Peace. Now.

If contemporary life’s multi-tasking, instant-messaging, due-yesterday, traffic-migraine doggedness has you down—fear not!
Peace Lake at Soka University

Photograph bySteve Wunder

We know eight local places where you can escape for a little solitude and serenity.

Soka University

If you prefer light and stillness outdoors, you’ll enjoy the serenity of Soka University in Aliso Viejo. Start by spending a few minutes on one of the benches that ring Peace Lake, the fan-shaped water feature that fronts the hilltop university, which has a distinctly Getty Center vibe and feels deserted most weekends. But don’t stop there. Behind it is the gradual upward slope of the campus, which includes wildflowers and grasses between the buildings. Either of the two walkways that bisects the lake will take you to stairs that lead to a wide lawn, and at the rear of that you’ll find another staircase. It leads to a simple water feature centered in the courtyard between buildings named for Linus Pauling and Mohandas and Kasturba Gandhi. The quietest places are behind three buildings along a ridge at the rear of the campus, especially the beautiful Athenaeum. Walkways guide visitors to manicured gardens, flower-draped trellises, idyllic gazebos, and cactus-lined pathways overlooking Wood Canyon.

Center for Living Peace

Kelly Thornton Smith is contemplating how her quest for peace and tranquility fits into the Center For Living Peace, an Irvine actualization center she started in 2010. She is hesitating.

“Me?” she abruptly says, with a long laugh. “You’re asking me? My life is just as frenetic as everyone else’s!”

A meeting with Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson inspired Smith to go forward with a community-driven center devoted to promoting peace. It has sprouted in unexpected and ambitious directions. Smith partners with UC Irvine on a lecture series that has welcomed A-list speakers such as scientist Jane Goodall and actress Charlize Theron. The two groups and the Friends of the Dalai Lama will host a three-day “Global Compassion Summit” July 5 to 7, featuring the Tibetan spiritual leader and tied to his 80th birthday.

The center also offers a range of classes, including yoga, tai chi, qigong, knitting, and crocheting, plus diverse discussion forums on topics that include compassionate parenting and better communication. The Ecology Center and Chuck Jones Center for Creativity are among other institutional partners offering classes. The center’s motto is to make “good happen.”

Shared experiences and pursuits are key, Smith says. “Our society has previously approached the exploration of inner self as almost a drive-through window. You briefly pick up a quick fix of philosophy, or a stint of exercise, or pop a pill, and off you go, back to your ‘real’ life,” she says.

“I believe our human nature is to experience ourselves through others so you validate not just your own life, but all of our lives. What the center—and the interactions with others through the activities here—helps (people) find is a measure of peace and tranquility that emerges in sharing and experiencing these pursuits with like-minded others.”

Hortense Miller Garden

IMG_1354loThe spectacular garden in this former private residence cascades down the hillside of a northern Laguna Beach canyon. This secluded oasis of calm and sea breezes, established in 1959, is the result of one woman’s love of nature and her five decades of labor.

Miller’s isn’t a manicured English garden, nor a twee Japanese one in miniature, but an egalitarian riot of as many as 1,500 kinds of plants and trees set on 2½ acres in Boat Canyon. Pointy-leafed, 15-foot-high yucca trees stretch skyward, while ground-hugging desert succulents, such as cabbagelike echeverias and stone-dwelling sedum, hunker down in dry spots. Varietals both common and obscure fill the beds willy-nilly. Rustic benches are placed to foster contemplative pauses, punctuating the splendid chaos of plants.

Miller migrated from Chicago to Laguna Beach, and in plain, Midwestern-speak she laid out her philosophy of gardening: “I’m a plant nut. I don’t interfere with them. I just put things in the ground and let them grow.”

When 99-year-old Miller died in 2008, she left her home and garden to the city of Laguna Beach. You’ll need reservations to visit, and ask in advance to linger after the guided docent tour. It beckons to over-stressed locals who might find what Eastern mystics have believed for centuries: there’s peace in a natural setting. 949-497-0716,

Ramakrishna Monastery

IMG_4742Wind along Live Oak Canyon Road through Trabuco Canyon, and after a couple of miles you’ll encounter a site devoted to peaceful meditation and learning, the Vedanta Society’s Ramakrishna Monastery.

