Just south of Los Angeles is a land that, not all that long ago, was filled with orchards and small towns, a kind of rural America just minutes from one of the nation's largest cities. Today all of that has changed. The agricultural lands have given way to amusement parks like Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm, to upscale beach communities like Newport, Laguna and Balboa Island. There are gleaming new cities like Irvine and some of the nation's top shopping centers like South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island.
It all makes for a fascinating place to vacation. Sure, there's a lot of the glitz that you see on TV shows like The OC and Laguna, but there are also the remnants of picturesque small towns -- now more or less neighborhoods lost in a sea of population growth -- and, of course a whole host of famous attractions the whole family will enjoy. High-quality lodgings are available in all parts of the county and, since Orange County is right next door to Los Angeles, The OC is a great choice for your Los Angeles vacation base camp.
We won't try to cover them all, but some of our favorite "finds" in Orange County include the following:
If you grew up in the '60's, the term "Surf City" has the power to tap into memories that bring back a flood of emotions ranging from your first encounters with the opposite sex to your earliest addiction to rock and roll. No matter where you were in the USA, you knew that Surf City was on some California beach where there were "two girls for every boy."
In truth, the male/female ratio was a bit more even than that, but Jan and Dean's teen anthem called "Surf City" put themselves and Huntington Beach on the map. In those days it was hard to distinguish musically between Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys — but there was no mistaking the message both groups were sending: California in general — and Surf City in particular — were the places to be.
The surfing culture that launched this musical phenomenon still exists to various degrees up and down the California coastline. But no one place comes closer to the real thing than Huntington Beach, the undisputed surfing capital of the world and the place many think best epitomizes the mythical beach paradise described in "Surf City."
You'll, of course, get an argument from Santa Cruz, which lays claim to bigger waves and more surfing history than its friendly rival to the south. Santa Cruz also likes to promote itself as Surf City but that city has one significant disadvantage: Dean Torrence — yes, THAT Dean — is still hanging 10 musically around Huntington Beach and is, in fact, on the Executive Committee of the Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau. So take that, Santa Cruz!
With 8.5 miles of uninterrupted, incredibly wide beaches, it's not hard to see why Huntington Beach has attracted L.A. beach-goers for decades. This band of sparkling sand stretches so far that it's hard to imagine it's located in Orange County and is actually part of the Los Angeles basin megalopolis. Even more interesting is how the Main Street and pier areas have retained their charm even though they are just blocks from the endless subdivisions and freeways of Orange County.
Now more than 50 years old, the mother of all theme parks — in fact, the only Disney park that Walt Disney ever got the chance to personally visit — just keeps packing them in. Current attendance figures are classified, according to a Disney spokesman, but they will say that more than 500 million guests have visited the Anaheim, California park. About half of those guests come from California.
For all intents and purposes, Disneyland California was `born` back in 1955 when visionary Walt Disney bought up enough Anaheim acreage to create what Disney likes to call the "Happiest Place on Earth." Disneyland actually is somewhat different from its sister parks like Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. They do share many of the same rides but, while Walt Disney World is located away from the city on a sprawling landscape, Disneyland California is tucked into far less acreage in an urban setting. That requires creative use of the space available, especially as the park continues to add new rides and attractions to keep guests coming back.
Disney likes to refer to Disneyland as a "walking resort" that is easily visited on foot. The larger parks are a little less pedestrian-friendly and take a little more time to get around to see all the attractions.
In 2001, Disney added the California Adventure theme park adjacent to Disneyland and the area now includes three hotels as well as Downtown Disney, a special shopping area adjacent to the parks. While at first the California Adventure park had a certain separation from Disneyland with its own themes, attractions and identity, the general feeling of guests was that they would like to see more of "Disney" at the park — hence, a visit today to California Adventure is likely to include much more exposure to life-size Disney characters roaming the streets just as they do at Disneyland California.
On Main Street, the Opera House that used to feature the Abe Lincoln show now offers a film called Disneyland, the first 50 Magical Years that is hosted by Steve Martin — who, incidentally was once a Disney employee in the magic shop. The pre-film area includes several exhibits and memorabilia including a model of how Disneyland looked in 1955.
The new Parade of Dreams now includes one of the largest casts ever of Disney characters. And the fireworks are bigger and better — Remember Dreams Come True now features close-in pyrotechnics and other changes in the choreography that add to the fireworks' "wow" factor.
In Tomorrowland, a new ride called Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters is like a real life video game. It allows you to sit in a small space vehicle where you will have a ray gun which can be used to project a beam of light toward various robots and other animated characters, producing a final score for you at the end of the ride.
