Laguna Beach California: Pauper or Billionaire, Everyone Looks the Same
By Max Hartshorne
We came full circle when we headed for the Ranch at Laguna Beach, which is a new resort featuring a beautiful historic golf course, right across from two spectacular beaches. Just about perfect!
Laguna Beach is a small town of about 22,000 residents, and it’s full of artists, bohemians, and free-thinking people who love being right next to the ocean. We were told that in the summer, Laguna is crazily crowded and that the traffic jams are the stuff of legend.
I could see why when I realized that the Pacific Coast Highway is the only road you can drive to get anywhere in Laguna.
Smaller streets run out from the main drag, but all of the streets run into the hillsides quickly.
I took a long hike high up above the pretty sandy beaches of the city with Doug Oyen, who runs La Vida Laguna, a company that brings corporate executives and tourists out into the wild for team building, and who has lived in Laguna for several years.
20,000 Acres of Wilderness
The city is proud to have more than 20,000 acres of wilderness, an entire canyon stretching all the way back for miles, which was preserved after the city raised more than $20 million to buy it from developers.
What this means is that as you drive down the highway, and later the surface road to get to the coast from Irvine, there is nothing but wilderness one side of the road…surprising in relatively crowded Southern California.
Having this vast wilderness nearby is a treasure that people like Doug surely appreciate, and on our walk, I was told that bikers, hikers are constantly enjoying this beautiful part of the city, all year ’round.
Besides this natural beauty, Doug told me that Laguna is a place where everyone is welcome, and you can’t tell the rich from the poor. “That guy in the convenience store might be homeless, or he might be a billionaire!” Doug said.
Justin Beiber and Warren Buffett
“People here don’t judge and they are from all walks of life.” Justin Beiber recently bought a place in Laguna. Looking down from the high mountain above the beach, we saw a house with a magnificent pool, upon the cliffs, that another millionaire owns.
Warren Buffett, too, has a property in this part of California….just up the coast in Newport, one of the toniest places in Southern California.
Yet the best thing we found about Laguna is that lack of pretension and a sense that everyone is welcome here. Well, everyone except developers. People we met told us how hard it is to get properly developed.
We were staying at a new resort, well, not new, just newly renovated from top to bottom. That is the Ranch at Laguna Beach, which is located across the Pacific Coast Highway from Aliso Beach park, and already was a beautiful nine-hole golf course called Ben Browns, built in the 1950s. It opened as a hotel in 1962.
A New Resort for 2016
Now a local developer, Mark Christy, who earned his money by his family’s invention, the Hobie Cat sailboat, has gutted the premises down to the studs and in 2016 they officially opened the 88-room luxury resort that includes a treehouse, perfect for a bridal couple.
Inside the new Ranch House are the Harvest Restaurant serving three meals a day, Ben’s Pantry for to-go provisions, coffee, and a full bar, and lots of meeting space.
We toured the Ranch with sales manager Jim Tolson, who showed us the former scout camp that’s out behind the nine-hole golf course, and he pointed up at a house perched on the top of a mountain.
“That guy didn’t want us to build anything here,” he explained. The legal wrangling went on for years until all parties were satisfied, but the end result is a lot of preserved open space and still, a gorgeous luxury resort.
The Pageant of the Masters
Laguna is a town that’s famous as an art colony, and there are many art galleries and studios here. But its crowning event every summer is the annual Pageant of the Masters, an eight-week festival that consists of 90 minutes of ‘living pictures.’
A professional narrator and vocalists, backed by a full orchestra and a cast of dressed-up actors recreate well-known pieces of art.
More than 250,000 people flock to Laguna to see these incredible displays of make-up, props, and sound that bring a Picasso, a Renoir or a Michaelangelo to life. It all takes place in a purpose-built outdoor arena, and it takes more than 60,000 hours of volunteer time to prepare the great spectacle.
Doug said it’s a spectacular show and said many locals enjoy being a part of the pageant every year. I just wish we had been in town to see it for ourselves! This year’s pageant will take place from July 7-August 31, nightly at 8:30 pm.
Dining in Laguna Beach
Being an artists colony and vacation destination means Laguna is well stocked in fine restaurants and we enjoyed interesting meals when we visited.
One dinner at Cafe Zoolu with local publisher Shaena Stabler provided us with insights into what the town is talking about.
Shaena publishes StuNewsLaguna.com, a local news website written by Stu Saffer, who both knows the town and loves its quirks.
Stabler said she ‘was searching for her tribe’ when she found Laguna, she grew up in the small town of Warrenton, Oregon. “It’s a great feeling living here,” she said, as we enjoyed swordfish prepared three different ways on one big plate. The huge portion was enough for us to share, and boy, it was good!
Michael Leach, cafe Zoolu’s owner for 23 years, told us about some of his famous guests who enjoy his hearty and creative seafood dishes. “Jackson Browne, Barbara Streisand, and others have all dined here, ” he said proudly.
“Traffic is the big concern in Laguna…in July when the Pageant of the Masters takes place, you just crawl up and down the PCH. Another issue is beach erosion, which takes slivers of the town’s beloved 22 beaches each year,” Stabler said.
We enjoyed another memorable meal at Sapphire Laguna, where a deck lit with an outdoor fireplace and sparkling lights invited customers to enjoy the ambiance. Sapphire is a bit on the pricey side, as is Zoolus, but they both offer an ambiance that is memorable, as well as top-quality seafood.
Early Morning Tidepool Exploration
We were visiting in February when the weather and the traffic were both mild, and it was warm enough to enjoy a day on the beach. There are 22 beaches here, and many have bathrooms and even snack bars. There are plenty to choose from for sure!
One morning we got up at the crack of dawn to meet up with Rachel Tajeda, who is a tide pool docent and manager of the Laguna Beach House. Another nice choice right on the beach is the Inn at Laguna Beach.
She leads these low-tide excursions to explore the secrets that lie below the shoreline, wearing water shoes and walking along the dramatic red clay cliffs of Treasure Island Park.
You have to time it just right, however, since the only time one can cross around the shoreline is at absolute low tide. Many crustaceans live here and it’s fun to explore in the precious early morning hours.
Laguna helps mitigate its traffic problems by offering a free shuttle trolley, that runs from September through June, and daily during the busy summer months. The trolley runs weekends between the Ritz Carlton at Dana Point up to North Laguna Beach, stopping along the Pacific Coast Highway, which is the city’s main street. With parking tight, this is the best way to get around town during the summer.
We received assistance from Visit Laguna Beach during our visit, but the opinions in this story are the author’s own. Find out more about Laguna at
Visit Laguna Beach.
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Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and does exactly what he wants to do every day.