Sitting on 40 acres of gently rolling foothills, this cloistered compound was built in 1942 by English writer and California transplant Gerald Heard. Trabuco College, as it was called, was designed for a contemplative life. The venture closed in 1947 when it turned out that the pursuit of consciousness did not satisfy monetary necessities. Heard sold it to the like-minded Vedanta Society of Southern California, a spiritual order from India, and the monastery was consecrated in 1949.

The old-California-style compound feels gently frozen in time. The buildings are arranged in a well-tended semicircle of single- and two-story white stucco with Spanish tile roofs. It’s an embodiment of stillness; the only sound occurs with the occasional tolling of a small bell in the garden that visitors use to announce their arrival (free entrance daily from 9 to 11 a.m. and 3 to 5 p.m.).

IMG_4713Six monks inhabit the grounds, and there’s a comfortable aloneness to the setting, making it ideal for separating oneself from outside distractions. The mile-long Shrine Trail, which honors seven world religions, is a narrow, at times single-track dirt footpath that switchbacks through gentle rises and dips. This walk is just challenging enough that the modest sculptural monuments along the way invite you to pause. The crowning part of the excursion is atop a hillside, where a Sanskrit Om symbol is mounted on a wooden beam. It frames the surrounding rises and the view of a water reservoir below.

Visit the monastery, too; leave shoes in a small entryway and venture into a completely still, darkened hall. At the far end is a faint glow in this windowless space—an illuminated shrine with a glowing representation of Ramakrishna, and, near it, incongruously, an illuminated digital clock. Sit down, absorb the spirit of the place, and features slowly will emerge: prayer mats, some steps, a few illustrated books on a small wooden case. As the minutes pass and eyes adjust, the world’s stresses will fade away.


For some, the path to serenity is paved with pricey pleasures. If that’s your inclination, here are three Orange County spas that received five-star ratings from the 2015 Forbes Travel Guide.

SPA MONTAGE, Montage, Laguna Beach

Trademark Treatment: Wellness Signature Experience ($425) is a minimum two-hour program that might include massage, reflexology, homeopathy, and other treatments.

Amenities: Any facial, massage, or personal-training service lasting an hour or more includes daylong access to the beach, fitness center, plunge and lap pools, and sauna and steam rooms.

Particulars: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., guests must be 16 years and older. 949-715-6010,

SPA GAUCIN, St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa, Dana Point

Trademark Treatment: The Costa del Sol ($335) two-hour plan includes a Moroccan argan oil hair treatment and scalp massage; body massage; and then hand and foot exfoliation, wrap, and reflexology.

Amenities: Daylong access to the beach, lounge, pools, fitness center, and steam and sauna rooms is available with most treatments, from $55 for a European manicure.

Particulars: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., guests 16 and 17 years old must have adult accompaniment. 949-234-3367,

THE SPA at Pelican Hill, Newport Beach

Trademark Treatment: Signature Treatment ($315 Mondays through Thursdays; $415 Fridays through Sundays) includes a 50-minute specialized massage, a 50-minute cleansing facial, and a $35 spa cuisine lunch credit.

Amenities: Beach walk at 8:30 a.m. (free shuttle to the shore and back to the resort). Daylong access to fitness center, lounge, pools, steam, and sauna rooms is available with any treatment, from $35 for an eyebrow wax.

Particulars: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Minimum age 16 years (with parental consent) and older. 855-315-8214,

DSCF1532Coffee with your Quiet? Serenity without Solitude

For pure atmosphere it’s hard to fathom anywhere that courts soulfulness more than Hidden House Coffee Roasters in the Los Rios District of San Juan Capistrano. The home-roasted coffee has made the name a misnomer. There’s invariably a line, and this isn’t exactly a secret find.

But Hidden House has a mojo unlike any other watering hole. The 1890-era building was most famously the home of San Juan Historical Society matriarch Delfina Olivares. Come up on the Olivares porch and it feels like, well, home—either the one you have or the one you always wanted. The sheer soulfulness of the spot is apt to center you, no matter how much caffeine you ingest.

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