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On a languid, sunny Friday afternoon in late June, I found myself standing in the middle of what is possibly the most brilliantly curated emporium in America: A’maree’s. Located on the West Coast highway in Newport Beach, it’s a store frequented by affluent locals, art collectors from L.A., and women who fly in on private jets from Houston. They come to browse its ecumenical mix of clothing, shoes, fine jewelry, beauty products, bags, esoteric perfumes, art, oversized tchotchkes like Meissen elephants, Taschen books, and home goods imported from Paris. And frequently to drop a lot of money as well, subtly encouraged by fashionsavvy sales staff who double as stylists advising potential customers on how to cinch a belt or arrange a collar.

The 8,300-square-foot store carries clothes by more than 200 designers, which range from a $75 T-shirt to couture confections. The three sisters—Denise, Dawn, and Apryl—who own the store along with their mother, Nancy Brown, started it in 1976 in a modest space in the back of their house. They are now ensconced in an exuberant cement, plaster, and glass home, which was designed in 1961 by a pair of Pasadena architects, Ladd & Kelsey, for a series of waterfront restaurants, and later sat empty for more than a decade before being renovated into a sleek retail mecca by Paul Davis in 2010. The building backs onto Newport harbor, and the store has its own slip and a burnished motorboat, a Lyman 54, the better to deliver purchases to nearby customers. “We don’t love fashion,” Dawn, the middle sister, says. “Fashion is too fast. We love good style, good quality, and sustainability.”

Orange County, which includes Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, and Laguna Beach, has always had something of a mixed reputation. It’s around an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, but feels like a different universe entirely from La-La Land. Most of us non-natives have gleaned what we know about Southern California from the TV series of some years back (Fox’s The O.C.) to the various reality spin-offs that ensued (MTV’s Laguna Beach and Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County). But before everything you’ve taken in about artificially blonded beach babes and fractious, ever-spending housewives, there is the light to contend with.

What a light it is: a mellow golden incandescence that spills over everything, its rays lending a sparkle to the rippling waves of the Pacific and a shine to the glass fronts of the boutiques in downtown Laguna Beach. It is a light that has lured both painters and business magnates to this area for decades, making it increasingly one of the most coveted and expensive pieces of real estate on the West Coast. (There are six yacht clubs in Newport harbor alone.) Peter Blake, a well-known art dealer and gallery owner in Laguna—where there are more than 100 galleries—observes that the light has been the “cohesive thread” stitching together the work of the California Minimalists, leading them to create “hard-edged” painting, with acrylic and polyester resin, rather than focus on a figurative style.

And, as I discovered during a mini road trip that a friend and I took to explore this almost mythic part of the country this summer, the area is much more diverse than the television it has inspired. Taken together, Newport and Laguna, although neighboring towns, represent different lifestyles. Where Newport signals older, discreet wealth, and a more conservative point of view (although this traditionally red contingent surprised everyone in the last presidential election by voting Democratic), Laguna has been characterized by a more artistic, cosmopolitan, and liberal sensibility. What both areas share is a panoply of intriguing galleries and some of the best shopping in Southern California, from independent specialty stores to luxury-brand malls like the South West Plaza in Costa Mesa.

As my friend Susan, a transplanted New Yorker who now lives in Santa Monica, went off to try on some pieces in A’maree’s dressing room, I coddled an afternoon cocktail, one of the store’s many unique client services, and found myself in conversation with a Newport native named Darrel Anderson, who was waiting on his wife, whom he described as a “professional shopper.” Anderson’s grandfather started Knott’s Berry Farm, a 57-acre theme park in Buena Park, less than a half hour’s drive from Newport Beach, and he has witnessed a lot of changes over the years. He recounted how Newport’s money originally came from land, but that in more recent years the city has become an incubator for medical technology companies and a home for law and accounting firms. He pointed out that Newport has its sophisticated side, with many quietly prominent art collectors. “I count myself fortunate to have lived here,” Anderson says.

