laguna beach
There aren't many photos more distinctly Californian than the clifftop homes in Laguna
Greg Ortega / Unsplash
By Claire Young / July 18, 2019 11:07 am

Stipulated: the perfect travel time for a three-day weekend getaway is four hours. More, and you waste your vacation. Less, and you’re still near home. Hence our series, The 4-Hour Rule, dedicated to revealing the best destinations that are far away, yet still close to home.

It goes by the name Laguna Beach. That Orange County burb smack between LA and San Diego. It might conjure up thoughts of your one coworker that leaves the office really early for the commute, or maybe it’s the shimmering backdrop of a TV show you once very guiltily binged.

Regardless, if you aren’t thinking of it as the laid-back locale of your next indulgent weekend getaway, you’re doing it wrong.

The home of LC, Kristen and Stee-Fen is an artist’s refuge, a surfer’s paradise and a burnt-out Angeleno’s respite. There’s amazing food, breathtaking views, a lively art and music scene and beaches, beaches, beaches. 

An added bonus for the road-weary: Laguna operates a free, open-air trolley service running daily from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Once you’re there, ditch the car and use the real-time app to hit the streets with zero responsibilities. Can you feel your heart rate lowering as you read this?

Keep it simple and follow our guide to doing Laguna Beach right. Just head down the 405 and follow the instructions below. The locations, the people and the drama … are real. (That’s the last Laguna Beach reference, promise.)

A room at the Hotel Joaquin (Roger Davies)

STAY: Hotel Joaquin

Not convinced that LB is more than a day trip? Hotel Joaquin makes the case for spending the night. The 22-room “petite resort” appears ripped from Instagram. Revamped from a former life as a dilapidated motel and located right off the PCH, each room is decorated with a style that can be described as eternal summer meets the south of France meets mid-century modern. It’s literally in Vogue, which described it as the hotel “you’ll never want to leave.”

The onsite Mediterranean restaurant, Saline, is for guests only and might be reason enough to book a room. If you make it outside, at the private beach guests can access complimentary surfboards, diving gear, bicycles and more.

Fair warning, this is a place to unplug. Suites are television-free and outfitted instead with vinyl record players. Staff can pull from 550 albums to offer curated music collections designed to “complement each guest’s intention for their stay.” Mark us down for psychedelic romantic beach chill. 

985 North Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Also check out: The Inn at Laguna Beach

The Thousand Steps Beach (Visit Laguna Beach)

PLAY: Beaches

Yes, LA has beaches, but do you go? Exactly. Even Californians deserve a beach getaway, and Laguna Beach has excellent options for sun, sand and surf. Pick between the following, or get ambitious and hit them all:

  • Main Beach: Great for swimming and in the thick of things, Main Beach is the perfect spot for people watching. When you’ve had enough sand, head into town and hit the shops on the main drag or turn north to Heisler Park for a relaxed stroll on the scenic, meandering half-mile path above the ocean. 
  • Aliso Park: Go for the fire pits, stay for the skimboarding. Laguna Beach claims lifeguards invented the so cool, So-Cal sport in the 1920s.
  • Thousand Steps Beach: There are actually only 218 steps, but wake up the ole calves, it’s worth the burn. There’s space at this beach and it feels more secluded if you’re looking for a quieter option. Also a great spot for volleyball.
  • Crystal Cove State Park: The big draw here is the famous tide pools. Divers rejoice, there’s a robust underwater scene.
  • Crescent Bay Point: The northernmost beach, great for body surfers. The aptly named Seal Rock peeks out from the coast and is a hangout for seals and sea lions. 
  • Moss Cove: The Laguna Beach Visitors Center describes this spot as unknown even to longtime locals. If you can find it, it’s the perfect spot to take in a romantic sunset.

Also check out: Alta Laguna Park for a “Top of the World” view of all the beaches along LB’s coastline.

Studio (Via Montage Hotels)

EAT: Studio at Montage 

Studio describes itself as “the portrait of beachside indulgence.” So with that in mind, get dressed up, bring someone special and treat yourself to the wine pairings. Studio is intimate, high-end and (of course) oceanside–sitting on a bluff within the Montage hotel property. The six course tasting menu will wow, but epicures should opt for the vegetarian Studio Garden menu, which captures the plant life cycle from seed to shoot. Far out. 

Studio is fine dining, but California style, meaning no athletic or beach wear permitted and gentlemen must wear long pants and closed-toe shoes. So basically, like all of LA, you can get away with good jeans.

30801 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Also check out: k’ya Bistro

Via Deck on Laguna / Instagram

DRINK: The Deck on Laguna Beach

This is your beach vacation, so you need a cocktail in hand and toes in the sand. The Deck can get you there. A great spot for lunch or a casual bite, the six cocktails, all $12, will get you in the right mindset.

Climb aboard for the Seaworthy, featuring Sailor Jerry’s, strawberries, lemon sour, basil and soda or set sail on the California Cooler, made with Hendrick’s gin, cucumber, jalapeno pepper, lime sour, ginger beer and mint. The Kentucky Sun-Ryes, concocted of rye whiskey, apricot marmalade, peach bitters and lemon sour, proves a good pun goes a long way if the liquor’s strong. 

627 Sleepy Hollow Lane, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Also check out: Laguna Beach Beer Company