Imagine that one perfect Oregon summer evening where everything feels just right — you’re outdoors with friends, the sun is slow to set, there’s a gentle breeze and you don’t think about needing a sweater or going inside. You’re happy and relaxed.
That’s how I felt while visiting southern California — Orange County to be more exact. Everywhere I went felt just like that perfect Oregon day.
Orange County is most famous for its Anaheim-based amusement parks, and for good reason. But if you’ve spent the day at Disneyland with the grandkids, the next day drop them off in the early morning and do some of your own sight-seeing within the county. My visits took me to the master-planned Irvine, fashion-centric Costa Mesa, historic San Juan Capistrano and the lavish beach towns of Laguna Beach and Newport Beach (with a harbor bigger than Central Park).
Here are six reasons you’ll put Orange County at the top of your next travel destination.
Ease of travel. I recommend flying Alaska Airlines into the OC’s John Wayne Airport, which is small, clean and easy to navigate. Car rentals are available right next to the baggage claim and cars can be picked up directly across the street in a covered garage. You’re just a few minutes to the freeway and within 30 minutes of any destination in the county.
Getting around Orange County was easy at almost any time of day. The streets are wide, the freeway traffic flowed surprisingly well, and I had no problems finding my way around each city. Even driving up the Pacific Coast Highway in my oversized rental car during the typical rush hour presented no problems. Some roads are tolled, so be sure to pay attention to the signs.
My tip: Fit in with the local by renting a mid-size car. Nobody in Orange County drives anything bigger.
Location. Orange County is a suburban paradise nestled between the large cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. It touches both the beaches and the hills yet escapes the headaches of daylong rush-hour traffic. You can just as easily take a nature hike as you can shop at boutiques by today’s top designers.
Orange County has plenty of palm trees and swimming pools, as expected. It also boasts first-class restaurants, high-adventure outdoor activities, waterways, yacht rides and an opportunity to test drive the sports car of your dreams — Maserati, anyone?
Take an opportunity to drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. I drove from Dana Point, through Laguna Beach and into Newport Beach. You’ll get beautiful views of both the California coast and the hills, with some of the state’s most expensive real estate. Getting to the beach may be a little difficult, as most entrances are into gated communities. Take a bridge or short ferry ride to Balboa Island, one of the loveliest spots in southern California. Visit the beach to take in more designer shops.
Before you go, stop in at the historic Lido Marina Village, a laid-back assortment of shops and restaurants right on the water.
My tip: The days are warm and evenings can be a bit cool. Pack for both and be sure to wear your athletic shoes.
History + art + fashion. Orange County’s glitz and glamour doesn’t take the in-your-face approach of other tourist destinations, like the Las Vegas strip. The culture is must more understated — it’s to be discovered and savored. Eat at the casual Mexican kitchen (such as Taco Maria in Costa Mesa whose chef Carlos Salgado was given a Michelin star). Walk into a cavernous home décor store and run your fingers along the designs from around the world. My favorite: A colorful, oversized floor cushion arrangement. Take in a cultural performance at the dazzling Segerstrom Performing Arts Center, then visit the Avenue of the Arts Hotel across the street. It’s a visual feast in purple — from the massive curtains draping the portico, to the art deco furniture and the outdoor patio. If you’re hungry, visit the Silver Trumpet next door, where you’ll find a complement of more old Hollywood décor in silver, grey and whites. Sit on a cushioned bench and gaze out the windows where large white umbrellas and oversized lamps highlight the terrace. It’s glamorous and affordable.
For a good sense of California history, drive south down I-5 to San Juan Capistrano, a delightful small city just a few miles from the coast. You’ll find its casual charm in the walkable streets and shops, leading to a train depot with daily service to both L.A. and San Diego. On the other side of the tracks, visit the Los Rios District, the oldest residential street in the entire state with homes dating back to the 1700s.
Be sure to spend at least two hours visiting the mission, where executive director Mechelle Lawrence Adams has spent the past 16 years forging a partnership between the Catholic Church and the city to create an authentic experience for all visitors. Every detail is reminiscent of the mission’s rich legacy, from the dusty paths and lemon trees, to the art gallery and stunning chapel. It’s reverent and thoroughly interesting.
My tip: Park in Los Rios Park, walk through the courtyard and you’re right on Los Rios Street. The mission is just another block from the train station. On Los Rios Street, I visited Las Catrinas, where I met the delightful and effervescent Lindsay, a transplant from the frigid upper Midwest now thoroughly enjoying her days greeting guests in sunny California. Continue walking down the street for more shops, a spot of tea and the largest aloe plants I’ve ever seen.
4. Can’t get over the food. I’m still dreaming about the pork cheek adobo at Terrace by Mix Mix, included on a chef-driven international menu at the west end of Bridge of Gardens in the impressive South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Be sure to get seated on the covered terrace under a mix of green plants and beautiful lights, where you’ll ache over decisions on small plate items such as soft egg ravioli or the adobo, which had the most tender, flavorful chimichurri rice I’ve ever tasted.
Be sure to leave room for dessert. The restaurant is well-known for its tropical verrine — a coconut panna cotta topped with toasted macadamia nuts and coconut, a scoop of ube/mango sorbet and a swirl of passion fruit glaze. It’s light, fruity and the perfect complement to your meal.
For something quicker, try Krisp, a casual coffee and smoothie bar in Irvine where baristas are true artists — from the creative foam on your hot drink to the imaginative sliced vegetables on your avocado toast. Or walk down to Duck Donuts, an East Coast franchise where you get made-to-order donuts, fried and frosted on the spot.
For dinner, I ate at A Restaurant in Newport Beach, a warm and inviting spot for a romantic evening out. The menu changes seasonally and I ordered halibut on its last day of the season. It was grilled just the way I like it, and surrounded by a flavorful risotto and corn sauce.
Not-to-be-forgotten: The blue corn tortillas and Caesar salad at Taco Maria. A spicy invention of flavors I would be sure to visit again.
A glass elevator. Skip the overpriced hotels near the amusement parks and get a better sense of Orange County in a neighboring city. I stayed at Hotel Irvine, whose owners recently invested millions of dollars in renovations to create an environment where both international and local guests feel welcome. It’s colorful, upscale, friendly and grand. My first night I tried to inconspicuously wander through a ballroom reception where hundreds of party guests wore brightly-colored saris and dined on an Indian buffet. On the other side of the lobby, hotel guests were in the Red Bar, caught up in an Oregon-USC football game. Later, while eating dinner at the hotel restaurant, I enjoyed the view onto the patio and outdoor fireplace. On another day, I took advantage of the warm temperatures to wander the backyard and sit in a cabana by the pool.
International context. Everyone knows California is a melting pot of cultures and traditions, and it’s evident in Orange County. One of my favorite ventures was to Diamond Jamboree Plaza in Irvine, a wide collection of Asian restaurants and stores. Want a fruity tea, hot bowl of noodles or Korean barbecue? This shopping area has it all. My favorite was a stop in 85 Degrees, a Tawainese bakery and café with self-serve cakes, breads and other island delights.
My tip: Visit UC-Irvine to see how today’s college students experience life, and take in a hike on one of the many nature paths in Orange County.
Get away to sunny skies, warm days and the cool vibe of southern California. You’ll be glad you did. ☸
Read Taco Maria’s chef Carlos Salgado’s journey, latimes.com/food/la-fo-carolos-salgado.