Accessible, exploration-worthy, easy-on-the-eyes Orange County offers more than a change of scenery: It offers many of them. Each carries a fresh perspective driven by salty sea breezes, vibrant culture, and a taste of the good life (the chefs make sure of that). Head for the “Gold Coast” and cruise more than 42 miles of coastline, stopping along the way to plop down to the sand, shop the boutiques, or sip a glass of wine and toast another moody-hued SoCal sunset over the ocean.
More than two dozen cities make up the O.C., where the air is clear, every road leads to the coast (eventually), and money really can buy happiness. Just ask the housewives. While much of its mass lies inland, a handful of famed locales stake claim to a highly photogenic stretch of Pacific coast, from surf-ready waves to yachts available for charter on little more than a moment’s notice. It’s here that residents of the “California Riviera” savor and share their perfected beach-and-harbor lifestyle. Movie crews love it, television shows sell it, and visitors who know where to go fit in like locals themselves.
At first, the O.C. may feel spread out. But its quick-change geography is fairly easy to navigate. Relaxing beaches and a low-key beach culture — from flat, easy-access Seal Beach at the north end to cliffside San Clemente in the south — define much of the coastal culture. Huntington Beach, a.k.a. “Surf City, USA,” hosts 50 surfing-related events a year surrounded by the Surfing Walk of Fame, Surfer’s Hall of Fame, and the International Surf Museum. Take a surf lesson or just take photos.
Newport Beach has two piers and five beaches, including Crystal Cove State Park, which offers a walk along the historic and more rustic side of Orange County. They rolled film here for movies from Treasure Island to Beaches. The original 1930s beach cottages have been restored to authenticity. Reserve one to step back in time, but click fast; they’re available six months out through reserveamerica.com.
Shopping is synonymous with one of California’s most fashion-focused counties. Head to Fashion Island, an outdoor shopping plaza anchored by department stores linked by the industry’s biggest names in glamour. Or breeze to South Coast Plaza, where Prada, Henri Bendel, and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams have joined the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Nordstrom. In the evening, sit back in a dark theater for a world-class show at nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center.
For its size, the O.C. is surprisingly pedestrian friendly. Walkable neighborhoods include the Laguna Beach strip (shopping, galleries, and eateries), Corona del Mar (chic boutiques and popular upscale resale shops situated only steps from the beach), and Balboa Island, a slice of small-town Americana reachable by car or California’s only still-functioning auto ferry.
Make time to get on the water, eat on the water, and walk by the water. Newport Beach is home to the world’s largest small-yacht harbor. Rent an electric Duffy boat and order fresh seafood at a waterside, dock-and-dine restaurant. Here, you can eat every meal on the water, buy fresh fish from long-standing fish markets, take a narrated harbor cruise, go whale watching, even step into a gondola for a peek at Newport Beach’s little-seen canals. For big water, traverse the ocean blue en route to Catalina Island.
It’s easy to soak up the Mediterranean climate, too. Hikers and kayakers head to the pristine estuary of the Back Bay, while golfers seek the oceanview links. Walking tours offer history and culture, as do guided Segway journeys that scoot around the back roads and boardwalks. Or whiz down the coast in a classic car or luxury convertible or rent a snappy little ride, available by the hour at Beach City Mopeds in Laguna Beach.
There’s a Bohemian side of the O.C. too, especially in Costa Mesa, where The Lab and The Camp plazas bustle with hipsters seeking vintage clothing, vegan sandwiches, outdoor gear, or a latte. Further in, antique shops line the time-warped streets of Old Towne Orange. Its 1950s-feel has been captured in plenty of films, including Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do.
Families see the O.C. as their endless playground. Beyond the beaches, theme parks beckon, with Disneyland leading the pack. Knott’s Berry Farm and the carnival atmosphere of the Balboa Fun Zone hark to simpler times. Museums of sports, cars, airplanes, and art in addition to a bustling calendar of events make Orange County a place to do everything or do nothing, but to do it in style on the spectacular coast.
