Home | Biography | Forty-Eight X | Future Books | Stories | Credits | Media | Contact

Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Montage Resort and Spa, Laguna Beach
Title Suggestion:
Laguna Beach, the Riviera of America

At the turn of the 20th Century, the great masters of French Impressionism - artists like Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh - painted their scenic masterpieces along the southern coast of France, in an area called Provence and the Riviera. At that same time, American painters, who painted in that same style and came to be known as "plein-air" artists, found a climate and terrain to match the beauty that their French colleagues had found. They came to paint the surf, hillsides, lagoons, and the sweeping beauty of a sleepy coastal village called Laguna Beach. Early posters advertising Laguna in fact described it as the "Riviera of America." By the late 1920's, half its residents were working artists. The artists were followed by the Hollywood elite - Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Bette Davis, Judy Garland. All had homes in Laguna Beach.
Then came the Depression and because tourists had little money to spend, Laguna's artist colony floundered. But a few local artists had an idea to lure patrons back. They decided to hold a summer arts festival, hoping to draw visitors down to Laguna before they journeyed home following the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The Laguna Arts Festival that year transformed the beachside town into one giant art gallery. The festival, of course, had art exhibits, but it also had parades, plays, a costume ball, garden tours, outdoor markets, and an unusual outdoor "Living Pictures Show" created by artist and vaudevillian, Lolita Perine, who dressed local residents in costume, seated them behind a giant frame, and posed them in front of sets to recreate classic works of art. This was the birth of the famous Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts and Pageant of the Masters which continues to this very day to enliven Laguna and showcase local artists.
The festival became so popular that in 1942 the Irvine Bowl, a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre, was built to house the Pageant. Admission ranges from $15-$65 and includes the opportunity to view the works of local artists as well as the Pageant. It has become so popular that during July through August, when the Pageant and Festival run, it entertains more than 200,000 patrons.
I saw the Pageant of the Masters for the first time this year. While it was entertaining, it seemed bizarrely anachronistic. In a world where most entertainments are ridiculously faced paced, the Pageant is ninety minutes of watching classical and contemporary works of art amazingly recreated by using live models dressed, posed, and set into painted backdrops. Each recreated painting is accompanied by narration and a full orchestra. The modeling is so perfect that at times you doubt there are live people making up the painting. Only rarely do they move to allow you to be astonished at the elegant recreation. In fact, I was disappointed that the models didn't move at the end of each tabloid, to show off their perfection. But I suppose the creators of the Pageant view themselves somewhat as magicians reluctant to reveal their secrets. The Laguna Pageant of "tabloid vivants" is a unique entertainment experience.
Today, the allure of Laguna remains its beautiful beach, wonderful climate, and artistic ambience. But while Southern California has some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world, it has few first class hotels or resorts set on the coast that allow you to bed down beachside and enjoy the glorious views, the serenity of surf sounds, or the pleasure of stepping out of your room barefoot to trek on the sands. Most of our beachside hotels are set across the road from the beach, or worse, across some railroad tracks, or on some bluffs high above an inaccessible beach. And so, while Hawaii, the Caribbean, and many other seaside vacation locales have innumerable hotels and resorts set on sandy beaches, in California we have a few handfuls. Sure, the California Coastal Commission can brag that it has kept our precious beaches open to the public. But, for the most part, if you want to awake to the smell of the sea and the sound of surf in Southern California, you best be a multi-millionaire with a beachfront palace or be prepared to park a block away and bring a sleeping bag.
But perhaps I'm protesting too much. There has been some progress. In February 2003, a world class beachfront resort - Montage Resort & Spa (888-715-6700) - opened in Laguna on a 30 acre site, formerly a trailer park. It is situated right on an actual beach - not on a cliff or across the tracks, but on a broad expanse of golden sand populated by sunbathers, joggers, shell seekers, and children exploring aquarium-like tide pools.
The Montage, barely two years old, is already a landmark, award-winning, California resort destination. The 262-room oceanfront resort is built of wood and stone in California Craftsman-style and melds perfectly with the historical ambiance of Laguna. There are grand panoramic views from every luxuriously appointed room and from every site in the resort - from its three restaurants to its modern spa.
You drive up to the resort under a grand porte-cochere and enter into a great lobby, a relaxed and elegant environment with floor to ceiling windows and a balcony that offers immediate and expansive views of the ocean. The comfortable decor and abundance of American plein art paintings that decorate the walls capture the feeling of a homey beachfront estate. A path meanders on a bluff at the top of the property through lush gardens where you can relax on benches and watch the pounding surf below or wait for a glorious sunset. There are indoor ballrooms and two park-like lawn areas set on oceanfront cliffs that are perfect venues for weddings or private parties. The ones we saw set out were wonderfully decorated theme events organized by hotel party planners. It's a short walk from any room to an expansive white sand beach, perfect for swimming or exploring marine tide pools. They even have a marine biologist on staff available to educate guests about the local habitat. It is an absolute serene setting.
The rooms all have balcony or patio views of the ocean. Feather top beds are exquisitely comfortable and the mix of marble and turn-of-the-century Craftsman interior finishes is perfect. The resort seems to have thought of providing every amenity - champagne in-room awaiting your arrival, candles in the bathrooms, great soaps and lotions, flat screen TV's, internet access. The newspapers hung on the door in the morning even come in their own Montage burlap bags. While the setting makes the place remarkable with palm trees lining the pathways that front the beach and a bevy of gardeners constantly maintaining an immaculate landscape, it is the service that makes the Montage truly superb.
At poolside, khaki-clad attendants bring you creative and complimentary iced drinks or fruit baskets and with military attentiveness seem constantly on the look-out for who needs service next. If you have an umbrella shading you from the sun, they'll come over to adjust it periodically. And, if you elect to sit on the beach, there's a beach butler available to provide you with cool drinks, sun lotions, or even make your dinner reservations.
There are three restaurants in the Montage - the Studio, the Loft, and the poolside Mosaic Grille. We ate in the Loft restaurant, created by the chef from Napa Valley's famous French Laundry restaurant. The wine list there had eight pages of just cabernet sauvignon. I've seen smaller telephone books. We tried a $32 bottle as opposed to the $2300 bottle and were quite happy with the results. A sommelier pours and - if you wish - will explain every nuance of the wine for you. You can dine inside or al fresco with ocean views, ocean breezes, and soothing ocean surf sounds.
While the Montage is clearly a perfect destination for a romantic interlude, there are plenty of families that come. Poolside is not the most serene setting in the hotel with children busily running about, but that serenity can easily be rediscovered by a short trek to an adults-only ocean view pool just outside the spa.
The 20,000 square foot spa has a fitness room overlooking the sea with nearly every apparatus available with a flat screen TV and DVD player. There are 21 treatment rooms that provide every therapy imaginable to promote relaxation, health, or beauty.
The Montage has daily rates from $560, June through October, and is only a bit less expensive the rest of the year. But if you imagine the tedium of airports and the expense of airfare to vacation in Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean, or the south of France, you'll find a stay at the Montage will suffice as an equal or better option. There's also a less expensive way to enjoy the pleasures of the Montage. If you buy any spa treatment, you can stay the day and enjoy the rest of the resort - the pools, the gardens, the oceanfront bars and restaurants. The heart of the town of Laguna Beach is just two miles away and there are plenty of less expensive hotels there. And during the summer, once you park anywhere in Laguna, you don't need to drive. The city offers a quaint Rainbow shuttle that runs back and forth from town, to the Montage, to the Arts Festival.

They're building homes next to the resort. When you realize the lots there alone are selling from $4-7,000,000, a stay at the Montage begins to sound like a bargain. The Montage with its architecture, plein air paintings, its comforts, the spa, the service, the ocean, and proximity to the art community of Laguna is worth discovering. If it had been here at the turn of the last century, Monet would have painted it.