Weekend road trip: Laguna Beach

Forget about Hollywood-celeb sightings and pricey boutique shopping: This recreational guide to Laguna Beach calls for visitors to discover the rugged, coastal beauty that made this city famous in the first place.

Beach time with a grueling climb

Looking down from the top of 1,000 Steps Beach, you can't even see the sand below; instead, a tunnel of vines hugs a long, straight, concrete staircase, creating the illusion that it goes on forever. In reality, the 230 or so steps - that do, in fact, feel like several hundred more on the way back up - lead to a pristine cove. Enclosed by the steep bluff, a halo of multimillion-dollar mansions and palm trees on the sand, this quintessentially Southern California paradise remains unspoiled thanks to the infamous stairs that keep crowds away.

To access the beach, look for the plant-covered staircase entrance on the west side of S. Pacific Coast Highway and 9th Street. Parking is free along PCH and in the surrounding residential neighborhood.

First, fuel up or pack a picnic

Before making the 1,000 Steps trek, grab some goodies for your picnic basket at Orange Inn, a roadside cafe that's been around since 1931 and even claims to be California's very first juice bar. Although the cafe is most famous for its California Date Shake, the variety of freshly baked muffins here are equally irresistible, especially the orange. If you're craving something more substantial, try the house-roasted turkey as a sandwich or wrap, or a gigantic breakfast burrito. Open seven days a week from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. 703 S. Coast Highway, orangeinncafe.com

Another quick stop for a bite is Sergio's Empanadas, a local farmers market hit that recently expanded to a brick and mortar.  Savory stuffed pastries of the meaty and vegetarian sort are baked fresh and must be accompanied by garlicky chimichurri sauce. 977 S. Coast Highway, sergiosempanadas.com

Old Laguna, preserved in time

Admirers of midcentury modern design, succulent gardening and California culture in general will be stoked to tour the Hortense Miller Garden. Miller - who died in 2008 at age 99 - was an artist, environmentalist and author famous for her vertical gardening techniques; the mostly-glass home is perched on a hillside overlooking Miller's 2-acre sloping garden in Boat Canyon, with the Pacific Ocean in the distance. If you're curious about what life looked like back in the day, the city of Laguna Beach offers docent-led tours of the home and property (donated by Miller later in life), decorated with the horticulturalist's signature vertical gardening style and Bauhaus-informed artwork. Call the City Recreation Services department for reservations. (949) 497-0716, hortensemillergarden.org

Located across the canyon, you'll see the faint glimmer of mountain bikers on a trail so high that it lines the sky. Whether you're biking, on horseback or foot, the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park boasts 7,000 acres of protected open space, including 40 miles of trails and the award-winning Nix Nature Center. Open daily from 7 a.m. till sunset, with parking lot hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ($3 daily rate).  For unforgettable, sweeping views of Laguna's opulent coastline, it's a must-visit. 18751 Laguna Canyon Road. ocparks.com  

Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at amytgranite@gmail.com.

Source: Discover SD

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