Laguna Beach
Upscale SoCal enclave well worth a visit
The city of Los Angeles -- with its modern glass and 1 steel and endless driving through suburbs before you even leave what really is one large, flat Southern California metropolis -- sometimes can be overwhelming to the visitor who just wants to sample the SoCal sun from the vantage point of one of the area's many charming beachfront communities.

One of the most charming is Laguna Beach, worth the hour or so it takes to drive from the center of the metropolis and well worth considering as a base of operations for at least part of your next visit to the Southland.

Located in Orange County, Laguna Beach hugs the dramatic hillsides overlooking the Pacific Ocean and stretches for several miles down the coast. A lot of people compare Southern California's climate with the Mediterranean and so it's fair that Laguna Beach might well be compared with the French Riviera and some of the spectacular locations along that sun-drenched coast. If ever there was a place to build a coastal city, Laguna Beach is it – beaches, an ocean that beckons the soul, and colorful, varied topography that seems to wall off this enchanting community from the rest of Orange County.

Over the years, Laguna Beach has been built up to include some of the area's finest tourist amenities, from world-class restaurants to luxurious beachfront hotels. The city has become an artists' enclave with dozens of galleries located throughout the downtown area and special events that attract renowned artists from far and wide. Once you experience the incredible vistas from just about every part of town, you start to understand why artists flock here to let that ambiance help guide their creativity.

Laguna Beach might be considered a rich man's Waikiki – yes, it still has the look and feel of a beach community and its location means you're never more than a few footsteps from the sparkling blue sea that reflects the sun that is almost always in full view with the exception of a little gray during morning hours in May and June. Its palm trees and steep hillsides also give it that island feel, especially apparent when the area greens up with more-than-usual rainfall. On any given day, tanned and well-sculpted 20-somethings are playing volleyball on the beach right in the center of town.

But the comparison ends there, as visitors find most shops and restaurants to be more upscale than the average Waikiki amenity. Ticky-tacky tourist shops are held to an absolute minimum. Instead of rental cars or taxis, the narrow roadways snaking through Laguna Beach most often are populated by BMW's, Mercedes and other expensive imports or, for those slumming it, top-of-the-line, leather-trimmed SUV's made in the U.S.

But lest you get the idea you can't afford Laguna Beach, there are enough hotels in town to keep at least some of the prices at a reasonable level. Some downtown hotels offer rates that are even conducive to bringing the entire family – just don't plan on coming during the busiest holiday weekends or during events like the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters each summer. If you do plan to come for those special events, just be sure to plan way ahead because hotel rooms can be in scarce supply.

If you're visiting either Los Angeles or San Diego, Laguna Beach is an easy drive and should be high on your list of Southern California must-sees. From Los Angeles, your route will take you through Newport Beach, another upscale enclave that's quite visitor-friendly and worth stopping off. From San Diego, the drive up Interstate 5 through Camp Pendleton is one of the most scenic in California with panoramic views of the coastline for the entire 20 miles between Oceanside and San Clemente. In fact, San Clemente itself is worth a stop with a fun downtown business district and a charming village down at the San Clemente Pier. Famous San Juan Capistrano is in the area as well.

Another option is to fly directly into John Wayne Airport in Orange County, rent a car and, in less than a half hour, you'll be in gorgeous Laguna Beach, enjoying the best of what Southern California has to offer its sun-starved visitors.
RECOMMENDED LODGING: Laguna Beach lodging
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