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In 5

Laguna Beach in 5...

 

Long before Laguna Beach was clobbered by reality TV, this southern California spot established itself as a stunning yet quirky getaway – think Zooey Deschanel, not Heidi Montag. In conservative Orange County, Laguna lured all sorts of creative types and nurtured a unique, cheerily dotty civic spirit.

Much credit must go to the knockout setting; one of California’s least-developed coastal canyons spills out to a bluff-lined cove. The village itself has a snug core of galleries, shops and restaurants, while swanky homes creep up the hills. With its beaches and hiking trails, polished resorts and scruffy taco shacks, Laguna wins over just about anyone.

5. … Skimming and Shopping

Laguna spreads out one heckuva welcome mat. All roads lead to the central Main Beach Park, which feels like the whole town’s backyard. A boardwalk winds between the sand and a crescent of lawn, and a stout 1920s lifeguard tower watches over the Pacific. There’s almost always a scrambling beach volleyball game on. You might even glimpse Gwen Stefani slathering sunscreen on her children’s shoulders. (She’s an OC girl, after all.)

You’ll likely also spot skimboarders gliding along the water’s edge; Laguna’s considered the home base of the sport. If you’d like to give it a whirl, head up to Victoria Skimboard (2955 Laguna Canyon Rd., 949-494-0059) for a rental. Fair warning: you’ll need a cat-like sense of balance!

Along the commercial main drags, you’ll find more evidence of Laguna’s welcoming vibe. At the corner of Forest and Park avenues stands a 1930s gate that announces, “This gate hangs well and hinders none, refresh and rest, then travel on.” A nearby statue commemorates Eiler Larsen, who was a self-appointed booster from the 1930s through the 60s, greeting everyone who came through downtown.

Forest Avenue is the hub for strolling and shopping, where you can browse among the board shorts and wind chimes before stopping at the Candy Baron (231 Forest Ave., 949-497-7508) to root through barrels of salt-water taffy.

4. …Surf the Galleries

Since the turn of the 20th century, Laguna’s been awash in oil… and watercolor, pastels, and modeling clay. When a permanent settlement started to coalesce in the early 1900s, fully half its residents were artists. Local landscapes were one of the great subjects of the California plein air painting movement and they’re still sparking inspiration.

Galleries, naturally, followed the easels and paintbrushes. Many cluster along North Coast Highway near Jasmine Street and on South Coast Highway near Mountain Road. While gobs of seascapes are to be expected, you’ll also find abstract oils, vintage posters, and glass octopi (we’re scratching our heads over that last one, too).

While you’re up on North Coast Highway, look at the banners on the Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Dr., 949-494-8971) to see what’s hanging. Recent exhibits spanned Wayne Thiebaud’s creamy beach scenes and the mod-tastic Shag, so you never know what you’ll find. If you’re here on the first Thursday of the month, you can join an evening art crawl around the galleries and the museum.

Plein air painting also infuses one of the coast’s sleekest resorts, the Montage Laguna Beach (30801 South Coast Hwy., 949-715-6000), a favorite getaway for Hollywood stars like Jennifer Aniston. Wander through the bluff-top, Craftsman-style hotel to find works by renowned landscape painters like William Wendt. Is the rarified atmosphere making you hungry? Book a table at the hotel’s Studio, one of the rare restaurants where the cooking is as great as the Pacific view.

3. … You Won’t Believe Your Eyes

One of Laguna’s most endearingly goofy artistic traditions doesn’t involve a canvas. The annual Pageant of the Masters (650 Laguna Canyon Rd., 800-487-3378), launched in the 1930s, turns the locals themselves into an artwork.

The event centers around tableaux vivants, “living pictures” in which volunteers pose in settings meant to recreate a painting or sculpture. The costumes, makeup, lighting, and backdrops are incredibly elaborate -- your eyes are truly fooled! Each pageant has a different theme, such as “eat, drink and be merry” or “on the road,” with a fresh roster of imitated artworks. One constant is a demonstration tableau, assembled before the audience. You watch the models climb into place and the sets get moved into position, yet when the lights come on the illusion is still complete. Lauren Conrad’s shellacked hair has nothing on this.

Performances are staged in an open-air amphitheater tucked into the hills and run through July and August. (Bring a cushion and a sweater.) The pageant is part of an annual arts festival; before the show you can look through dozens of artists’ stalls that spread around the amphitheater. Tickets are hot items so plan ahead.

2. … Become a Crystal Cove Castaway

If this isn’t quite enough of a small-town time warp for you, head north on the Coast Highway to Crystal Cove State Park (949-494-3539). Here, three miles of pristine beach stretch along the base of the cliffs. The rocks punctuating the beach make for great tide pooling, so try to come at low tide. You’ll spot plump, deep purple and bright orange starfish, spiny sea urchins, trundling hermit crabs, and constellations of sea anemones.

The only interruption? A group of adorably ramshackle houses, built right on the sand between the 1930s and the 1950s. These cottages, now an official Crystal Cove Historic District, are slowly being renovated and opened for summer rentals. These reservations are even tougher to come by than the pageant tickets, as families race to recreate the postwar Californian idyll.

There’s a café among the bungalows but an even better place to get a bite is the Shake Shack (7408 Coast Hwy, 949-464-0100), up on the bluffs near the staircase. Since the 1940s, it has specialized in date milkshakes, an old-school local treat. (Southern California is a major date producer.) To double down, order a Monkey Flip, a date shake loaded with chocolate syrup, banana, and peanut butter.

1. … Hit the Trail

If you can tear yourself away from the beach and shake the sand out from between your toes, look to the hills for another take on Laguna. The community is surrounded by a fragile green belt offering a rare chance to explore a coastal canyon.

As you drive along the twisting Laguna Canyon Road, look for roadside signs with cutout silhouettes of local creatures (butterfly, deer, and so on). These mark entry points to the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park (949-923-2235), a band of tawny rolling hills and weather-sculpted rocks.

Stop by the James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center at Little Sycamore Canyon for an overview of the ecosystem and trail network. The area’s threaded with hiking and cycling routes, where you can sniff the sage scrub and watch for hawks. Just keep your eyes towards the ocean when you reach the crest of a ridge -- you don’t want the sight of encroaching housing developments and Real Housewives to burst your bubble.