All the same, he bemoans the traffic and the huge influx of “flashier” people who have been moving in, giving Newport its “glitzy” reputation where it once was, as he describes it, “low-key, casual, and unrushed.” In the off-season, he and his wife take off for Laguna, which hasn’t been allowed to change as much because of zoning restrictions, although it, too, has begun to see a shift. Laguna Art Supply on Ocean Avenue, for instance, carries all the brushes and tubes of oil paints an aspiring artist might dream of, but it’s the last of its kind, just as there is only one bookstore downtown. According to one long-time resident, the town is losing its cultural base and becoming increasingly commercialized, with a constant flow of daily tourists. All the same, Laguna, with its mixture of conservative business types, gays, and artists (the Laguna College of Art + Design is a huge draw), is still seen by some as that rapidly disappearing phenomenon: a genuine melting pot.

As Susan and I drove to our hotel, the Montage Laguna Beach, we passed a typical Southern California landscape of surf shops, martial arts shops, home stores, and one-story villas set amid blooming bougainvillea. The resort is an oasis from all of this, with spacious rooms and a pool made for social media. Our room had a balcony overlooking a sea of deck chairs and the ocean.

The next morning we set off to explore Laguna’s nooks and crannies. Beyond the de rigueur Whole Foods and Starbucks, there is no end of enticing stores, from the recently opened Black Bough, a tiny home decor shop that carries upper-end candles as well as carefully chosen design books and pieces of pottery, to Brass Tack, which sells a smorgasbord of enticing offerings, ranging from my beloved Blackwing pencils (replete with packets of extra erasers and an accompanying sharpener) to some simple cotton dresses and pants. There is an excellent, deceptively small lingerie store on Ocean Avenue named I. C. London that has been around for decades, where I availed myself of some new bras, thanks to Elizabeth Benton, the attentive owner, whose motto is “We try to tell it like it is.”

Another boutique worth checking out, especially if you have a yen to dress like the hippest of red-carpet celebrities, is Fetneh Blake in North Laguna. The owner, who founded the shop 18 years ago especially to appeal to the growing level of sophistication among local residents, describes her taste as counterintuitive to the “what’s up” surf culture. The racks carry wispy dresses of understated glamour, plus a scattering of shoes, bags, and fine jewelry. All is carefully chosen to surprise and delight; it’s the sort of shop that makes you want to throw away your dress-up clothes in exchange for a few memorable pieces in which to hit the town.

Perhaps the most unusual fashion outpost in Laguna is Anastasia Boutique on Ocean Avenue, which bills itself as a shop, café, and gallery all in one. Opened in 1983 by Amir Gharavi, a loquacious and opinionated Iranian, Anastasia specializes in European and Japanese designers. You can find Dries Van Noten nestled next to Issey Miyake, Rick Owen next to Comme des Garçons and Ann Demeulemeester. Gharavi is an unpushy salesperson—he almost acts as though selling were beside the point–but his ideas, about the culture of the city (“Laguna is boring,” he announces, “but you get addicted,” and “This is the only place where a councilman can get elected solely on the basis of deprecating remarks”) make for entertaining listening. Meanwhile, his adjoining café serves the best breakfast in town, whether it be squeezed-on-the-spot orange juice, perfectly cooked huevos rancheros, or fluffy pastries.

Sitting at Anastasia, enjoying both the intriguing conversation and the innovative designs, I was struck by what a surprisingly seductive place Orange County is—a vibrant mix of laid-back bohemia, art, and eclectic shopping set against a background of sun, sand, and green hiking trails. It may have its flash, and sometimes too many tourists in flip-flops and skimpy, Hawaiian-print clothing, but beyond all that is a small-town enclave with big-town aspirations. I was told that houses never go on the market here, and I can believe that to be true. I was sad to leave and am already planning to go back.

Where to Stay in the O.C.

Montage Laguna Beach

A beachfront resort and spa with elegant interiors and excellent views. Rooms from $945.

Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel

Modern SoCal luxury on a 150-foot bluff overlooking the Pacific. Rooms from $769.

Hotel Joaquin

A chic new surfside bungalow with art-filled interiors. Rooms from $359.

Monarch Beach Resort

Recently remodeled ultra-plush environs with a Miraval spa, six restaurants, three pools, a golf course, and a private beach.
Rooms from $609.

The Ranch at Laguna Beach

A stylish, low-key resort situated in a picturesque canyon, with the prettiest beach in the area a short walk away. Rooms from $263.


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