Forty miles of sunny beaches and coves, exotic cars, entertainment, sporting and dining options galore and a lovely Mediterranean climate make California’s Riviera (the Orange County coast) a favorite of vacationers!
Orange County, famed for its agricultural history, is home to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim baseball team and Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey team and many cultural attractions – but it’s the beachfront towns which appeal to us. After a dozen years visiting in late spring, here are our favorites, from north to south:
Huntington Beach: Surf City USA features a string of three beaches, Huntington City Beach, Huntington State Beach, and Bolsa Chica state beach, all popular for surfing, volleyball and firings making for campfires at night. Just east of Hwy. 1 are Bolsa Chica’s 1449 acres of wetlands – the largest saltwater marsh between the Tijuana River Estuary and Monterey Bay. Featuring 300 species of birds sighted in the last 10 years and 80 species of fish, this stunning parkland features 5 miles of hiking trails above the waterways. Huntington Beach features an 8 mile long bike trail, running south into Newport beach – ideal for cruising and admiring the beach scene.
The city’s Main Street also features the Surfing Walk of Fame, and the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, with option to camp right on the beach in several locations.
Newport Beach: just south is Newport Beach, possibly the most upscale of these ocean-front cities. Newport Beach boasts the world’s largest small boat harbor and includes two piers, Newport and Balboa Piers, along sandy beach-front and one of the more colorful bike paths.
Be sure to take the three-car Balboa Island ferry (pedestrians and bikes welcomed) between Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island, a quaint community of charming homes, cottages, boutiques and restaurants. On the peninsula side of the ferry, take the time to tour the 1905 Balboa Pavilion, gabled and cupola-topped and home to harbor tours, boat excursions, whale watching and Santa Catalina Island cruises (The town of Avalon is only 26 miles and 75 minutes via ferry to Santa Catalina Island). A favorite, funky restaurant just right for families is the Crab Cooker on Newport Bay.
Headed South, explore the three-mile expanse of ocean-front Crystal Cove State Park. With miles of pristine beaches, rocky coves and tide pools and the former oceanfront town of Crystal Cove, scene of several dozen movies and television shows. The old town provided a tropical setting for Beaches, Son of Tarzan, Treasure Island, films featuring Bogart and Bacall, Barrymore, and Herbie the Love Bug. About 20 of the 40 old cabins have been renovated and are available for rent per night in the $200-$250 range; it’s also home to Beachcombers Restaurant, a favorite for good food and sultry sunsets!
Laguna Beach is the next city south, offering more rugged coastline, sandy beaches and attractions such as the Laguna Art Museum and Laguna Playhouse. Main Beach offers volleyball and basketball courts, a grassy kid’s play area and a quaint downtown right across the street. A favorite restaurant is Nick’s in Laguna – sample the asparagus fries!
Dana Point and Harbor: Richard Henry Dana, who wrote the 1840s ‘Two Years Before the Mast’, noted the grandeur of the California coast and called it “the only romantic spot on the coast”. Just south is Doheney State Beach, a very popular State Park with Campground, public beaches and walking access to Dana Point Harbor. The harbor offers 2500 slips and is home to the Ocean Institute. The Institute features a replica of the Pilgrim, the brig on which Dana sailed, and the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center with the Spirit of Dana Point, a traditionally-built replica of a 1770s privateer used during the American Revolution.
Just east of Dana Point is beautiful San Juan Capistrano. It’s built around Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776 (tour through the old mission courtyard with flora dating back some 200 years). Just across the rail tracks from the mission is the Los Rios Historic District, with 31 homes dating to 1794, a truly magical and historical walking experience. The oldest residential neighborhood in California, three of the original 30 mission adobes still remain including one that is home to the 10th generation of the family that built it 200 years ago.
San Clemente: Years ago we found beachfront San Clemente by accident; its pier, anchored by Fisherman’s Restaurant, is one of our must-stops. Beautiful scenery, a meandering bike path, the Amtrak Surfliner paralleling the beach, a great restaurant and jaw-dropping sunsets make a hard combination to overlook. San Clemente was also President Richard Nixon’s “western White House”. Up the bluff in San Clemente’s quaint shopping district on Del Mar are boutiques, restaurants and the old Cabrillo Playhouse, featuring community theater always a delight.
What’s nearby: Just east of Newport Beach is the Upper Newport Beach Estuary, with walking trails and a variety of wildlife and bird-watching opportunities! Other attractions include Anaheim’s Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (baseball) Stadium, the Honda Center, home of Anaheim Mighty Ducks (hockey) and Santa Catalina Island, a 26 mile ferry boat ride from Newport Beach.
Cycling, running/walking: An 8 mile beach-front trail extends the length of Huntington Beach, connecting to a variety of trail and quiet street rides in Newport Beach, with ferry from the Newport Beach Peninsula over to Balboa Island. From the border of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, cyclists, walkers and runners can also head east up the Santa Ana River Trail for over 25 miles, through urban, suburban and wild LA. The San Clemente Bike Trail (narrow, dirt, mountain bikes suggested) is another favorite, following the beaches and bluffs below San Clemente.
How to get there: Go south on I-5 to the LA area, then follow I-605 south, then I-405 to Newport Beach; it’s about 385 miles and six hours from Stockton.
For more insight: Orange County Visitors Association, visittheoc.com,