When 'Beach' is in Southern Calif. cities' names, what's not to like?

Beach volleyball is a popular pastime in Laguna Beach, Calif., which has seven miles of Pacific coastline.
Beach volleyball is a popular pastime in Laguna Beach, Calif., which has seven miles of Pacific coastline. ASSOCIATED PRESS

For someone who has spent much of her life land-locked, I am a beach girl at heart. I'll still tune in to those campy Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon beach movies on TV, and an important part of my life's soundtrack was recorded by the Beach Boys. I really do want a Woody to transport my surfboard and me to some endless summer destination, even if only in my imagination.

I'm partial to California beaches. Maybe it's the vastness of the Pacific lapping on that golden sand or the fact that this is as far as the country goes, so enjoy it. During a trip to California this month, I did just that — getting a double dose of beach bliss with visits to two of the Golden State's most picturesque coastal towns, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach.

Laguna Beach

This sun-drenched town set on cliffs above the sea seems made for a postcard. Turquoise waves lap golden sands along the seven-mile stretch of beach running parallel to the Pacific Coast Highway. Palm trees and tropical foliage bring a palette of bold color. Pastel villas perch on the cliffs, giving it a distinctly Mediterranean flavor.

Rising steeply from the shoreline to the canyons of the San Joaquin Hills, Laguna Beach has developed into one of California's premier artist colonies. In 1903, San Francisco painter Norman St. Clair took up residence here, and within a few years, artists made up half of Laguna's population of 300.

The town really hit its stride in the 1920s, becoming a destination of choice for plein air painters who found the combination of cliffs, ocean and endlessly blue skies the perfect outdoor studio. Today, Laguna has some 100 art galleries and regular art walks, in addition to the famous Sawdust Festival (June 28 to Sept. 1 this year) featuring 200 local artists working in glass, paints, jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, textiles and photography.

If you would rather be a participant than a spectator, you can sign up for the two-hour Sawdust Studio art classes held every Friday and Saturday. Join locals in crafting your own art, from origami glass bowls to tide pool bracelets.

If art and the beauty of its location put Laguna Beach on the map, a developing culinary scene is adding to its luster. There are the obligatory "restaurants with a view," where a table overlooking the ocean is as important as the quality of the food.

Luckily, you can get both at places such as the wildly popular Deck on Laguna; Watermarc, just across from the beach on the Coast Highway; and Studio at the Montage Hotel.

You'll have to steer a few blocks away from the beach, however, to uncover some of Laguna's real culinary jewels such as Three Seventy Common (in a trendy shopping and arts area) and Starfish Laguna Beach (in a strip mall.)

One of the key things to remember about planning a trip to Laguna is not to plan. Instead, spend your days leisurely. Pamper yourself the way vacationing stars do with a massage at Aquaterra Spa at the Surf & Sand Resort. Pick one of 20 secluded beaches and coves and study marine life in the tide pools, or just find a bench in Heisler Park and watch the volleyball players or surfers riding waves to shore. If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear the Beach Boys harmonizing in the background.

Newport Beach

A 30-minute drive from Laguna will take you to Orange County's other storied coastal community, Newport Beach. If Laguna is a center for artists, Newport is nirvana for yachtsmen and boaters of any kind. If the city had an official slogan, it would be, "Water, water everywhere."

I'm not just talking about the ocean, although with nine miles of coastline, Newport is the quintessential California beach town. Add to that the canals, harbor and Newport Bay, and what you have is a watery wonderland.

Newport Bay separates the main part of Newport Beach from Balboa Peninsula. Studded with islands, it could easily be the American cousin of Venice's Grand Canal. Sailboats, fishing boats and yachts share the bay with gondolas, water taxis and "Duffy Boats," small, canopied electric boats available for rent.

Balboa Island, the bay's largest, is a must-see. Its small town has one main street lined with unique shops and family-owned restaurants, and the Balboa Fun Zone is a year-round amusement park on the water.

Away from the bay, Fashion Island isn't an island at all. With a mind-boggling selection of retail outlets (from Bloomingdale's to L'Occitane en Provence) and restaurants (I recommend Canaletto Ristorante Veneto), it's no wonder that it attracts more than 14 million visitors annually.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from upscale Fashion Island is rustic Crystal Cove. The 1930s-style cottages and bungalows facing the secluded cove are available for rent, and the Beachcomber Café is famous for its breakfasts and the colorful sunsets visible from its deck.

Before 1979, however, Crystal Cove, sandwiched between Newport and Corona del Mar, was a private community where bungalow residents held long-term leases. When plans were made to tear down the cottages to make room for Pelican Hill Golf Club, residents took matters in their own hands. They appealed to the state legislature in Sacramento to allow them to raise money to renovate the cottages, and requested that the area be given state park status.

The legislature granted the request, and today, Crystal Cove State Park — a popular location site for Hollywood movie studios — remains one of Southern California's largest remaining examples of open space and natural seashore.

Pelican Hill had to settle for a cliff-top site overlooking the cove.


Laguna Beach, Calif.

Where to stay: Casa Laguna Inn and Spa is a secluded retreat, hidden among tropical gardens on a terraced hillside overlooking the Pacific. Accommodations include 15 rooms, five suites and one cottage. The mouth-watering breakfasts are best enjoyed in the bougainvillea-draped courtyard.

Where to eat:

■ The Deck on Laguna Beach. Tables, from which you can see Catalina and San Clemente islands, are in great demand, and the seafood is fresh, although service can be a bit slow. Relax, you're in Southern California.

■ Watermarc, with its cutting-edge cuisine and trendy cocktails, is a great place for a leisurely lunch.

■ Three Seventy Common, a few blocks off the beach, is a favorite with locals who appreciate the locally sourced American cuisine.

■ Starfish Laguna Beach has an inauspicious location in a small strip mall, but once inside you'll feel as if you've been transported to the Far East. The décor evokes 1930s Indochina, and the cuisine is a delicious mix of Thai, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.

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Newport Beach, Calif.

Where to stay: The Balboa Bay Club. Once the private hangout of yachtsmen and Hollywood stars, it's now the only resort in Newport right on Balboa Bay. Book a spa treatment; have lunch or dinner on the terrace of the First Cabin, designed to resemble the first-class dining room on a cruise ship, and enjoy an after-dinner drink at Duke's Bar, named for John Wayne, one of the club's early members.

Where to eat:

■ Tamarind is the first American outpost of the Michelin-starred London restaurant, offering sophisticated dishes from the Indian subcontinent in pretty surroundings.

■ Sol Cocina offers the best of Mexico's Baja Peninsula and is one of the restaurants in Newport's "Dine and Dock Experience," where boaters may dock alongside while enjoying lunch or dinner.

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