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California road trip: Laguna Beach keeps its artistic history alive

The art colony that, in the 1920s, was a magnet for celebrities from nearby Hollywood, continues to draw visitors with its artsy beach-town vibe

In the second in our three-part California road-trip series, we head to the sandy shores of Laguna Beach on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Laguna Beach has been a draw for artists since the early 1900s, with its slower pace and quirky beach-town vibe.

You can’t walk far along the 11-kilometre shoreline of Laguna Beach, just an hour south of Los Angeles in the heart of Orange County, without discovering a piece of public art, whether it be a sculpture, mural, beautiful tiled drinking water fountain or mosaic park bench.

I found all in Heisler Park, near downtown, where I met up with local artist Elizabeth McGhee, who grew up in nearby San Diego but came to Laguna Beach to attend Laguna College of Art and Design, graduating in 2009.

She stayed in the small community of about 22,000 people after she was accepted to participate in Festival of Arts, an annual summer art exhibit where she has been showing her realism art since 2010, along with about 100 other local artists.

McGhee’s grandmother also showed her art at the festival back in the 1950s.

Laguna Beach started off as an art colony and gained prominence in the 1920s thanks to the many stars from nearby L.A. who flocked here, says McGhee.

“You’d have Hollywood nearby and in the 1920s this was their weekend getaway. Artists came here because it is beautiful but you’d also have the patrons from Hollywood coming in on the weekends and they would buy paintings,” says McGhee.

Old-time movie actors like Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Rudolph Valentino are just a few of many celebrities from the past who either lived here or frequently visited.

The nearby Laguna Art Museum, just steps from Heisler Park, was where the city’s founding artists sold their work when it used to be an art gallery, says McGhee.

The community is so arts-driven, it even has a Local Outreach Community Arts program, working to make art accessible to everyone.

McGhee has been working for LOCA for the past five years, which is how our paths crossed when she gave me and a friend a private watercolour and sketching lesson outdoors in Heisler Park.

“The whole idea that only artists can make art is just not true,” she says. “Everybody can make art and it doesn’t have to be a living. You can still enjoy doing it.”

McGhee says a lot of art involves following a process. “Like following a cooking recipe, where you don’t get creative with the ingredients or the method until you really know what you’re doing. Copying is a great way to learn just like you would use someone else’s recipe or in music you play someone else’s composition and the creativity comes when you start feeling comfortable and then you can play.”

Which surprisingly, for me at least, seemed to hold true when I followed McGhee’s step-by-step directions to sketch a sea star — which came out much better than I expected, given my lack of experience drawing.

While much of Orange County has been heavily developed over the years, Laguna Beach has tried to maintain its artsy beginnings, most noticeably with the long-running Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters every summer.

Pageant of the Masters is a bizarre art production that’s been staged in Laguna Beach for more than 90 years, and coincides with the Festival of Arts each summer. In this unique event, classical art works are brought to life on stage by live actors posing inside paintings and sculptures.

The tradition of creating “living pictures” can be traced back to Victorian times, when they served as parlour games — people would pose silent and immobile for 30 seconds, imitating well-known works of art.

While my most recent visit was in the fall, when sadly the Pageant of the Masters wasn’t happening — they will next perform nightly July 6 to Aug. 30, 2024 — I did get to experience a sneak preview of a “living pictures” show in June 2019 on my first visit to Laguna Beach.

The year I visited, the theme for Pageant of the Masters was The Time Machine, tapping into the fascination for time travel and taking audiences around the world in search of great art.

I was able to go backstage to see a few of the approximately 500 volunteers, including actors, makeup artists, set designers and composers, prepare for the frequently sold-out shows.

The theme for Pageant of the Masters’ 2024 show is A La Mode: The Art of Fashion, offering a narrative of attire through the ages in artworks and including the work of legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head.


Where to stay:

Hands down, the best place I stayed during my week-long road California road trip was The Ranch at Laguna Beach. I appreciated the resort’s commitment to sustainability practices that go above and beyond the norm — its nine-hole golf course and all of its 35-hectare property are irrigated with reclaimed water in partnership with the local water district.

My spacious room screamed sophistication and had its own private deck looking out to the outdoor pool and beyond to a stunning canyon view. I just wish I had more time to hike some of the many trails on the property in the back country or take a tour of its farm. However, I did enjoy catching the sunset from its beachside restaurant, called Young’s Beach Shack. The resort is the best place to go to experience both a canyon and coastal setting.

Where to eat:

Harvest at The Ranch, at Laguna Beach, is an exceptional farm-to-table culinary experience often using foods sustainably grown on the edge of the resort’s property in a garden managed by an on-site farmer.

Everything I ordered was fresh, well-plated and delicious. My pan-seared scallops with roasted corn, fingerling potatoes, blue lake beans and heirloom tomatoes was the best meal of my trip to Laguna Beach.

The service was outstanding and the restaurant’s interior decor was in keeping with a luxury lodge, from its stone fireplace to its cathedral ceiling, reclaimed wood flooring and comfortable seating.

Driftwood Kitchen in the heart of Laguna Beach is the place to go for casual dining with a great view of the Pacific Ocean. While the 76-seat patio dining would be a great spot to enjoy a sunset dinner, my friend and I were there for lunch and were entertained by the skim boarders riding the shore waves below our outdoor deck table.

I chose the caesar salad with Ora King salmon, which had a rich taste with a hint of sweetness. This was West Coast cuisine at its finest, in a restaurant oozing California cool.

The landmark Las Brisas Restaurant, known for its seafood and Mexican classics, has been attracting locals, visitors and Hollywood celebrities for decades. Just ask longtime server Frank Heikes, who shows me a photograph of Bette Davis dining on its outdoor patio in a scene from the 1942 movie Now, Voyager. When pressed, Heikes cautiously lists some of the celebrities he’s served, like Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson and Muhammad Ali. “We always try to keep it on the hush. We don’t say: ‘Hi, Al Pacino.’ We try to be discreet here,” he says.

While I didn’t spot any celebrities myself, when I stopped in for breakfast, I wasn’t disappointed with my order of Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict or the table where I sat, enjoying the same oceanside view Bette Davis once did.

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Visit Laguna Beach and Visit California, who did not review or approve this story. Follow her on instagram at kimstravelogue. Next week, she explores San Diego in part three of the California road trip series.