“You want to stay in Orange County forever? Grow old playing golf and chatting about the NASDAQ?”
Our answer to this question, posed on the show The O.C. by the character Seth to his friend Ryan after Ryan speaks well of Newport Beach, is “Why not?” Wedged between Los Angeles and San Diego, Orange County is actually a bit more diverse than most people expect, with the Santa Ana River roughly demarcating between O.C.’s more blue-collar, left-leaning north (chief attractions: Huntington Beach and Disneyland) and its wealthier, whiter, more Republican south. Locals are conscious of the divide. There’s a SouthCoast magazine, a South Coast Plaza, and the combined TV footprint of The O.C., The Real Housewives of Orange County and Laguna Beach, which all feature the fabulous lives of the good-looking and well-heeled. But those shows aren’t all just shine – life in south Orange County is indeed like a California dream. We’ll start in the seaside city of Newport Beach, and work our way down the south coast, savoring the high life in Laguna Beach and Dana Point, and casually culminating in the “Spanish Village by the Sea,” San Clemente.
Our skyway into Orange County is the John Wayne Airport (ocair.com). John Wayne lived in nearby Newport Beach, and had he lived to see the evolution of JWA (which was renamed from Orange County Airport after Wayne died in 1979), he would have no doubt been proud. While most airports are crowded, uncomfortable and hectic hubs everybody just wants to get the hell out of, JWA distinguishes itself with a breezy boutique vibe, 35 art exhibits throughout the airport (which rotate every 4-6 months), free Wi-Fi and a smorgasbord of restaurants including the surf-centric Hobie Sandbar Restaurant, an outpost of O.C. diner chain Ruby’s, the Vino Volo wine bar, Javi’s Mexican food and La Tapenade Mediterranean Cafe. We took our time strolling through the airport; in the lobby of the Thomas F. Riley Terminal, we encountered a 9-foot-tall bronze statue of The Duke.
Before heading down to Laguna Beach, there’s at least one thing you have to do in Newport Beach: Rent a comfy, canopied cruiser from Duffy Electric Boat Company (2001 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, 949-645-6812, duffyofnewportbeach.com) and take a tour of the harbor (rates start at $99/hour), which includes such sights as John Wayne’s former house along the shoreline, local favorite Crystal Cove Beach, and people bouldering in Pirate’s Cove by the harbor entrance. There’s wonderful whale-watching year-round. The restaurants all have dock hands; we recommend mooring at The Cannery (3010 Lafayette Rd., Newport Beach, 949-566-0060, cannerynewport.com), which began as a commercial fish cannery in 1921 and was reborn in 1973 as a waterfront restaurant. The décor includes dozens of giant glass jellyfish sculptures dangling from the high warehouse ceilings, and the Pacific seafood dishes are equally artful: flaky and tender Northern Halibut hugged by bok choy and swimming in a Szechuan peppercorn vinaigrette; seafood cocktails bulging with crab, lobster, avocado and shrimp bobbing in sambal sauce; and a “sushi burrito” (flour tortilla stuffed with ahi tuna, hamachi, sushi rice, avocado, seaweed salad and sriracha).
The easiest way to access Laguna Beach and other coastal cities in south O.C. is via California State Route 1. It’s known simply as Coast Highway in Newport Beach, which sits 25 minutes north of Laguna Beach in terms of physical distance, with a wider gap between cultural climates. Whereas Newport Beach is the realm of yacht clubs and beachside cottages, Laguna Beach is the land of $9,000/month oceanfront condos and an arts scene rich in quality, quantity and variety. Here, you can buy braided hemp crafts from hippies sitting under trees and kitschy miniature guitars from the corner store, with Vivienne Westwood hoodies and $5,000 paintings just a seashell’s throw away. The boardwalk bustles with buskers and rollerbladers.
Should the stunning ocean views and sights of surfers inspire you to get in the water, let La Vida Laguna (1257 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, 949-275-7544, lavidalaguna.com) – a company with the motto “Happy Endorphin Making” – guide you with a kayak tour, surf lessons or (our choice) stand-up paddleboarding. A two-hour excursion took us from Fisherman’s Cove across calm waters to a small island where several sea lions were sunning. We anchored ourselves by gripping the thick webs of kelp (which they do not cut in Laguna Beach) and watched as sea lions bobbed closer and closer to us in the water, eyeing us curiously. It was a quaint and quiet contrast to the “mutant boat race” taking place farther down the water, where dozens of people in crazy costumes were drinking beer and desperately trying to keep their makeshift boats – assembled with everything from air mattresses to inflatable pillows to piles of pool noodles – afloat. An activity that understandably necessitates a lot of whooping and hollering.
