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Hotel Joaquin Has Emerged in Laguna Beach, and With It Comes One of O.C.'s Best New Culinary and Hospitality Gems

Allison Mitchell | August 22, 2019 | Lifestyle California Destinations Weekend Escapes Travel

Enjoy a custom Saline picnic with complimentary chairs and umbrellas at Shaw’s Cove.

My staycation at Laguna Beach’s new Hotel Joaquin begins as all getaways should—with a cocktail. In this case, it’s a sipper that’s as light and relaxed as I feel upon arriving at the beautifully appointed property designed by Studio Robert McKinley. A record player spins soft tunes by Fleetwood Mac, and the ocean breeze blows through the open-air living room and bar, which are adjacent to the quaint but charming lobby. As I imbibe my 985 spritzer—a combination of St-Germain elderflower liqueur, Mandorla almond grappa, strawberry, sparkling wine, lemon and tarragon, whose name is a nod to the resort’s address on North Coast Highway—I’m already seeing why Vogue, The New York Times, Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler have been singing the praises of this approachable Auric Road newcomer, which made its debut in October. “What sets us apart is that we deliver a luxury experience, but soul is our style,” says Paul Makarechian, owner and CEO of Auric’s third property, the second in California. “Our inspiration comes from the blend of sophistication of St. Barts and the Mediterranean Riviera infused with the adventurous and casual artistic vibe of Southern California. Laguna Beach has one of the most picturesque and magical coastlines of California; it is the perfect vacation destination.” Having been born in Laguna Beach, I can’t help but agree. Yet there’s something special about rediscovering your own backyard through the lens of an upscale property, with a waitstaff at your beck and call, fine dining and beautiful surroundings, that helps even locals learn something new.

Saline’s egg white frittata with kale, soft feta, ricotta and chervil greens

That education begins as we settle into one of 22 rooms outfitted with art and decor gathered from local artisans with an ocean view to boot. Exquisite stone-wrapped and handpainted tile bathrooms, some solely with rain showers, others with sunken tubs and all with eco-friendly bath products, are a standard. You won’t find a single TV on-site; instead, there are record players and a variety of hits from which to choose as the soundtrack to your stay.

The living room acts as a gathering place to enjoy vinyl records, play board games and savor a cocktail or bite from the nearby bar.

Outdoors, the star of the show is the expansive view of the Pacific Ocean. The property is just steps from the private Shaw’s Cove, and on-site activities director George is there to provide stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, beach chairs, umbrellas and games—and just about anything else your adventure-loving heart desires. (During our stay, he took us to participate in a sea lion release at Aliso Beach in collaboration with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.) Hiking is also a popular option thanks to the season’s superbloom, and George is a pro at navigating both known and under-the-radar paths throughout Laguna Beach and Crystal Cove, toting you there in a Hotel Joaquin-branded Moke to boot.

Surfboards, boogie boards, snorkeling gear and more are among the complimentary equipment on offer.

And if the seaside location is the star, chef Leo Bongarra is certainly best supporting actor. He’s the culinary master behind Saline, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are available to guests only, keeping the experience ultraexclusive and intimate. As the former executive chef of the iconic Sunset Tower Hotel, the Le Cordon Bleu- and Scuola di Cucina-trained gourmand has cooked for the James Beard Foundation and the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, and catered some of Hollywood’s biggest nights (like the Academy Awards and Golden Globes).

The Auric Spritz with Dolin Blanc vermouth, Magdalena rum, Aperol lemon, sparkling wine and mint.

His menus, which incorporate fresh ingredients from the on-site garden, are bursting with French and Mediterranean flavors, and you’ll love his food as much as you’ll love the way he passionately presents and describes each inventive dish. Bongarra has a deft talent for turning veggie-driven small plates into full-on entree-level experiences thanks to depth of flavor and complexity. The broccolini arrives with serrano pepper, aji amarillo, garlic tahini and hemp seeds, and the grilled kale is taken to new levels with accompaniments of toast, burrata and basil broth. The crab gnocchi, featuring aged cheddar, Gouda, macadamia and broccolini flower, is a taste you’ll be wishing came in a bowl double the size—it’s just that good—and the sea bass, with black forbidden rice and coconut broth, is some of the best I’ve ever had. Oh, and did I mention the Napa lamb chops? The tender cuts are teamed with turmeric cauliflower, sweet potatoes, pine nuts and preserved lemon, and alone are worth booking an overnight stay. Now, retire to your king-size bed dressed with fine Anichini linens and prepare for round two in the morning. Bongarra will wake up your senses with chlorophyll water—a sip full of edible flowers that shows its viridescent hue as it’s poured. For lighter palates, the housemade rawnola with blueberries and pistachios delights with vibrant Blue Majik almond milk (its color comes from a condensed extract of spirulina). Hearty eaters will be salivating over the croque-monsieur stacked with ham, Swiss, Gruyere, serrano pepper and farm greens.

The charming bar by Studio Robert McKinley.

As your stay comes to an end, head down to the pool for a last-minute dip. It’s an ideal to way to wrap up a quintessentially Southern California visit, whether passing through or playing tourist in the place we’re lucky to call home. Room rates $269-$599 per night, 985 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949.494.5294