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Chic Laguna Beach, the jewel of the so-called California Riviera, has long been a favourite of gay men. About midway between San Diego and Los Angeles and nicknamed SoHo-by-the-Sea, the area began attracting artists around the turn of the 20th century. A formal art colony was established in 1917.
What makes the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel special is its
princely setting atop a 150-foot cliff overlooking the Pacific.
Hollywood film stars - Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Bette Davis, and Mickey Rooney - were also an early presence. The 1920s contingent helped establish what is still one of the nation's outstanding community theatres, the Laguna Playhouse. The Festival of the Arts, a still-thriving showcase for local painters, sculptors, and other artists that began in 1932, sealed the town's reputation as a cradle of West Coast creativity.

The presence of gays was very discreet during most of the 20th century, and there has long been occasional tension between some of the town's mainstream and gay business owners and even residents over the years. Laguna is, after all, a coastal arm of conservative Orange County. Nevertheless, by 1983 there were enough progressive residents to elect Robert Gentry the first openly gay mayor in the United States. Laguna later became the only town in Orange County to adopt an antidiscrimination policy that protected the rights of gays and lesbians.

Laguna today is a desirable getaway for same-sex couples and singles alike. The ocean views and landscape are often spectacular, there's good shopping and dining, and party types will find just enough nightlife to keep themselves occupied until another gorgeous day begins. A good spot to begin your explorations in the center of Laguna, at the oceanside equivalent of a traditional American town green: Main Beach. This breezy park has tile benches, a large expanse of golden sand, heavily used volleyball nets and basketball courts, and a small wooden boardwalk. Locals and tourists laze in the sun, their peace interrupted only by the occasional ring of a mobile phone (yuppies abound). Along Ocean and Forest avenues, and along Broadway, are excellent cafes and some art galleries and boutiques. North of Main Beach is Laguna's Gallery Row, the most concentrated stretch of art dealing in town, as well as the Laguna Art Museum, which houses a small permanent collection of works by local artists and mounts outstanding temporary exhibits.

A five-minute drive south of downtown Coast Highway leads to some gay-popular businesses, notably the well-stocked A Different Drummer bookstore, and Gay Mart sells beachwear, men's clothing, gay erotica, and gay videos. The anchor is the Coast Inn, which has a large bar and disco and a gay beach behind it.

For an enchanting side trip, head south of Laguna Beach several miles to reach San Juan Capistrano, the one town in the area that retains a sense of California's Mission-era history. Many of the adobe structures here date from the late 18th century. Mission San Juan Capistrano is famous as the spring host to thousands of migrating swallows from Argentina, and its Serra Chapel is thought to be the oldest continuously used building in the state of California. A small downtown area has largely escaped 20th-century commercialism.

Laguna's glamorous and artsy aura continues in the decor, presentation, and quality of its restaurants. There's a budding cafe culture downtown, around Ocean and Forest avenues, and eating establishments up and down the coast. French 75, in a Tudor-style cottage across from the Boom Boom Room, presents fine French fare, such as pan-seared John Dory with a caper-sage brown butter and fried leeks. One of downtown Laguna's top restaurants, 230 Forest Avenue wows diners with imaginative New American and West Coast regional cuisine. The emphasis is on seafood: Salmon-and-mussel stew with white beans and smoked bacon is a top starter.

Although it's touristy, the Cottage has long been a friend of gays and lesbians. The straightforward Continental cuisine is competently prepared - charbroiled lamb with herbs, olive oil, and thyme is a favorite. A sister to the gay eatery in West Hollywood, Mark's is one spot where the food is truly commensurate with the stylish atmosphere and diva-filled dining room. A top dish includes grilled pork chop with cranberry-chipotle sauce. Mark's is also a big brunch hangout. Both a gay bar and a very good restaurant, Woody's presents a nightly menu of California-inspired dishes, such as a Chinese five-spice rabbit, spinach salad, and pepper-and-curry seared mahi mahi.

Zinc Cafe and Market is the ultimate lunch and breakfast spot downtown, with outstanding healthful prepared foods, sandwiches, and gourmet goods and a sunny outdoor dining area aglow with greenery and zinc tables. For good Cal-Mex fare, head to South Laguna's Coyote Grill. Nearby, the family-friendly Drew's Caribbean Cafe has a bright and sunny patio and serves great jerk chicken and other healthful West Indian cooking. The self-serve fast-food restaurant Taco Loco is more than just a favorite surfer hangout - it serves fish fajitas and tacos to die for. Get your java fix at Koffee Klatch, a cheerful storefront coffeehouse in the gay neighbourhood, with great desserts, sandwiches, and Internet access.