A great place to refuel after an afternoon under the sun – and a prime spot for more people-watching – is Driftwood Kitchen (619 Sleepy Hollow Ln., Laguna Beach, 949-715-7700, driftwoodkitchen.com), a surf-and-turf seaside perch that serves some seriously refreshing chilled corn and avocado soup, as well as some delightfully spicy grilled octopus resting on a bed of chickpea purée. Another transcendent nosh option is Three Seventy Common Kitchen + Drink (370 Glenneyre St., Laguna Beach, 949-494-8686, 370common.com). Chef and owner Ryan Adams (named 2014 Chef of the Year by the Orange County Register) takes pride in his locavore dishes, thinking globally while sourcing locally. Creative starters like chorizo deviled eggs lead to innovative mains such as steamed clams swimming in garlic-vermouth butter, and fork-tender pork loin barbecued in tongue-tingling harissa sauce with a side of apple and sweet onion coleslaw. The star of the all-around awesome (albeit too brief) craft cocktail menu is the Chupacabra, a tequila/lime/cilantro/cucumber concoction that can be kicked up several notches with just a hint of ghost chile-infusion.
Three Seventy Common is a mere three-minute walk from the bucket list-worthy Pageant of the Masters (650 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, 949-494-1145, foapom.com). This superlative spectacle takes place every day every summer, from early July until the last day of August, in tandem with the Festival of the Arts. Since 1933, the Pageant has stunned spectators sitting under the stars in the outdoor theater with its tableaux vivants (“living pictures”), in which hundreds of volunteers are costumed and painted and positioned into paintings both classical and contemporary, blending mind-bogglingly well into the giant canvases with the aid of props and illusory lighting. There’s a different theme every year; the 2016 presentation is “Partners.”
Lodging in Laguna Beach is generally a luxurious prospect. Breezy and bright, The Inn at Laguna Beach (211 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, 949-497-9722, innatlagunabeach.com) is the quintessential boutique beach hotel. Rooms have ocean views through plantation shutters, and from seaside balconies, but the ultimate eyeful comes from the rooftop Pacific Terrace Bar. The Inn offers activities packages including cruises up the Pacific Coast or through Laguna Canyon, and stand-up paddleboarding excursions.
Montage Laguna Beach (30801 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, 866-271-6953, montagehotels.com/lagunabeach) resembles paradise perched on an oceanside cliff, with its palatial columns, immaculately manicured lawns and perfect palm trees, and 248 impeccable guest rooms decked with massive flat-screen TVs and museum-quality art. Restaurants at the resort include creative American cuisine crusader The Loft (which has a cheese gallery and a 6-foot wood-burning rotisserie) and Studio, which serves modern French cuisine with California spins (we recommend the rabbit ravioli if they have it, with carrot kimchi and fines herbes in consommé).
Dana Point and San Clemente
Seven miles south of Laguna Beach is Dana Point, a surf mecca and one of the few cities along the O.C. coastline to have a harbor, the Dana Point Harbor (34624 Golden Lantern St., Dana Point, 949-923-2255, danapointharbor.com), which houses a host of shops and restaurants. A replica of town namesake Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s ship, the Pilgrim, is anchored in the harbor, and every September, the Tall Ships Festival (tallshipsfestival.com) sails into the city on a fleet of nautical wonders ranging from regal three-masted schooners to twin brigantines. Attendees can blast cannons and do towering rigging. We submerged our minds in the Ocean Institute (24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr., Dana Point, 949-496-2274, ocean-institute.org), which hosts numerous educational exhibits and events year-round, including whale-watching cruises. The best place to stay in Dana Point is Monarch Beach Resort (1 Monarch Beach Resort N., Dana Point, 949-234-3900, monarchbeachresort.com), an opulent oasis of magnificent spiral staircases, glistening chandeliers and ultra chic rooms, plus a private beach, the sprawling Miraval Spa, a golf course and eight restaurants.
As far south as you can go along the O.C. coastline before entering San Diego, we’re back in humble historical territory – the city of San Clemente, aka “Spanish Village by the Sea,” a place known for its Spanish Colonial architecture and historical sites. The largest such site is the nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano (26801 Ortega Hwy., San Juan Capistrano, 949-234-1300, missionsjc.com), a 230-year-old mission and chapel that hosts a gamut of events, from yoga in the courtyard and Native American basket weaving demonstrations to an outdoor concert series featuring tribute bands for acts ranging from Fleetwood Mac to the Bee Gees to Willie Nelson.
Shopping options abound in downtown San Clemente. Two streets in particular boast scores of stores. First, El Camino Real caters to home-and-garden gurus with businesses like Backstreet Home Décor (307 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-498-2210, backstreethomedecor.com), which has provided custom silk florals, furniture and Old World tapestries since 1978; and Designs By Nature (400 S. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-498-8358, designsbynature.com), a gallery of gemstones, fossils and carvings. Clothing coveters love cruising Avenida Del Mar, home to boutique shops like Chica on Del Mar (143 Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente, 949-370-6481, chicaondelmar.com), which carries chic summery dresses, funky heeled boots and accessories galore; and Petit Bonhomme (147 Avenida Del Mar, San Clemente, 949-361-3651), a treasure trove of cool clothing for tots and kids.
Should you decide to bunk down, the town has several lodging options (peruse them at sanclemente.com). So go ahead, stay a while. We did. You don’t have to stay forever, and with a plethora of play prospects, you don’t have to grow old playing golf and chatting about the NASDAQ, either.
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