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Cruising down the PCH (that’s the Pacific Coast Highway in in-the-know lingo) from L.A. to Laguna Beach is exactly the trip you expect it to be. The sun, sand and surfers are just like out of a movie.
1. Santa Monica and Pier
Santa Monica beach and pier are pure California, and though right off Interstate 10 not 30 minutes from West Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, the town center runs at such a slow pace you forget how close you are to the celebrity-centric metropolis of L.A. Shuffle down Main Street and you’ll pass dozens of restaurants and bars, from chic to mom-n-pop, and hundreds of relaxed locals taking in good wine, good food, and plenty of California sun along all the year-round outdoor seating. Though we didn’t stop to nibble here, Holy Guacamole, It’s All Good Bakery, Novel Café and Dhaba Cuisine of India all caught my eye. Make sure to park at the pier and take a walk out onto this classic American pier.
Sure, it’s family-friendly with it’s ferris wheel, easy roller coaster, funnel cakes and coffees and popcorn, but combined with the amateur fishermen at the end of the pier, the seals, the cheap margaritas at the Mexican restaurant and the fact that the it’s open til 10pm, the pier is well worth a visit for everyone. Even if you can’t catch fish, everyone can catch an amazing golden sunset over the hills.
Parking in the main lot at the pier is $10 at an all-day flat rate, or the nearby lots run at only $1 an hour. Well worth it!
2. Venice Beach
Just a ten minute drive down the PCH is Venice Beach, the punk/cool older brother version of comparably quaint Santa Monica. Home to the famed hard-core Muscle Beach, Venice Beach is also piled up with bars and restaurants and a slightly grungy block of market stalls selling everything from t-shirts and ‘hand-blown glass’ (bongs) to sunglasses, key cutting, donuts and useless but cool knick knacks. The beach here is filled with character (and characters!) and the views out into the water are breathtaking. The morning of our visit there were at least 20 surfers out catching waves, as well as a film crew at Venice Beach, though we don’t know whether it was a movie or a commercial.
3. Seal Beach
Passing through the mega-port city of Long Beach which has it’s own charms (the Queen Mary, trips out to Catalina Island and the shops at the Ports of Call), Seal Beach is just 10 minutes down the highway on a slight peninsula. The beach itself is simple and large, plenty of room to grab a spot and a tan and the pier is plain, though surprisingly open til midnight. You do peek out at a few oil rigs offshore and of course the port is up the coast to your right, but easily ignorable. What makes Seal Beach so great is it’s Main Street. Galleries, restaurants, diners, ice-cream parlours, cafes and benches outside several shops for a chance to just sit and relax as you make your way from friendly shop owner to friendly shop owner. We were both immediately transported to the 50s or 60s (or how we imagine that era to have been) and felt completely relaxed. We picked up some duh-lishious bakery goodies at Sweet Jill’s and ate some excellent pizza at Z Pizza, taking advantage of a lunch special they had – $7 for 3 slices of pizza and a drink. Bargains can taste good too!
4. Newport Beach
This was a must-see stop for one of us (ahem….you know who you are), as this is the location of the OC. Much larger than Seal Beach and very touristy, this does not harm Newport Beach in the slightest. In fact, this is a perfect place to hang for a longer period of time. You’ve got miles of gorgeous beach and every type of restaurant, bar and tattoo shop you can imagine. We only stopped here for a quick coffee break and some 5 o’clock sun, but I’d definitely like to go back and soak up more sun here at Newport Beach.
5. Laguna Beach
For those of us who prefer reality to a made-up TV show, Laguna Beach was an ultimate destination for a certain fan of MTV’s reality show of the same name (ahem, guilty as charged). Laguna Beach was much larger than I expected, and very spread out. The beaches are a dream and the marina is giant and breathtaking to think about how many millions of dollars were splashed on those yachts. No celebs were spotted in the making of this post, however.