By Richard Grice
When I arrived at Laguna Beach, I stood on the high cliffs gazing out across the ocean toward the shadowy outline of Catalina Island. This was the end of the road. The last stop on a journey of classical western culture, which started 2700 years ago when the ancient Greeks founded the colony of Syracuse in Sicily, and has spread ever westward until here, stopped by the great ocean. You can go no further.
I felt like Odysseus, in the middle of his 10-year sojourn from Troy. He washed up on the land of the “lotus eaters.” A land of heady tranquility, flowing with milk and honey, and beguiled by the siren voices of its inhabitancy. “Stay a while..” the voices implore; “chill out..”, or whatever phrase contemporary Epicureans may use to convey the same massage.
But what is it that gives this latter day Shangri-La its appeal? Firstly, and most obvious to the eye is the sheer intensity and scale of its natural beauty. The descent to the sea from the steep cliffs forms delightful rocky coves with white sand beaches lapped by a silver blue ocean. It reminded me of the Cornish coast of England, and the artist colony fishing village of St. Ives, its sister city, (whose committee chairman graciously invited me to her home.) The climate, however, has no parallel in England. Warm and constant, it has a soothing effect on the soul. The old song refrain “it never rains in Southern California..” echoed in my mind and brought a smile to my face.
Perching along its cliff tops are the elaborate and individual houses of open plan living, protruding balconies, floor to ceiling glass and gravity defying engineering. They perch as a bold statement of the twin themes of the settlement; the brash self-confidence of America, and the dramatic beauty, which plays to the aspirant life style. They are testaments to the “good life” in spades. The rich man in his castle…the poor man on his paddle board.
My companion and I were invited to an open day at one such mega million dollar fantasy house, sculptured into the side of the cliffs. Sympathetic to its surroundings, yet dramatic in its construction, the interior had a labyrinthine coziness, and more than a touch of “Lord of the Rings” about it. I half expected to be invited to sit and play a game of chess with a Hobbit in a light window bay. “Not everyone’s super rich here,” said a fellow visitor with a long faded English accent, “…but nobody’s poor,” he added with a knowing and hushed tone. How true, I thought as we moved up the hill a few blocks among the neatly painted white picket fences of the picturesque timber framed homes. The ordinary townsfolk are clearly a little less ordinary than other places.
It strikes me that the finest places on earth are built up layer by layer over time; the charm of decay in harmony with sensitive renewal, not the brutally imposing hand of development justified as progress. But most importantly it is the layer upon layer of its people that brings it to life. From its early days as a pleasant shelter on the coast road, fate decreed its development as an artists’ colony, and to this day that strain is well established and vibrant. Cut off and surrounded by park land, Laguna Beach has avoided the urban sprawl which has swamped so many beautiful places. There are no golden arches, none of the brand chain stores that have rendered the nation’s Main Streets and malls indistinguishable from coast to coast. Instead of retail outlets there are shops, in the old fashioned sense of that word, owned and lovingly cared for by people, not corporations. It creates a street atmosphere like no other. The individual values and life style of the early 20th century settlers has not been diluted out of existence; no patronisingly cute Disney World freak show. The climate and surf culture has added youth and the body beautiful to aesthetic maturity in a harmony that the ancient Greeks would have recognised. The boy David meets Socrates, and most charmingly, they not only get along, but appear to quite like each other. Even the tourists seem to understand their role in sharing a unique place without dominating or abusing it.
But as in all aspects of life, there is nothing more permanent than change. Development is an inevitable process, as my guide on a lengthy coastal hike along the barren shores of the military reservation some 30 miles to the south reminded me. “So this is what it looked like to start with,” I thought. Then with a shudder I reflected on an earlier outing on the southern flanks of L.A. “Is this what Laguna Beach may become, an apocalyptic vision of a petrol-fuelled materialistic future?”
Some places are endowed with natural beauty. Some are even lucky enough to acquire even greater beauty through the sympathetic development of a place and its people. Sadly, most are destined to be destroyed by the heavy-footed march of Mammon. But what fate awaits Laguna? How will “the keepers of the sacred flame” discharge their trust?
Like Odysseus, I was beguiled by this lovely and inviting land, but the pressures of business and family drive me on to Ithaca (or in my case, London). But as a self-professed Epicurean, Ithaca is a destination of necessity, while the land of the “Lotus Eaters” is a destination of choice. So now I await the favourable winds, which will allow me to return.
Retired British Army major and company director Richard Grice is an inveterate traveler, history buff, diver, sailor and thoroughly self indulgent senior citizen.