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Introducing Laguna Beach

Which do you prefer, art or nature? In Laguna Beach, you don’t have to choose. Locals liken their town to the French Riviera, which is a fair comparison, what with the wooded hillsides, seaside cliffs, pristine beaches and azure waves. This is, hands down, the most beautiful stretch of coast south of Los Angeles.

The town’s natural beauty was like a siren call for San Francisco artist Norman St Clair, who discovered Laguna around 1910 and stayed on to paint its surf, cliffs and hills. His enthusiasm attracted other artists influenced by French impressionism who came to be known as the ‘plein air’ (‘open air’) school. By the late ‘20s, more than half of the town’s 300 residents were artists.

Real-estate prices make such hopeful ratios impossible these days. Still, public art graces the streets and parks, dozens of galleries feature local artists and the city hosts several renowned festivals.

Partly tucked into canyons and partly arrayed on oceanfront bluffs, Laguna is also a refreshing change from OC’s beige-box architecture, with a combination of classic Craftsman cabins and bold (if at times garish) modern homes. There’s even a distinct downtown, known as the ‘Village, ’ with shops, art galleries and restaurants, many hidden in courtyards and housed in funky little shacks. Forest Ave has the highest concentration of chic boutiques.

While Laguna swells with tourists on summer weekends, there’s plenty of uncrowded sand, even on the busiest days, once you move away from downtown and the adjacent Main Beach.