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Coast With the Most: Santa Barbara to La Jolla

Our base for the weekend's festivities was the Bacara Resort and Spa on the Gaviota Coast. This spectacular shoreline, the largest south-facing stretch of sand on the American Pacific, is one of the last remaining intact coastal Mediterranean ecosystems in California.
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The last time Toronto-based writer Lin Stranberg and I collaborated on a Huffington Post travel blog, we won the Visit California Eureka! Award for Best Digital Feature. This year, my niece Ashley Sackerman's wedding to Christopher Bell at the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens seemed like the ideal starting point for another Cali coastal road adventure -- this time heading south.

Pacific Coast luxe. Pooches welcome.
Our base for the weekend's festivities was the Bacara Resort and Spa on the Gaviota Coast. This spectacular shoreline, the largest south-facing stretch of sand on the American Pacific, is one of the last remaining intact coastal Mediterranean ecosystems in California. Dogs have the run of the beach, which is not surprising; they are most welcome throughout this sumptuous hotel. While Coco, poodle companion extraordinaire, recuperated from his morning jog, we got in a pre-wedding workout at Norman's TRX class before mellowing out with a Citrus Avocado Body Polish in the 42,000 square foot spa complex. Had we had more time, we might have been tempted by the array of outdoor activities such as stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, horseback riding or kiteboarding.

"Coastal warmth. LA cool."
After the post-wedding brunch, we headed south to Marina del Rey, a community built around the 19 marinas that form the world's largest man-made small craft harbor. We had 24 hours to relax and recharge at the Ritz-Carlton, a dark horse winner of a hotel that may just be one of L.A.'s best-kept secrets. Our Club Level room ($150 extra a day for perks aplenty) had a small balcony with a big view. The service was swanky and we treated ourselves accordingly, with an LA Lift facial at the hotel's Spa del Rey, a steak and seafood dinner at the nearby Café del Rey, looking out at the boats, and a leisurely breakfast at the jer-ne restaurant, soon to be revamped in a contemporary retake befitting its hip Silicon Beach clientele.

Host of the coast.
Dockside at Newport's Balboa Bay Club

No accident that Newport Beach, famous for its glitz and glam, was the setting for the wildly popular TV teen soap The O.C. What came as a surprise was the size and scope of the beautiful Newport Harbor, and our hotel, the Balboa Bay Resort, has been the harborside place to be since 1948. Back in the day, John Wayne would motor across the water from his manse at Duke's Point to hang in the bar with the two Ronnies (Colman and Reagan). Today, they would be even more wowed than we were by the collection of cutting-edge vessels dockside -- everything from top-of the-line yachts to the locally designed Duffy, a ubiquitous, jauntily canopied all-electric runabout. All get decked out for the Christmas Boat Parade; book a waterfront room for the best view in town.

Kick back at the beach.
One of our favorite SoCal coastal stops is Laguna Beach, a no-longer funky beach town with an artistic bent. The streets are lined with galleries and its kitschy Pageant of the Masters, where local volunteers replicate famous paintings as tableaux vivants, is an annual crowd pleaser. Laguna's myriad palm- and eucalyptus-rimmed coves and beaches contrast sharply with the bare expansive shores of the beach communities further north, like Santa Monica and Playa del Rey.
The rich vegetation and villa-dotted hillsides are reminiscent of the South of France or Monaco, but here the high rollers break on the shore; it's California beach culture all the way. This is, after all, where Hobie Alter's surf and sail mega-empire was born; at his shop in the center of town you can buy a wetsuit for your two year old. The Laguna Cliffs Inn, a hip take on a '60s motel, offered us a hard-to-beat, block-from-the-beach location (pick up umbrellas, towels and chairs at the front desk), friendly service, and amazing value for the money.

How's your day going so far?
We did not bat an eyelid when the valet at Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa opened our car doors with the above, clearly the preferred greeting of service industry types from Santa Barbara south. We had reached our final destination on a trip that had been going just great, thanks. Now this sprawling Cali-Spanish hacienda, spread over ten acres, offered total tranquility and the time to reflect on our voyage. That evening, we made the ten minute drive to La Jolla, the jewel of San Diego, past its breathtaking cove framed with dramatic white cliffs -- a crowning dazzler of a view that topped off the string of stunners we'd been treated to since Santa Barbara. Spectacularly, sensationally, jaw-breakingly beautiful.
Our last stop was a terrace table at The Med at the La Valencia Hotel, which has graced the La Jolla cliffs since 1926. The combo of hip executive chef Daniel Barron, a James Beard nominee, and the old-timey Moorish pink architecture made it the perfect setting for a great dinner overlooking our final Pacific sunset.