It's Easter Sunday at Montage Laguna Beach in southern California and the valet boys are on their toes negotiating big American cars into tight spaces, including the Tesla X with its gull-wing, aka Batman doors, opening upwards. Without fail, guests' faces light up at the sight of the elevated and unhindered view across the Pacific Ocean as they move across the lobby into the lounge of rich Brazilian cherrywood floors and countless seats for gathering. The flagship property is a place to celebrate it seems. During the weekend of my stay there's been a 100th birthday party, 70th wedding anniversary and six marriage proposals, according to a staff member.
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego and set on a bluff between Newport Beach to the north and Dana Point to the south, the resort is one of the few with direct beach access to the 11-kilometre sands of Laguna Beach and its popular tidal pools. Surrounded by low mountain ranges and wilderness, the once isolated Laguna attracted plein air artists (painting and drawing in the landscape) in the early 1900s and later Hollywood, with scenes from the 1954 version of A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland and James Mason shot here. Today, the annual festival of Pageant of the Masters sees tableaux vivants ,or living pictures, recreated on stage from original artworks.
Set over 12 lush hectares, the resort of 253 rooms and 23 residences is built in American craftsman style with features such as exposed wooden beams in the lobby and handcrafted stone on exteriors. Meandering paths lead to the hotel's main sparkling pool composed of 500,000 mosaic tiles with copious loungers and curtained cabanas. The spa is a destination for the day in itself and includes the peaceful adults-only saltwater pool and gym. Next to the raised herb gardens, a separate building houses the fine-dining Studio Restaurant.
After a recent resort renovation of all guest rooms it's a new hotel feel in my Coastal King guest room connecting to a Coastal Queen for two offspring. The light and calming space in neutral shades with a balcony overlooking the mosaic pool and ocean, framed watercolours of beach scenes, carpet in geometric patterns and an L-shaped linen lounge is a place deserving of time. In the modern bathroom with separate shower and bath, a deep tub is a luxuriant touch. If inner peace is to be found anywhere it's on this feather-top king bed.
The ocean-facing Loft Restaurant is lively and convivial with a classic California menu: Pacific Coast oysters, carrot cake smoothies – made with almond butter, vanilla collagen and, of course, carrots – mojitos and huevos rancheros. Despite the busyness, service is a standout with knee blankets for the table when the coastal breeze picks up. Poolside, the Mosaic Bar and Grille serves warm lobster rolls and kale quinoa bowls.
Spotting marine life is popular in this marine protected area. Explore the area's tide pools or join a tour such as the not-for-profit Ocean Institute's 2.5-hour journey on its Research Vessel Sea Explorer to spot blue, gray and humpback whales, dolphins and sea lions, depending on the time of year. Don't miss the pre-cruise talk by a marine biologist for a glimpse into the wonders of the annual gray whale migration between Alaska and Mexico. See ocean-institute.org
A relaxed yet polished resort in a stunning natural location.
Montage Laguna Beach (30801 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, California) is 85 kilometres from Los Angeles and about an hour's drive in regular traffic. Guestrooms start at $US995 a night. See www.montagehotels.com
Consistently excellent amenities and service throughout the property.
Plans for a fireside nightcap in the lobby lounge are thwarted by other guests who have the same brilliant idea.
Jane Reddy stayed as a guest of Montage Laguna Beach and whale-watched as a guest of the Ocean Institute.