It sounds like a yarn made up by some advertising agency, but the locals swear it's true: When explorer Richard Henry Dana first laid eyes on the harbor at Dana Point, he called it "the only romantic cove in California."
Nowadays you might find some folks who would beg to differ, but all can agree that this magical part of the California coast is one of the most picturesque spots in Southern California. Blessed with near-perfect weather and a proximity to a whole guidebook-full of tourist attractions, Dana Point today is a popular getaway for people from all over the state.
It's hard to imagine, but at the turn of the 19th century Dana Point was the only major harbor between San Diego and Santa Barbara. Forget Long Beach, San Pedro and all the rest. If you were traveling by ship to this area, Dana Point was going to be your destination.
The same harbor that attracted those earlier mariners is still very much a port of call, but leaning more toward pleasure craft with its 2,500 slips that are usually occupied with a wide selection of expensive yachts and small boats that would make any Boat Show proud. The Dana Point Marina, of course, becomes the centerpiece to the area and the focus of pictures and paintings that are readily available in local gift shops.
But wait, there's more. There just happen to be several fine public beaches in the area, a plethora of good restaurants, a historic mission and, in nearby Laguna, great shopping, a vibrant arts community and enough Orange County chic to make you feel like you are living in an episode of the OC. Those planning California beach vacations will find plenty of options in this scenic stretch of California coastline.
We made a quick trip up to Dana Point from our home near San Diego — a 45-mile drive and less than an hour. Residents of most areas near Los Angeles also can make it to Dana Point in less than 90 minutes. This is one reason the area has become a popular getaway — a great location that's easy to reach. For Northern California residents, it's just a little bit farther south than L.A.
Our base of operations was the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, an impressive resort built on the cliffs overlooking the Dana Point Harbor and a great centerpiece for any Southern California vacation. All of the services and amenities you would expect were there — a couple of resort-style restaurants, pools, Jacuzzis, tennis, a new 2,500-square-foot fitness center and a new $8.5 million spa offering a host of services including massages, body treatments and salon services. Those who enjoy taking spa vacations will not be disappointed.
Balboa IslandIf you thought your home has appreciated in value in the past few years, consider the property values on Southern California's Balboa Island. A bay front lot that sold for $25 just after the turn of the century now will bring as much as $3 million.And that's just the lot, mind you. Constructing that dream home on Balboa Island will cost extra.
Fortunately, one doesn't have to actually live on Balboa Island to enjoy its unique atmosphere. Today the island is a fascinating day trip for those who are living or vacationing in and around Los Angeles. The island is located in Newport Beach where accommodations, restaurants and shopping are all top-drawer.
The island itself has a tiny, but busy Main Street — actually it's called Marine Avenue — which is just a few short blocks with about 70 shops and restaurants to explore. This little example of Small Town Americana offers a wide selection of shops in all price ranges as well as several boutiques and galleries. The visitors who browse this street are a combination of couples and families with an unusually high percentage of style mavens — which is what you expect in Newport Beach and other nearby beach communities where expensive clothes and fancy cars are just part of the lifestyle.
The downtown shopping area is just part of the attraction on Balboa Island, an island small enough that you can walk entirely around its perimeter in less than two miles. It's fun to observe life on an island that remains exclusive because it is so expensive. There is no denying that the ever-present sunshine and the harbor views create a quiet respite from bustling city life and clogged freeways. The colorful villas and vacation-style homes on the island are opulent for their size — with these prices, no one's going to skimp on their home maintenance. It's a patriotic little place, too — American flags are posted on several homes and along Marina Avenue.
But given the real estate prices, it's also interesting to observe that people will pay so much money for so little space. The island at times seems a little congested with homes built so close to each other that a good-size Balboa yard really is just slightly larger than a shuffleboard court. Most residents have to park one or more cars on the street and it's common to see the locals abandon cars altogether by using golf carts to take their trips to the downtown market.
Those driving south on Interstate 5 to San Diego will know exactly what we mean when we say there just is no more spectacular ocean view than the one you encounter while making your way through San Clemente. On a clear, sunny day — and most of them are — it's hard to keep your eyes on the roadas you take in a landscape that includes San Clemente's neatly terraced, palm tree-studded hills and the vast blue ocean with its distant horizon.
These very same views no doubt influenced Richard Nixon in his decision to buy an estate in San Clemente that would become the Western White House during the early 1970's. The president would have Air Force One land at El Toro and then take a Marine helicopter to a San Clemente beach area where he would ride a golf cart the final few yards to his prized estate, La Casa Pacifica.
