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9 Surprisingly Cool Things To Do And See In Laguna Beach

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Just over a decade ago, MTV introduced audiences to an obnoxious group of high school students and their first-world problems. Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County nearly altered the reputation of its eponymous locale forever. Now the city's official tourism board is hoping that we have short memories of crappy teen reality shows in order to lure Angelenos to the oceanside hamlet.I recently had the opportunity to participate in a two-day press trip with Visit Laguna Beach to acquaint myself with the town, and I couldn't find a reason not to go—other than the fact that it's in Orange County. But as a native Angeleno myself, I'm no stranger to the negative portrayal of my city in the media, so I felt it was only fair to give Laguna Beach a chance, even though I've traditionally avoided the OC like a Trader Joe's parking lot on a Saturday afternoon.

Driving south from California State Route 73 down the bucolic Laguna Canyon Road, I felt the stress of the city dissipating, though the mounting sense of calm and relaxation was a little disconcerting. Then it hit me like a giant, shiny UFO, simultaneously terrifying and completely awe-inspiring: a pristine, glittering ocean that lacked the nasty, unidentifiable gunk that floats along the waves of L.A. I arrived to my impossibly charming lodgings right on the ocean at the Inn at Laguna Beach, wan-complected and wearing inappropriate footwear. They were still nice to me.

I came with one question: what is there to see in Laguna Beach, besides waves and sand? I quickly learned that it isn't a beach: it's 20 of them, each its own little cove with public access and distinct personality. Combined, these string of inlets take up about seven miles of coastline, with countless tide pools forming their own micro marine habitats as well. There are strict preservation guidelines: no one is allowed to take any shells, rocks, or living creatures from the beaches. This undoubtedly contributes to the whole untouched vibe of the place.

My belief that Laguna was a vapid shopping mecca for overly surgerized airheads gave way to the discovery that it's actually a surprisingly quaint, bohemian enclave with a lot of history. There are street names such as Sleepy Hollow Lane and Mermaid Avenue, and a tiny shopping area called the Hobbit Center. Evidently, Timothy Leary once lived in Laguna in the 1960s and there was even a popular strain of LSD to come from there called "Orange Sunshine." This alone was enough to help change my mind about Laguna Beach, but I had the good fortune to make a few other discoveries that helped give me a new perspective of the place, too.

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THE GREETER

Laguna is famous for its greeters, a tradition that dates back to the 1880s, when a Portuguese fisherman by the name of Old Joe Lucas supposedly survived a shipwreck and shacked up in an old schoolhouse in Laguna Beach. He greeted stagecoaches with a giant trident and his signature white beard, and lived off donations from the city and his fellow citizens. He died in 1908, and a few decades later, Laguna's most famous greeter, Danish expatriate Eiler Larsen, assumed the role. He worked as a gardener, but like his predecessor, he also lived off the generosity of the locals. Larsen was designated the city's "Official Greeter" in 1963, and his footprints were impressed into the sidewalk in February, 1964. There's even a street named after him. Larsen died just before his 85th birthday in 1975, but the greeting tradition continued with others, including a man called No. 1 Unnamed Archer (his real name). The current greeter is Michael Minutoli who rides a vintage bicycle and wears a red glittered vest, looking a little like a cross between Michael Jackson and a yacht captain. He's friendly and offbeat, perhaps the only two job requirements for a Laguna Beach greeter. Today, there's even a film about these unique gentlemen called The Greeter Documentary, 125 years after the most famous greeter was born.

There are two sculptures of Eiler Larsen in Laguna Beach: a cement-cast sculpture by Charles Beauvais from the 1960s and refurbished by Mike Tauber in 2006 is at 1200 South Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach (in front of the Shops at the Old Pottery Place). A wooden sculpture by Guy Angelo Wilson from 1986 is at 329 South Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach (in front of Greeter's Corner restaurant).

PAGEANT OF THE MASTERS

The Pageant of the Masters began in 1932 when the city was trying to find a way to capitalize off tourists coming to L.A. for the Olympics. A bunch of local personalities and artists decided it would be a good idea to put frames around their heads and march in an impromptu parade. That evolved into the Pageant of the Masters, which features a series of tableaux vivants or "living pictures" in which volunteers are completely still and create the illusion of both classical and contemporary 2D paintings. The nightly program is set to an original score played by a live orchestra in an enchanting outdoor amphitheater with live narration. Every year has a different theme (this year's is "the Pursuit of Happiness"), and it always ends with a real-life recreation of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, in which Laguna's erstwhile greeter Eiler Larsen used to star. It's not far off from what you might have seen on Arrested Development.

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Pageant of the Masters is every night from July 8 to August 31, 2015 at 8:30 p.m. at the Irvine Bowl, located at 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, (800) 487-3378. Tickets are $20 to $70.

SAWDUST ART FESTIVAL & STUDIO ARTS CLASSES

In Laguna, the Pageant of the Masters is linked to the juried Festival of the Arts, and there's also the yearly Art-A-Fair. But back in the '60s, some locals felt the existing art scene was a little too snooty and conservative, so the Sawdust Art Festival was born. The only qualifications for the vendors are to be residents of Laguna Beach and to make their own stuff. During the summer, the Sawdust Art Festival features more than 200 artisans, as well as live entertainment, complimentary art activities and more. Many of the vendors return around the holidays for the winter version of the arts and crafts fair, and for the rest of the year, the festival grounds are home to a variety of classes on things like ceramics, jewelry-making and glass-fusing.

