coastline, round out the resort’s offerings. Outer Reef is the resort’s newest addition, scheduled to open this year. The restaurant will be helmed by John Tesar, a four-time James Beard nominee who has also appeared on two seasons of Top Chef.  

    Just a short ways up the coast, on the other side of the Dana Point headlands, the 396 rooms at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel also have a palette inspired by sand and sea. To make your stay even more memorable, you may want to opt for a room on the Club Level, where you’ll enjoy the use of an exclusive lounge and the services of a dedicated concierge staff. Among the highlights of the hotel’s offerings that all guests can enjoy are a long list of eco-adventures, a luxurious spa with 12 treatment rooms, and a collection of restaurants with menus designed by leading chefs. Don’t miss outdoor lounge at 180blũ–an inviting place to enjoy a cocktail while taking in the views of Salt Creek Beach.    

    If you want to get in a workout, the fitness center here has views of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. Or spend the afternoon enjoying some downtime at your resort, perhaps poolside with a good book or on the beach.  The resort’s beach butlers will provide you with all the essentials—chairs, towels, sunscreen, and more.  

    And take a stroll around the yacht-filled Dana Point Harbor—even if you chose not to sail to the city on this trip, you can admire some of the roughly 2,500 pleasure craft here. The harbor also has a selection of boutiques selling jewelry, fashion, and art. Afterwards, head to a local favorite for dinner. Coastal Kitchen sits just a few blocks inland from the harbor and serves some of the best and freshest seafood available. The pan-roasted salmon or halibut, crab cakes, and cioppino, a stew rich with shellfish, can be enjoyed with one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails or a California wine from the restaurant’s long list.
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    Day 4
    Resort Life
    Dana Point is home to some of Southern California’s most famous golf courses, and you can choose from several to play a round this morning. The Monarch Beach Golf Links is the most celebrated, thanks in part to its stunning seaside setting—greens sit atop bluffs overlooking the blue Pacific below. The par-70 course, designed by the acclaimed Robert Trent Jones, promises a morning of golfing that is both challenging and breathtaking; plus, guests of both the Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton have early access to reservations for tee times. Ben Brown’s Golf Course, at The Ranch at Laguna Beach, is a nine-hole course that also makes the most of its setting in the Aliso and Wood Canyons.  

    In the afternoon, a quick drive inland to San Juan Capistrano will take you to one of the state’s most atmospheric sites, the town’s mission. Founded in 1776 by Fray Junipero Serra, the Mission of San Juan Capistrano’s shaded arcades and splashing fountains create a romantic setting that evokes the days of old California. The mission is famous for the migrating swallows who return every March—like many other visitors to this part of California, they choose to keep coming back.  

    Later, enjoy treatments at your resort’s spa. The Spa at Laguna Cliffs, at the Marriott, is a 14,000-square-foot facility where you can enjoy the sauna, eucalyptus steam room, and whirlpool before meeting your therapist for a treatment. The menu includes a range of options, from massages incorporating oils that are fragrant with the smells of California to Maximum Indulgence, a two-hour journey with a scrub followed by foot, scalp, and upper body massages.  

    The Spa at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel turns to the sea for its healing properties. Marine collagen, sea salt, and beach stones feature in different treatments, which also use ESPA products. If time allows, combine the Pacific Wave massage with a Coastal Illuminating Facial and you’ll end your visit looking and feeling completely relaxed and rejuvenated. 

    For those who seek a path of mindfulness and reflection, the Miraval Life in Balance Spa at the Monarch Beach Resort is a breath of fresh air. The spa is a place to relax, reflect, and be in the moment. In this seaside retreat, you’ll find the space and time to be present and peaceful. The Monarch Beach Resort, of course, offers more than its spa, and is another tempting option if you want to stay there on this or your next trip. All of the rooms have been recently restyled, while suites include private balconies and spacious living areas. The hotel also has a beach butler service to cater to every whim if you choose to spend a day by the seaside. After you’ve worked up a thirst or an appetite splashing in the surf, the Monarch Bay Beach Club (exclusive to resort guests) serves cold drinks and seafood specialties prepared by Executive Chef Hansen Lee.  

    You’ll dine tonight at Raya, at the Ritz-Carlton. The many diners who appreciate Richard Sandoval’s spicy and flavorful pan-Latin dishes, will enjoy versions that incorporate the very best of California’s produce as well as locally caught, sustainable seafood.
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    Day 5
    Wake up to the sound of the surf on the final morning of your Orange County trip and enjoy your resort as long as you can before beginning the journey home. While you may find it hard to part, now that you have discovered this magical stretch of California’s coast, we expect you will return soon. After all, you’ve only dined at a couple of the area’s many amazing restaurants; there are dozens more in both Laguna Beach and Dana Point to choose from. Plus, the treatment menus at the spas you’ve visited go on for pages—other wraps and facials await. Both Dana Point and Laguna Beach can boast remarkably high numbers of repeat visitors, and you’ll probably find yourself one of them, too. It has likely become clear to you that if you’re going to discover a deeper understanding of Southern California’s distinct take on laidback luxury, more research will be necessary.