O.C. Can You See?

Laguna Beach and its Orange County environs are no strangers to pop culture or a reputation that defines it as haven for all things WASP-y.

However, don't let that possibly keep you away from what could be a delightful California getaway by the sea, complete with some very pleasant surprises.

Through '60s teen movies, a generation got to know Orange County as surfer and beach-bunny central. In the 1980s, every fashionista knew Orange County to be the home of South Coast Plaza — one of America's largest and highest-end malls, complete with its own designer sweatshirt line.

In the last decade, through the lens of nighttime soap "The O.C." and the quasi-reality show "Laguna Beach" (a soap, for all intensive purposes), it was a playground for young, beautiful surfers, stars, sun-worshippers and anybody else who could afford the beachfront's famously lavish lifestyle.

Among members of the pre-reality show generation, Orange County also had a reputation for being politically conservative and genteel-y gentile. Although historically there have been no established "Jewish" neighborhoods comparable to those in Los Angeles (and Philadelphia), today there are around 50 synagogues and institutions (B'nai B'rith, B'nai B'rith Women and ORT) serving locals and visitors.

In 1973, discussion about the need for a unifying Jewish center among members of the Women's Division of the Jewish Federation of Orange County hit full pitch. Soon after that, nine couples joined together to put up $100 each to rent a storefront in Laguna Beach to create one of the area's pioneering Jewish community centers.

The area is also home to a well-attended Israel Expo every May, launched in 1972 as the Orange County Israel Cultural Fair. Though it did not create the frenzy generated by the Laguna Beach-based annual summertime performance art extravaganza, Pageant of the Masters (selling out months in advance), it drew very respectable crowds from around Southern California.

Quaint, Yet Sophisticated

Demographers have also traced a sizable influx of Jewish South African immigrants to the area, and a high concentration of Jews can be found near Laguna Beach — in the communities of Irvine, Newport Beach and Laguna Hills.

Though it all, Laguna Beach has remained a quaint, sophisticated enclave with its Surf & Sand Hotel, which has adorned a scenic oceanfront section of Laguna since the late 1940s and anchors the area's epicenter. Even with a nationally acclaimed chef (Jeff Armstrong) and its mod cream, blue and brown decor now in place, it still resonates as a major destination for those who want to experience the area's more sensual, sedate side.

While postcard views, sprawling public areas and window-walls still define Surf & Sand's character, there are wonderful improvements that have brought the stalwart hotel into the 21st century. This includes a thorough revamping of the Aquaterra Spa.

Beyond the Surf & Sand, you will discover downtown Laguna has a similar upscale tropical funkiness to the "Main Streets" of Maui or Kauai — an eclectic mishmash of art galleries, jewelry stores, designer-clothing salons, yoga studios, and trendy cafes and bars.

Those who prefer long lingering walks along the beach may also look into local companies offering dolphin and whale safaris, or eco-tours covering the flora and fauna of the beach and nearby parks and botanical gardens.

Architecture and American history buffs will want to look into self-guided historic home tours offered by Laguna Beach Visitors Center.

Paradise away from the beach can be found free of charge at the Hortense Miller Garden, established in 1959. The garden, home to more than 1,500 plant species, a natural history and horticultural library and docent tours, covers 2.5 acres of an upper slope area of North Laguna.

If your idea of a "riot of color" includes interesting people- watching on many levels, and you plan your trip several months ahead, it is worthwhile to purchase advance tickets for the Pageant of the Masters spectacle, which takes place every summer.

For more information about the Surf & Sand Resort, see: www.surfandsandresort. com. For Jewish activities in and around Laguna Beach, see: www.jewishorangecounty.org.


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