Laguna's Coast Highway is strung with generally mainstream but gay-friendly lodgings, from posh hotels that gaze out over the ocean to quite a few basic motels - the town is also home to an excellent, gay-owned reservation service, California Riviera 800, which represents hotels and inns up and down Southern California's coast. A full-service gay resort for more than 30 years, the Coast Inn sits right on the beach and has bars, a restaurant, and clean, comfortable rooms that have been extensively remodeled in recent years. The fanciest accommodations have private sundecks, fireplaces, and wet bars, but you can get simpler ones with ocean views for just under $100 in season.

Nearby, Laguna Brisas Spa Hotel is a cheerful property with a good reputation in the gay and lesbian community. Rooms are done in cool pastels; they're big, comfortable, and have ocean views - and all have two-person whirlpool tubs. The setting is a dramatic hill; rooms tumble down the side of it. An enchanting Spanish Mission-style compound, the Casa Laguna Inn has lush gardens and courtyards strewn with bougainvillea and queen palm trees, and a pool and sundeck shaded by banana and avocado trees. The wide-ranging accommodations include a small romantic cottage with phenomenal views, and about 20 additional units ranging from sprawling ocean-view suites to moderately priced courtyard rooms.

It's not quite as laid-back as your typical beachfront hotel, but the formality of the magnificent Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel is worth braving if only to behold the breathtaking views from its 150-foot clifftop setting. Rooms are spacious and outfitted with top-notch amenities, including glamorous marble baths, goosedown pillows, terry robes. The public areas also contain a fine collection of 18th and 19th century British and American painting - if nothing else drops by to admire these works and perhaps dine at one of the hotel's acclaimed restaurants.

Nightlife in Laguna is not frenetic. Locals tend to be approachable, though during more touristy times L.A.'s stand-and-model set infiltrates the scene. For gay men and lesbians, the Boom Boom Room is Laguna Beach's main event, packed on weekends with tan, toned bodies. There are a few bars, plus a small dance floor. With mock-Tudor interior, the Main Street bar doesn't look like a typical beach bar. The crowd, however, is southern California all the way: fun-loving and chatty (and often bleached blond). People often sing up a storm around the piano. Plenty of folks also gather, especially early in the evening, at the aforementioned restaurant, Woody's, which has a great patio.

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK

A Different Drummer (1294 S. Coast Hwy., 949-497-6699).
California Riviera 800 (949-376-0305 or 800-621-0500, Website).
Casa Laguna Inn (2510 S. Coast Hwy., 949-494-2996 or 800-233-0449, Website).
Coast Inn and Boom Boom Room (1401 S. Coast Hwy., 949-494-7588 or 800-653-2697, Website).
The Cottage (308 N. Coast Hwy., 949-494-3023).
Coyote Grill (31621 S. Coast Hwy., 949-499-4033).
Drew's Caribbean Cafe (31732 S. Coast Hwy., 949-499-6311).
Festival of Arts (777 Laguna Canyon Rd., 949-494-4514, Website).
French 75 (1464 S. Coast Hwy., 949-494-8444).
Gay Mart (168 Mountain Rd., 949-497-9108).
Koffee Klatch (1440 S. Coast Hwy., 949-376-6867).
Laguna Art Museum (307 Cliff Dr., 949-494-8971).
Laguna Beach Visitor Information Center (949-497-9229 or 800-877-1115, Website).
Laguna Brisas Spa Hotel (1600 S. Coast Hwy., 949-497-7272 or 877-503-1466, Website).
Laguna Playhouse (606 Laguna Canyon Rd., 949-497-9244).
Main Street (1460 S. Coast Hwy., 949-494-0056).
Mark's (858 S. Coast Hwy., 949-494-6711).
Mission San Juan Capistrano (I-5 to Ortega Hwy, follow signs, 949-234-1300, Website).
Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel (1 Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, 949-240-2000 or 800-241-3333,Website).
Taco Loco (640 S. Coast Hwy., 949-497-1635).
230 Forest Avenue (230 Forest Ave., 949-494-2545).
Woody's (1305 S. Coast Hwy., 949-376-8809).
Zinc Cafe and Market (350 Ocean Ave., 949-494-6302).

Andrew Collins authored Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, the Connecticut Handbook, and six regional gay guides for Fodor's. He can be reached here at OutUK or direct at GayFodors@aol.com.

 

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