This five-star beachfront hotel toes the line between being a hub of activity and a luxurious, only-in-southern-California hideaway. For restoration, head to the sprawling spa for a customized wellness-oriented treatment or a meditation class. Mind cleared, make your way to the onsite outfitter Compass Sports—where staff will coordinate local mountain biking, paddleboarding, hiking, and surfing expeditions—or to the palm tree–lined, mosaic-tiled pool. Big ocean views and a light, airy design define the 250 rooms; for guests seeking extra solitude and space, there are bungalow suites, which are essentially private beach houses. At the hotel’s three eateries, it’s all seasonal all the time, from the fresh morning juices to evening cocktails. That ethos peaks at the fine-dining restaurant, Studio, where executive chef Craig Strong creates elegantly plated French-meets-California dishes using locally sourced fish and meat, along with vegetables picked from the hotel’s 1,000-square-foot garden. Pro tip: In a setting this transporting, you almost want to break into song. Good news—the hotel will rent out mini guitars to guests for the duration of their stay.
This casual, open-air restaurant sits above an untouched stretch of Laguna Beach—and capitalizes on that beautifully. Floor-to-ceiling windows encircle the dining room so it appears to be floating above the ocean, all the better to watch the sunset while eating hand-shucked oysters and sipping Rum For Your Life cocktails. Chef Rainer Schwarz’s menu centers around seafood, prepared with a range of international influences—Spanish octopus is grilled with chickpea puree and za’atar, and lobster stars in a spaghetti carbonara. The spot draws a stylish crowd not just for dinner but also weekend brunch, with a must-try version of eggs Benedict (made with Berkshire ham and blood-orange hollandaise, plus steak or crab). While waiting for a table, sidle up to the Stateroom Bar, the former home library of Old Hollywood actor Slim Summerville, for artisan libations heavy on fine bourbon and whiskey. Pro tip: Locals know best, and they can’t get enough of the whole fried branzino, served with roasted shishitos and ponzu sauce.
Laguna Beach’s deep connection with the arts goes back in 1918, when 150 local creative residents started the Laguna Beach Art Association (the city’s population was only 300 then). That association went on to launch what’s now the Laguna Art Museum. Although the museum covers countless genres and eras, there’s one thing every piece has in common: They’re all made in California. The 3,500-strong permanent collection spans the early 19th-century to present day, from light and space installations to Pop Art (and also includes pieces by art-world stars like Ed Ruscha and Wayne Thiebaud). It’s rounded out by a handful of new California-centric exhibitions each year. Highly knowledgeable docents—all have completed an extensive nine-month training course—lead lively one-hour walk-throughs daily at 11 a.m. Friday to Tuesday; groups of 10 or more guests may book guided tours in advance. Must-do: Hit the museum on a Thursday night when it stays open until 9 p.m. and becomes a community hub, with lectures, film screenings, and live concerts in the galleries.
If anything’s endemic to Orange County it’s surfing—there are 40 miles of coastline here, after all. It’s not hard to find passionate practitioners of the sport, but doing is one thing and teaching is very much another. For newbies or even intermediate surfers looking to get back on a board, La Vida Laguna’s approachable, confidence-boosting instructors are the surest way to success. In private and semi-private lessons, their goal is to ensure that their surf pupils—starting from age eight—stand up on a wave, of course, but they also want to create more ocean advocates in the process. Wave safety and selection plus etiquette training are part of the lessons, along with pop-up drills, positioning, and gentle pushes at Thalia Beach, which has consistently calm waves for beginners. Guides also lead standup paddleboard lessons, hikes, and kayak adventures (expect frequent sea life sightings), tailoring and combining experiences upon request. Appointments are necessary and can be made on the phone, online, or at its historic craftsman bungalow in downtown Laguna. Local tip: For fewer surfers in the water, book a couple lessons on weekdays during the winter season.
When this wine-country style restaurant opened in the Laguna Hills in 2016, it was instantly embraced by locals. Maybe it’s the hillside location—no bikinis in sight—that allows diners to breathe easy and indulge. Maybe it’s the warm wood-clad dining room with its lively open kitchen. Or maybe it’s the craft cocktails and 25-plus international wines poured by the glass. Regardless, Ironwood is not the place to come while on a diet. The biggest reason: the house-made giant meatball, served with fresh, made-from-scratch herb pappardelle, spicy pomodoro sauce, and ricotta salata. Limited numbers are made each night, so it’s worth going early for (the dinner-only restaurant opens each evening at 5 p.m.). The menu also features American Wagyu burgers, mac and cheese skillets, pork shanks and fried green tomatoes with fresh burrata—plus colorful, palate-cleansing salads incorporating handpicked local ingredients. When the weather’s good, a retractable roof is pulled back from the heated patio to reveal views of the picturesque Saddleback Mountains. Must-order: the warm fromage blanc brownie with Nutella ice cream.
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