California dreaming

Millionaire indulgences, a vibrant art scene, and scenic coves where pelicans peruse; World Traveller heads to Laguna Beach, where Californian luxury comes to relax

An hour from the glitz of Los Angeles – the city of Angels where aspiring starlets clamour to be granted their silver-screen wings – the only spotlight that Newport Beach cares about is the Sun. To call this piece of southern Orange County merely ‘laid-back’ would be an insult to flip flops and an affront to sun-loungers; if The O.C. was seated, it might just slide off its chair. The only thing that gets worked up around here is the fizzing Pacific Ocean that rasps against the shore, probably jealous at being limited from seeping inland to enjoy the cultural-fruits.

It needn’t be. The sea dominates this SoCal landscape and commands your gaze at least ten times a day: with the mesmerising daily performance of sunrise and sunset; when someone hollers after spotting a pod of the dozen whale species that often surface off the coast; when a thumping wave thuds against a rock-face and sends a firework of spray skywards; when a brave boarder acrobatically slices through the surf.

“You’ve brought the weather with you from Dubai!” says… just about every resident who enthusiastically grips my handshake and learns my point of origin. This is Californian charm at its apex, because the region is known for sensational climes, clocking an average temperature of 21°C. I’ve never felt so uptight or British (or un-informed) as when immersed in this mellow world: locals beam megawatt smiles while imparting an arsenal of meticulous knowledge, melting each sentence with an easy American accent; executives with Hollywood-sounding names slip into self-assured patter about the weather, about historic details, or about themselves. And even those you don’t engage in conversation – the toned, sun-kissed surfers who lug multicoloured surfboards across the intersection on their way to the beach – look like background extras from Baywatch. It feels like everyone here is comfortable in their own skin, damn healthy, and blissfully unaware of their own arresting charm. If Los Angeles is ‘look at me!!’, then Laguna Beach is ‘oh, that incredible view? The delicious fare? The relaxed aura? We didn’t like to mention…’

Laguna Beach

The area – located in the heart of Southern California, sandwiched between San Diego and Los Angeles counties – has its own measure of this charm, and it’s best to focus on Laguna Beach, Dana Point (7 miles southeast), and Newport Beach with Balboa Island (just 9 miles northwest). Within this radius is all the geographic richness you’d ever need, from a region whose identity is formed not only through its coastline but its buildings. Cruising along the main streets of Laguna Beach you’ll witness the mish-mash. The early 1900s bore the low-pitched roofs of the spacious California Craftsman style, and poured around these are large-porch bungalows from the 1930s, the minimalist (and indigenous) beach cottages, provincial and Mediterranean-inspired period houses, and modern, art deco colours from post-40s.

Balboa Pier
Balboa Pier

The patchwork of architectural styles seems chaotic, creating a quirky blend of structures that are entirely unique but somehow, side-by-side, just fit, and there’s an unspoken order of respect for the look and upkeep of Laguna Beach. The big-brand chains may be rare, but when those of Starbucks-ilk make a cameo appearance they’re easy to overlook, being as they are tucked inside buildings that seamlessly befit the surroundings. Behind other characterful façades are less familiar names that are no-less intriguing. Forest Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway are the main streets that cut through Laguna Beach, and as the shop-fronts flicker past you see the well-dressed windows of home-grown boutiques like the lifestyle wear and home textiles of Simple, Blue Eyed Girl in The Old Pottery Place, and Hobie Surf Shop, a 60-year veteran of kitting out those looking to catch some waves. For cuisine, the local districts of Laguna Beach and Dana Point have a lot to offer the gastronome. Aveo offers local farm-to-table California cuisine with an emphasis (of course) on seafood, and enclaves like Broadway by Amar Santana, Selanne Steak Tavern, and the cultivated global cuisine of Sapphire Laguna are other gourmet haunts for this well-heeled community.

Home whilst here is the elegant Montage Laguna Beach, which gives a prime vantage of the Pacific; also on my whirlwind agenda is a breakfast visit to the Italian-style coastal retreat of Pelican Hill, and a rendezvous with the St. Regis Monarch Beach for evening sunset: all three prudently ensure the immense natural vistas are centre stage, with the requisite dose of hospitality elegance. It’s at the latter property that I plunder the vast knowledge of Chef Concierge Gundula to put the county into context. Where does a visitor even begin? She urges the newcomer to simply walk and drink it all in, strolling both north and south Laguna into the residential neighbourhoods to see the pretty cottages, then plan a beach walk along the coves and cliffs beside the sea. Heisler Park and the headlands of Dana Point are worth a visit, she urges, and one must take a whale watching tour departing from Dana Point, not forgetting to visit the Ocean Institute for stand-up paddleboard rental in order to swish through Dana Point harbour and observe Garibaldi, the orange California State fish.