WHERE TO STAY
Island Hotel Newport Beach (690 Newport Center Dr.; 866-554-4620). Casual elegance and ocean breezes permeate the experience at this tall, slinky hotel known for gracious service. Spacious guest rooms ooze calm with private balconies, marble bathrooms, and Italian linens — an ultimate retreat when you’re not playing tennis, getting a spa massage, dining on the terrace, or lounging by the fireside pool. It’s only a shopping bag’s throw to adjacent Fashion Island.
Balboa Bay Club and Resort (1221 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach; 888-445-7153). Once frequented by John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, this restored resort revels in prime waterfront real estate. Hit First Cabin restaurant for romance and bayside views. Then
take in nightly live jazz at Duke’s Place.
Casa Laguna Inn & Spa (2510 S. Coast Hwy., 949-494-2996). Terraced on a hillside in Laguna Beach, the mission-style architecture, lush gardens, and secluded patios at this inn add up to peace and tranquility.
The Resort at Pelican Hill (22701 Pelican Hill Rd. So., Newport Coast, 949-467-6800). Ocean views abound from amenity-filled, hilltop bungalows and villas and from the pool and Tom Fazio golf course.
WHAT TO SEE
Fashion Island (401 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, 949-721-2000). Shop alfresco at more than 200 stores that join Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Nordstrom before stopping at the always-busy Café R&D for a people-watching lunch.
Festival of the Arts (lagunafestivalofarts.org). California’s longest-running outdoor fine art exhibition offers an open-air gallery of original artwork by 140 award-winning Orange County artists. Jazz concerts, wine and chocolate pairings, and guided tours add energy to its eight-week summer run.
Pageant of the Masters (pageanttickets.com). Since 1933, this acclaimed “living pictures” production has dazzled audiences by combining theater with art. Set in an amphitheater, this tableaux vivant re-creates famous works of art through live models, narration, elaborate costuming, and a full orchestra.
Hornblower Cruises (888-467-6256, hornblower.com). Set sail on the open sea with a dinner cruise, champagne brunch, or to watch one of summer’s best events: the Thursday-evening sailboat races.
WHERE TO EAT
Beachcomber Café (No. 15 Crystal Cove, Newport Beach, 949-376-6900). When the martini-adorned flag climbs the flag pole nightly, as it has since the 1920s, everyone on the patio with its feet in the sand raises a glass to celebrate.
O Laguna Beach (30872 S. Coast Hwy., 949-715-5551). For the O.C.’s finest sushi, veer off the beaten path and straight into fresh fish heaven.
A restaurant (3334 W. Coast Hwy., 949-650-6505). Co-owners Hollywood film director McG and lead singer Sugar Ray and Extra! TV host Mark McGrath have reinvented this modern bistro on the former site of roadside diner The Arches, opened in 1926, making it the oldest continuously operating dining establishment in Newport Beach.
Crow Bar (2325 E. Coast Hwy., 949-675-0070). Below street level sits Corona del Mar’s innovative and trendy new gastropub. O.C. native chef Scott Brandon buys local, seasonal produce and offers more than 20 brews on tap.
Andrea (22701 Pelican Hill Rd. South, Newport Coast, 949-467-6800). Even if you don’t stay at Pelican Hill’s luxurious golf resort (with the world’s largest circular pool), splurge on an unforgettable Northern Italian meal in the oceanview dining room.
Walnut Village. If it’s hard to leave the beauty and climate of Orange County, become part of the warm, connected family at this modern lifestyle community built around a village square. As long as you’ve hit your 62nd birthday, select a home or cottage, bring your pet, and slip into life on Easy Street U.S.A. Stroll the lifelong learning center, fitness and aquatic center, performing arts center, library, art studio, restaurant, bistro, and piano bar. With its life’s-a-vacation vibe, burden-free home maintenance, and on-site care, some residents keep a home in Palm Springs, too, and enjoy the best of both worlds.