Cheers to Laguna Beach

A rewarding and laid-back California getaway

"You're brilliant!" my fiancé, Ryan, told me as I pulled into a parking spot right across from the beach.

"You've finally noticed," I said with a wink.

Inspiration struck when I was on the phone with my best friend, Kara. It had been too long since we'd gotten together with her and her boyfriend, Kyle. I thought we should make it a weekend getaway with sunshine, beaches, hiking and cocktails. Destination: Laguna Beach.

Chillin' in beach style
I looked around excitedly for Kara and Kyle. We'd agreed to meet at Cress Street Beach. Sure enough, there they were, pulling in right behind us, Kara waving her arms wildly by way of greeting from the passenger seat.

"Mel! This weekend is just what I needed," Kara said as they pulled beach bags from their car. I kicked off my sandals the moment we got to the white sand.

Kyle and Ryan started throwing a football, while Kara and I wasted no time in getting in the refreshingly cool water and catching up on the details of each other's lives-me with wedding plans, Kara with a new job at a research lab.

The weather was perfect. Kids with their parents played in the tide. A few paddle boarders peppered the deeper waters. I let myself fall into the beckoning aqua waves... the relaxation washed over me, courtesy of the salt water and bright sunshine.

It wasn't long before the guys joined us, and we got into swimming races. Ryan was the clear winner. Kara insists she had nothing to do with pulling Kyle's ankle back so I could take second place. That's what friends are for!

Drinks with a view
After several hours in the sun, we headed to The Rooftop Lounge with wrinkled fingers and wavy hair for some post-beach beverages. We knew we had found a gem as soon as we entered the rustic Spanish lobby of the La Casa Del Camino Hotel and began climbing the stairs up to the rooftop. We were greeted by a crowd of other millennials, a fully stocked rooftop bar and the most gorgeous 180-degree ocean view from a restaurant that I had seen in a long time. Come for the food, stay for the unbeatable ambience.

We found a table near the heat lamp, which took the chill off the cooling temperature, and ordered our first round of drinks. Everyone was hungry after an energetic day in the sun, so from the selection of appetizers we chose the warm baby Brie in raspberry sauce. Incredible!

It was hard to pick from the cocktail menu. Kara and Kyle each went for a different flavor of mojito-Kara for the ginger, and Kyle for the champagne. Ryan ordered a Luck of the Irish, which is a pint of Irish beer with a shot of Irish whiskey. I went rogue by ordering a hot drink, the Nutty Irishman-I have a weakness for coffee; throw in Bailey's Irish Cream, a hazelnut liquor, top it with whipped cream and I'm sold!

We sipped and noshed while laughing and chatting as the sun set, producing a palette of breathtaking color, until it felt time to head to our hotel, Laguna Beach House. As we walked through the lobby, it was clear that this boutique inn presented a vibe that could only be described as "pure Californian"-a mix of surfboards, coastal decor and laid-back atmosphere. I felt instantly at home.

The staff at the hotel was friendly and attentive; as Katie, the front-desk attendant showed us to Kyle and Kara's room, she pointed out that much of the decor was hand-selected by the hotel's founder, and that each room was unique. "Will you look at this sink?!" Kara exclaimed as Katie opened the door to Kyle's and her room. I strolled over to take a closer look at the bathroom sink, which was tiled in bright Spanish-style mosaic. The room was truly one of a kind, with a custom-made surfboard hanging over the bed and skateboards serving as towel racks. We said our goodnights and turned in with plans for an active morning.

Feeling on top of the world
The next day we woke up ready to embark on a local hike: the Top of the World Trail in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. The winding drive up into the canyon of Laguna Beach offered promising views, and I couldn't wait to break in my new hiking boots on one of the trails.

The group decided on one of the more popular routes-a two-mile trek out and back along West Ridge Trail. On hard-packed dirt, with a challenging elevation gain, it led us toward the ocean. We passed other hikers and cyclists, and found the atmosphere to be exceptionally friendly. I can't tell you how exciting it was to hear, "You're almost there!" from fellow trekkers. Having the trail on a ridge was so picturesque. We could look out to see over neighborhoods and lush green landscape on either side for miles. And, of course, the Southern California blue sky topped it all off.

If the views from the trail were great, the lookout from the end point-the Top of the World-was breathtaking. It offered a 360-degree panorama that combined the beauty of the journey with a close-up of the ocean. As the four of us looked out to the Pacific, sufficiently pleased with the workout and feeling a shared sense of achievement, I felt an overwhelming rush of gratitude: for good friends, for nature, for weekend getaways and more. It's the kind of perspective that doesn't come from sitting in traffic or grocery shopping-it takes something special to be so overwhelmed.

Our hike back was quieter. I reminded myself to enjoy the moment and tried to soak in every aspect-the crunch of our boots on the dirt; the smell of the clean air. By the time we reached the starting point again, we were all excited for food.

The perfect concoction
Kyle did a little research and came up with the suggestion of Las Brisas, a long-time dining establishment in Laguna Beach that's perched right on the oceanfront. We snagged a table right up against the window, with an unblocked view of the park and beach down below. Families, couples, dog-walkers and even a wedding party strolled by, which further romanticized our idyllic trip.

We started with a mouthwatering shrimp cocktail featuring buttery jumbo shrimp and a tequila cocktail sauce. Kara said she felt like she won a prize when the waiter brought her a Brisas Colada, a concoction of Bacardi, coconut and creamy pineapple-delicious!

My cucumber-jalapeño margarita paired nicely with my main course, the Ahi Poke Tower: fresh South Pacific ahi, perfectly ripe avocado, sweet pear, jicama and a slight kick from some red jalapeños. Ryan shared a bit of his Dos Moles Pollo (Mary's chicken with two moles and grilled veggies) with me, and it was incredible-rich, savory, perfectly balanced in spices.

"I'm really glad we did this," I said, as I watched some bridesmaids in matching shirts huddle together for a photo against the ocean backdrop.

"Cheers!" Kyle called raising his Brisas Mary. As far as I knew, that one word summed up our entire trip.

Uncover more great things to do in Laguna Beach!