The Arts – OC style

Art invariably seeps into every conversation about must-see cultural bites. With the population being a result of decades-long osmosis from across the USA (people visit, then uproot and make the move permanent), it is little surprise that a diverse artistic colony found a firm foothold.

The main annual event is the Festival of the Arts and Pageant of the Masters, which runs for two months in summer through June 13 and sees a plethora of visual festivities at the 2,000 capacity open-air theatre on Laguna Canyon Road. There are a bounty of galleries in town too.

For example, Dawson Cole Fine Art has its sculptures by Richard MacDonald, Adam Neeley Fine Art Jewellery has wedding bands, necklaces and baubles, the JoAnne Artman Gallery impresses with its modern contemporary displays, and Kush Fine Art is where surrealistic art reigns.

Surf and art are the folksy influences, but wealth does not surrender its throne. It’s abundant in the plentiful moored, parked and multi-storey possessions: nowhere more so than Newport Harbour, where glitz cedes to discreet taste. I board an electric-powered Duffy (each with a creative, cutesy name like She’s N Charge, Current Love and Watt Ever), and the tour-guide Reilly slinks the vessel noiselessly past all manner of water vehicles in the harbour; whopping yachts, gleaming catamarans, and small boats that barely bob in our gentle wake. Here you’ll see the waterfront mansions of high-powered citizens-past and present, with the most prominent perhaps being John Wayne: The Duke’s abode is resplendent (more true comfort than True Grit) while his 136-footer The Wild Goose is still in residence. You’re in the romantic water-playground of the rich and famous now, where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall played out many loved-up hours aboard his yachts moored at Newport Bay – celebrity name-drops are commonplace, but they’re uttered out of pride more than boast because their aura only enhances The O.C.’s mystique. This was ‘where to be seen’ circa-1940, where Hollywood’s finest would vacation, making it a thriving social hub with plenty of influence – the stately Harborside Ballroom, built in 1906, helped establish the development and popularity of what is now Newport Beach, as many famous big bands from yesteryear performed there including Stan Kenton and Harry James. Make no mistake though: this may be a region made glorious by its past, but it is not caught living in it. After all, you can take a Segway tour along the beach frontage. Very 2017.

Seagulls and Sealions

As the gentle water-journey continues, its 3pm (a full 12 hours behind UAE-time), the sun is doing its best toasting, the breeze strikes the right gentle note, and even the seagulls shun exertion and hitch a cheeky ride on the bow. Sea lions lollop uninvited onto the sterns of berthed boats, arfing loudly to penetrate your shut-eyed daydream, but serenity wins and there’s a legitimate confession of “I could definitely live here.” (You can. Orange County Visitors Association and Sotheby’s have tailored ‘Own a Piece of a Paradise’ for a blossoming Middle East market. It enables visitors to become residents and call this locality ‘home’ with a piece of prime property).

Auto ferry terminal on Balboa Island
Auto ferry terminal on Balboa Island

Back on dry land, the tidy three-blocks of downtown Balboa Island are pure charm; mom and pop stores still family-owned by new generations, with a US Post Office outlet on Marine Ave. which looks every inch the neighbourhood bastion of a proud national institution. You get a well-kempt slice of back-to-the-future, with stores and homes that time forgot… until you recall the multi-million dollar sums that these abodes command, and realise that real estate prices have little regard for the past.

Everywhere you tread in The O.C., heritage is preserved, nature’s enjoyed, while grace and charm is embedded in the DNA. It’s why those looking for style and sophistication should not skip when reading the opening sell on its tourism website which mentions the ‘always amazing Disneyland’; Mickey’s dreamworld is understandably promoted, but the luxury and maturity here is as far away from kitsch and theme park drama as you can get.

Sure, for many, the allure of a long-haul flight descending into LAX is to hit Space Mountain, see the Hollywood Hills, gorge at the Hard Rock Cafe and tread the stars on the Walk of Fame along the Boulevard. But trust me, the real appeal lies on the coast, half a world away in high-class Orange County. It’s away from traffic jams and billboards, waking up to fresh sea air, planting footprints on untouched morning sand under the watch of a pelican swooping for his first fish of the day. It’s at night on a patch of shoreline, marshmallows toasting over a fire-pit, with the soundtrack of crashing waves, gazing at LA’s other stars in the night-sky above. That’s where the 14-hour flight time melts from memory, and The O.C. becomes Oh wow.