Today the estate still is there on a bluff overlooking one of California's most pristine beaches, but it's really only possible to get a glimpse of parts of it from the beach below. Just to get in position to view La Casa Pacifica, it's a mile-and-a-half walk from the nearest beach access point at San Clemente State Beach. But what a great mile and a half it is.
The beach, to us, is one of the main attractions of San Clemente — it's possible to walk five miles altogether on a beach that is wide, scenic and — best of all — hardly used. There is no stumbling over other beach-goers as you search for some solitude among the masses. At this beach, there is nothing but solitude along great stretches of sparkling sand where you can plop down anywhere you like, set up your blanket, chairs and cooler and pretend that you're Robinson Crusoe for at least the afternoon.
There of course is a good representation of surfers on any given day along this beach — this is prime territory for those in search of consistent waves. Boogie-boarders too are drawn to the beach to ride a curling surf that, in some places, offers a thrill a minute. But most of the people you see here are simply beach-walkers, enjoying a gentle stroll on wide sand that seems to go on forever.
A few miles north from San Clemente State Beach is the pier area, a part of San Clemente that attracts visitors and locals alike. If you're looking for a weekend getaway, this may well be the spot with its charming village-like atmosphere where you can dine in sidewalk cafes, visit the local market or walk out on the pier for some great views of the surfers and the entire coast. A number of lodgings are available in this area, many with spectacular views of the ocean and pier area.
One of our favorite things to do is to stop at the pier on our way through San Clemente. It's just a little over a mile from the freeway and it's a rewarding mini-getaway just to drop in at Fisherman's Restaurant on the pier and enjoy fresh fish and a microbrew while basking in the sun and soaking up the seaside atmosphere. On a recent weekend, the restaurant's considerable outdoor seating was fully occupied through most of the afternoon — a sign that we're not the only ones who have discovered this delightful seaside respite.
South Coast Plaza
In a competitive travel market, sometimes the thing that will lure visitors better than anything else is cold, hard cash. Just ask the Costa Mesa Conference and Visitor Bureau, which last spring and summer shelled out rebate checks to thousands of visitors who took advantage of an offer to get partial travel reimbursement and credit toward meals. It's one of the most unique travel packages around.
The "Drive and Dine Package" now has become something of a fixture in Costa Mesa. It is aimed at getting residents from all over California to forsake their local shopping centers for a couple of days and visit South Coast Plaza -- the "Ultimate Shopping Resort." The offer is simple: come stay a couple of nights in one of Costa Mesa's seven luxury hotels and get a $30 reimbursement for travel expense, as well as $20 toward dinner at one of the 21 participating restaurants. It's offered before and after Christmas season.
While no one is going to retire off these savings, they may represent just enough of a break to prod someone into booking a hotel in Costa Mesa rather than nearby Anaheim or Newport Beach — both loaded with tourist attractions and easily accessible from a base camp in Costa Mesa. As it happens, Costa Mesa does have a lot to offer on its own — especially if you're passionate about shopping and the arts.
At this point we must include a disclaimer. Exceedingly frugal husbands and boyfriends may not want their significant others to read the following graphic details about shopping in Costa Mesa. South Coast Plaza is world-class shopping and, while not just for the rich and famous, it can cause a certain giddiness in shopping-prone people that usually is only remedied by some sort of purchase.
Our trip to Costa Mesa was a quick drive up the Interstate from our home in the San Diego area and, for those who don't know exactly where Costa Mesa is, it's one of the more gleaming cities in Orange County. It's just at the southern edge of the Los Angeles basin, about 25 miles south of Los Angeles. It's a densely populated area, to be sure, but the infrastructure all seems relatively new and clean.
We checked into the Hilton Costa Mesa, one of a handful of major luxury hotels in the city. The Hilton is just about a mile from South Coast Plaza — Ground Zero of any shopping expedition to Orange County -- and, with its seven-story enclosed atrium and glass elevators, this hotel immediately gives one the impression of luxury and attention to detail. Lobby areas are expansive and hallways are wide and it's clear the Hilton is both a city getaway and a popular choice for business travelers and conferences.
The luxury hotel is part of the experience. There are times and places where cheap — or shall we say, "value" ' motels are a good choice for most average getaway travelers. Costa Mesa, with its parade of fashion boutiques, art houses and big-time performing arts complexes, is really not the time or place. If you're looking for cheap vacations, there are options other than Orange County.
Another way to get immersed in Orange County culture is to take in one of the shows presented at the Orange County Performing Arts Center or the South Coast Repertory, both located just a block from South Coast Plaza.
For recommended lodgings in Orange County, please click here.
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway