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
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
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,
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.