Sawdust Art Festival is from June 26 to August 30, 2015. Sawdust Art Festival Winter Fantasy is on weekends from mid-November to mid-December. Classes are year-round. Sawdust Art Festival is located at 935 Laguna Canyon Road., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3030. Ticket costs to the festival are $8.50 per person. Class prices vary.

DRIFTWOOD KITCHEN

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Slim Summerville (1892-1946) was a goofy, gawky comedic film actor who appeared in more than 40 films, many of them silent. He debuted on the silver screen as a Keystone Cop in 1912 and resided in a beautiful beachfront house in Laguna Beach. His former 1920s home is now the site of a restaurant called Driftwood Kitchen. For 45 years, the eatery was called the Beach House, but now under new management, it's had a major facelift and a menu overhaul, though the atmosphere is still relaxed and laid-back. Considering its location, it should come as no surprise that the specialty here is seafood, but there's also a snazzy drink menu at the adjacent Stateroom Bar featuring skillfully made cocktails like "The Passionate One" featuring gin, Aperol, St. Germain, lemon sour, passionfruit puree and Prosecco.

Driftwood Kitchen is located at 619 Sleepy Hollow Ln., Laguna Beach. (949) 715-7700.

SECOND SMALLEST CHURCH IN THE WORLD

On March 10, 1933, Long Beach had a 6.4 magnitude earthquake that killed 120 people and resulted in $50 million worth of damage, leading to the Field Act that mandated earthquake resistant construction. Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the second smallest Catholic Church in the world, St. Francis by the Sea was built with rubble from that earthquake the same year. With a total of just 42 seats, the teeny-tiny church still features colorful original stained glass and elegant Spanish tile, all packed into just 1,053 square feet. It even has a choir loft housing the National "Sick Call" Sets Museum that features items pertaining to the Catholicism's Last Rites ritual. Some date all the way back to the 1880s. Despite the church's diminutive stature, it remains a big local landmark in Laguna Beach.

St. Francis by the Sea American Catholic Church is located at 430 Park Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 426-2561.

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PACIFIC MARINE MAMMAL CENTER

The seawater in Laguna Beach may be crystal clear, but that doesn't necessarily help severely sick baby seals and sea lions. Whether it's because they're full of fishing lures, starving or ill with pneumonia, many of these adorable pups beach themselves to die, and when they get to that point, the nonprofit Pacific Marine Mammal Center is there to help. With a full-time veterinarian, a medical director and a lot of volunteers, the PMMC takes in baby seals and sea lions from more than 40 miles of coastline along Orange County. The public can visit these creatures who are divided into separate swimming areas according to their health, with the final area full of chubby, healthy dog-mermaids getting ready to be released back into the ocean, where they belong.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is located at 20612 Laguna Canyon Road. (949) 494-3050. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

VICTORIA BEACH PIRATE TOWER

At the edge of one of Laguna's smaller, more intimate beaches is an intriguing 60-foot tower with a wooden spiral staircase and rusted metal grating built into the side of a cliff. According to OC Weekly, it was built in 1926 for a state senator named William E. Brown. In the 1940s, a retired Naval officer named Harold Kendrick bought the property and local lore says he'd dress up as a pirate and hide coins in the walls of the tower for kids to seek out as "treasure." Since then, the house attached to the tower has changed hands, with Bette Midler even owning the property at one point. These days, the tower is closed off and its future is uncertain, but the surrounding tide pools are still a draw, serving as little swimming holes with sea anemones, sea stars, sea urchins, little fish and crabs. The tower itself remains a compelling and dramatic backdrop if you should, you know, decide to visit the beach.

Victoria Beach Tower is located at the bottom of Victoria Dr. in Laguna Beach and should only be accessed at low tide.

LAGUNA ART MUSEUM

Just about 300 feet from the ocean, the Laguna Art Museum is known for its world-class exhibits as much as its stunning locale. Its main focus is the art and legacy of California artists, with a vast permanent collection of California art from the 19th century through the present. Public programs include an evening of music and art called Live! at the Museum on the second Thursday of each month and on the third Thursday of every month, the museum offers free screenings with admission. In the end, it seems that art is as important to the area's cultural heritage as the ocean, and you be remiss if you hauled yourself all the way down to Laguna Beach and didn't visit one of the oldest museums in the State of California.

Laguna Art Museum is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays: 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Thursdays, 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. It's located at 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, (949) 494.8971. General admission is $7.

LAGUNA BEACH TROLLEY

Finally, none of these attractions would matter if you had to drive around to each one looking for a parking space. During the summer and weekends, the City of Laguna Beach offers a free trolley service, with adorable old-timey vehicles that are really busses made to look like trolleys, but are still fun to ride. Just like a trip to Laguna Beach, riding a trolley feels just like a step back in time.

Download the Laguna Beach Travel Info App and use the "Trolley/Bus Tracker" for transit information delivered in real time, as well as information on tide tables, local events, hotels, restaurants and other activities.