Pacific Heights


It was still April, but the temperature unexpectedly soared into the high 90s in Southern California. The sidewalks sizzled; the canyons seemed to shimmer. A hot blanket of haze settled over the valleys.

The only logical course was to head for the hills — or more precisely, the ocean cliffs, where Pacific breezes might offer some respite. From Culver City, where I was visiting friends, Oggi and I drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway in search of a beach.

There are beaches in L.A., of course, but we were seeking something a little more laid-back — one of those relaxed, nature-loving beach towns for which California is justly famous. Past the strip malls of Long Beach and a long string of traffic lights, we found ourselves sailing along an empty highway atop flower-strewn cliffs, the blue Pacific shimmering off to our right.

The Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH) is most famous for the mid-coastal stretch around Big Sur; south of Santa Monica, it gets lost in the urban tangle. But in Orange County, the PCH returns to its spectacular position flush alongside the Pacific Ocean — and, in its own way, this part of the highway is just as spectacular as Big Sur. Instead of tall trees and plunging cliffs, you get a wide-open sky, purple and orange poppies, sculptural cacti and a beach that feels intimate, not grandly remote.

Rounding the bend into Laguna Hills, I very nearly drove off the road: the scenery was as stunning as any I’d ever seen, all the more so in the brilliant SoCal sunshine. The crescent-shaped beach — framed by the posh and pretty seaside village of Laguna Beach and by the verdant mountains — seemed just the spot for a Pacific idyll.

Except that, as I soon found out, the Pacific never really gets warm. The air may have been about 95 degrees Farenheit, but that water — ouch! I found out later it was 58 degrees. But there were plenty of people frolicking in the surf, and some of them didn’t even have wet suits. Californians, it seems, are a hardier breed.

Effectively chilled, we headed into town for a stroll around Laguna’s cute downtown. Right away we were struck by the profusion of art galleries, numerous even by the standards of seaside resorts. Blown glass, impressionistic oils, ceramics and sculpture were all in evidence alongside boutiques full of pink piqué and high-end bistros.

The galleries are a reminder that Laguna was settled by artists. A hundred years ago, painters and assorted creative types settled into these sunny coves, drawing inspiration from the Western sunlight and the craggy, picturesque shores.

For a better understanding of this legacy, I headed to the nearby Laguna Art Museum. Dramatic mountain scenes, Wild West ghost towns, and dozens of paintings depicting the California shoreline are among the highlights of this historic collection; it’s as fine a place as any to go to find out how the Golden State shaped its artists. The institution itself dates back nearly 100 years, when it was founded by a group of local artists to show their works. (The museum’s current Steele Gallery is a vestige of that original space.) In addition to California landscapes, the museum has a nice collection of mid-century works and rotating exhibitions of contemporary art.

Many of the artists are Jewish, reflecting a diverse and growing Jewish presence in Southern California over the past century. While Orange County has a checkered reputation regarding religious tolerance, the area around Laguna Beach — including the neighboring hamlets of Laguna Woods, Laguna Niguel and Aliso Viejo — is now home to synagogues serving all denominations. Many local Jewish families have roots in Iran and the former Soviet Union (including one of the area’s more famous Jewish residents, the figure skater Sasha Cohen, who grew up here).

One name I kept hearing in Orange County was Samueli — as in the entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry Samueli, whose largess is evident in a variety of institutions across Southern California. There is the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library at nearby Chapman University, which has the area’s most comprehensive Holocaust education program.

The intimate new theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (formerly the Orange County Performing Arts Center) is also named for Samueli. I didn’t get to see a performance at the Segerstrom, but just touring the architecture on its bold, modern campus was enjoyable, and the spring lineup was intriguing: Barbara Cook, Lily Tomlin, A 100th-anniversary performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” and the Eifman St. Petersburg Ballet with choreography by the Russian-Jewish Boris Eifman.

But it was too nice a day to stay indoors. As summer nears, the sun’s warmth lingers into cool desert evenings, and the shore beckoned once again. After all, there is no sunset so beautiful as a Pacific sunset — and few spots more beautiful for observing it than Laguna Beach.