Laguna
Montage Laguna Beach is major retreat to luxury

No matter how long it is until Christmas, start saving now for a gift that we think trumps almost anything we can imagine for that hard-to-buy-for Significant Other. Forget the clothes, the jewelry, the flowers and the candy — nothing will say "I love you" like a weekend at a California resort so magnificent that it takes you to an entirely new world. Montage Resort beach

The resort we're referring to here is Montage Laguna Beach, an incredibly elegant enclave built on one of the most scenic stretches of coastline in Southern California. Located in Laguna Beach, this resort has quickly risen from obscurity to the kind of international prominence enjoyed by only a few properties of distinction. Montage Laguna Beach already has climbed onto Top Resorts lists for many well-known travel publications.

Of course there is no need to wait until Christmas — any other special occasion will do. But the experience at the Montage — and, for many of us, the price — makes this one of those spa vacations you'll want to carefully plan, fondly anticipate and then thoroughly savor every hour that you are a guest. If you're the type who routinely visits spa resorts, you won't find better pampering than at the Montage.

The arts community of Laguna Beach is one of those places where just driving through town is a scenic tour all by itself. The Pacific coastline in this area between Los Angeles and San Diego offers new ocean vistas around every corner, the green hillsides jutting up from the water to create perfect view property that now has expensive homes on just about every square foot. The Pacific Coast Highway twists and turns through this landscape for miles and miles, making it a 20-minute drive just to get from one end of Laguna to the other.

Just south of the art galleries, restaurants and designer boutiques of downtown Laguna is a section of coastline that seems as if it was created for a hotel. Situated on those 30 acres — and, yes, right on the beach — is Montage Laguna Beach, a 262-unit hotel whose designers have obviously paid close attention to period elements such as stonework, dark woods and a shingle-style roof. If it weren't so new, the resort would look old — if that makes any sense.

The staff of this Gatsby-like resort hotel is put through a two-day training seminar that focuses just on service — and we noticed the results immediately upon arrival. We were greeted cordially by the valet staff, then guided personally into the lobby area where we were introduced to our own hotel representative, who in turn took us immediately to our suite. We were in our suite luxuriating — enjoying a complimentary bottle of chilled champagne and gazing out over the Pacific Ocean — roughly 10 minutes from the time we pulled into the driveway. Montage Resort breakfast

Our suite was a treasure trove of special touches and it seemed as if we were making little discoveries from the time we checked in until the time we checked out. For example, how many hotels have you stayed in where the hotel has a catalogue for you to order take-home towels, linens, robes and even mattresses just like the ones you just used during your stay? Or how about a sisal bath brush "made with palm fibers from plants that are hand-harvested and replanted each fall in Kenya." The list goes on.

The rooms are done in muted colors — ours had a kind of key lime green and white trim motif — and walls are abundantly adorned with artwork from local artisans. Complete DVD/CD entertainment centers were in each of our two rooms and this particular suite included two walk-in closets. As one would expect, the king bed, the 400-threadcount bed linens, the goose down pillows — well, frankly, everything in the room — were of the highest quality. The main bathroom featured marble on the vanity counters, the bathtub enclosure and in the walk-in shower. Awaiting the new guest were an array of toiletries, oils, soaps and even candles to light while soaking in the oversize bathtub.

All of that is well and good, but one of the biggest reasons this resort is worth the expense is the dazzling, panoramic waterfront view. Our suite's balcony was larger than most hotel rooms and offered a secluded sitting area to relax on wicker furniture and enjoy the views of the ocean and beach area below. Just below our suite was the spa lap pool where guests were basking in the coastal sun while sipping drinks brought to their lounges. Nearby is the even more expansive main pool — a favorite with our four-year-old.

If you're looking for the best in California beach vacations, look no farther.

In essence, Montage Laguna Beach has been creating a new luxury hotel brand since it opened in 2003, and another Montage has now opened in Beverly Hills. This kind of total luxury demands that the resort include—in addition to fine accommodations—two other major items: gourmet cuisine that seems to go beyond the cooking of Montage Resort roommere mortals, and a Spa to help you at least feel healthy about consuming all of those extra calories.

The two dinner houses on the property seem to compete with each other for the best and most creative cuisine in Laguna.

The Spa Montage is a cut above many spa resorts. It's not your garden-variety spa but rather a retreat-within-a-retreat where guests can select from water therapies, seaweed mineral baths, muds and clays and other treatments all administered by trained spa therapists. Also included: a full beauty salon, lap pool and, of course, the breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean. From personal experience, we can tell you that the massage therapists know what they're doing, and you'll want to consider one of these one-hour sessions while you're enjoying your resort fantasy.

Not far from the resort is Laguna's small, but busy downtown area -- a fascinating look into the world of California chic. SUV's, Hummers and every European car you can imagine are lined up for miles on any given weekend day as people come from all over this part of California to see or be seen. Walking along Forest Avenue, you'll find a cross-section of people except that this group is disproportionately young, female and hip to the latest fashions. Laguna has art galleries, it seems, on every corner while trendy shops offer the latest in fashions or various types of eclectic merchandise.

Over by the water, families plop down on the wide beachfront while a steady stream of visitors stroll the meandering boardwalk that divides the beach from downtown. A beach volleyball game is never far away but the further you walk south toward Montage Laguna Beach, the fewer people. In certain sections of Laguna, it's reminiscent of Hawaii with the wide beaches, gentle surf and lush hillsides. Waikiki is a great example, which if visiting in the future it will be important to find a great Waikiki hotel to fulfill your accommodation needs.

It's all quite a package: luxurious resort, charming arts community, picture-perfect postcard scenery. Just the perfect Christmas gift -- that is, if you can wait that long.

AT A GLANCE

Montage Resort pool

WHERE: Montage Laguna Beach is located in Laguna, about midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. If beaches and pampering are what you're looking for, this is your kind of Southern California vacation.

WHAT: A stylish beachfront resort that has won numerous awards from several prestigious magazines. The location is one of the best in Laguna Beach — or Southern California, for that matter. Incredibly, up until a couple of years ago, this property was a trailer park.

WHEN: Any time of year. Travel deals and vacation packages may be available at certain times of the year, so always check.

WHY: The resort is built around its service — most front-line employees were hired not because of their hotel experience, but because they stood out in a service industry. Each employee is required to take a 100-question test on everything from the types of trees on property to the dinner times at the Loft. This is the stuff great spa vacations are made of.

HOW: For more information on Montage Laguna Beach, go to www.montagelagunabeach.com or phone (888) 715-6700. For a list of other recommended Laguna Beach hotels, please click here.

(Editor's note: CaliforniaWeekend.com is California's leading source of information on getaway travel in the Golden State. Visit the site often to find the latest getaway specials, a comprehensive list of resorts and lodgings and to use the Getaway Machine travel calculator to match up your needs and preferences with exactly the right lodgings and location.)

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If the Montage is your idea of a California vacation, check out California Weekend articles on other spa resorts: La Quinta, Laguna Cliffs Marriott, and the Historic Mission Inn.

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