Rent a convertible, put the top down, and turn the radio up. Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH as the locals call it) runs 42 miles (68 km) alongside sweeping stretches of beach with vast ocean views and secluded coves with tide pools bursting with marine life. Come here to have fun and experience the sun-drenched coastal lifestyle. Sometimes called the “California Riviera” for its palatial five-star hotels, multimillion dollar homes, and yacht harbors, Orange County (OC) also has charming cottages, gardens, and communities that haven’t changed much in the last 50 years. You can walk on piers, ride an old-fashioned Ferris wheel, admire surfers, stroll through art galleries, splash in the water, watch passersby from sidewalk cafés, or simply gaze out over the ocean.
Center stage in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the location of “the Western White House” during the Nixon presidency, San Clemente still has the feeling of a normal, non-touristy California beach town. Downtown is filled with affordable restaurants and cafés, as well as antiques, apparel, and gift shops. The town’s main attraction, though, is its clean sandy beach and pier. At the far south end of town, surfers rate the Trestles spots as some of the best on this stretch of coast.
Huntington Beach • www.bolsachica.org
A world away from the coastal beach culture, this preserve is a wonderful place to walk. An easy 1.5-mile (2.4-km) trail loops through 2 sq miles (5 sq km) of restored salt marsh (one of Southern California’s largest), lowlands, and mesa, which are home to 200 species of migratory birds. Displays point out the varieties of herons, egrets, plovers, terns, and ospreys that roost here, as well as the mussels, clams, and 50 species of fish present.
Known as “Surf City USA” in no small part because of the consistent waves that break along 8 miles (13 km) of uninterrupted sand beach, Huntington Beach is home to the world’s largest surfing competition and to the International Surfing Museum. Generally, it’s a young crowd that comes here to hit the beach and surf during the day, and to enjoy a meal and a drink at night. Huntington has traditionally been far more affordable than other beach towns further down the coast.
8471 Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Beach • www.crystalcovestatepark.org
Over 3 miles (5 km) of unspoiled shoreline, tide pools, and secluded coves are yours to explore here. Offshore, you may see a pod of dolphins frolicking by or even a few California gray whales. Along part of the beach, 46 vintage cottages (many of which you can rent) make up the Crystal Cove Historic District, which exemplifies early 20th-century coastal living. Across the Pacific Coast Highway, numerous backcountry trails are open to hikers and mountain bikers.
Head to this low-key ocean playground just south of the San Gabriel River for a taste of small-town America. On tree-lined Main Street you’ll find cafés and restaurants. Don’t miss walking out on Seal Beach’s classic 1,865-ft (570-m) wooden fishing pier. Warm waters and small to mid-size waves make it ideal for swimmers and surfers, while kite surfers flock here for the consistent breeze.
This coveted piece of OC real estate holds one of the most charming villages of Newport Beach. Cottages are densely packed on narrow streets bearing the name of precious stones. The residents of Balboa Island form a small community and relish their laid-back lifestyle. Restaurants, galleries, and boutiques line either side of Marine Avenue, Balboa Island’s main shopping street.
Maybe it’s for the light – so similar to that of the south of France – or the romantic secluded coves or the way the hillsides tumble down to the sea, where waves break over the rocks, that artists have been drawn to the spectacular setting that is Laguna Beach for over 100 years. It is still very much an art town, although skyrocketing real-estate prices have recently changed the town’s character. You’ll still find quaint cottages with flower-filled gardens on side streets, charming arcades with tiny shops, and a gorgeous coastline.
Captain Dave’s Dolphin Safari: www.dolphinsafari.com
Richard Henry Dana wrote in his epic 19th-century book Two Years Before the Mast that this area was one the most beautiful spots on this stretch of coast. Today, Dana Point has a vague New England look in homage to its namesake and a harbor busy with activities, including kayaking, paddle boarding, and tide pooling. Because of its unique offshore geology, the ocean here boasts one of the world’s richest marine mammal environments. Don’t miss a trip on Captain Dave’s Dolphin Safari, a catamaran excursion taking you up close to whales and dolphins.
26801 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano • www.missionsjc.com
The seventh in a chain of 21 Spanish missions, this was known as the “Jewel of the Missions.” Founded in 1776 by Father (now Saint) Junípero Serra, the Serra Chapel is the state’s oldest building. Especially noteworthy is its 400-year-old Spanish retablo, a fine Baroque altar of handcarved wood overlaid with gold leaf. The mission gardens are lovely places to linger, while exhibitions in surrounding galleries explore aspects of early California life. Every March 19, the return of the swallows from Argentina launches a fiesta celebration in the mission and town.
Few towns can outdo Newport Beach for making a grandiose first impression. Mega-yachts tie up side by side in its harbor; Rolls-Royce dealerships line the Coast Highway, and mansions perch on the hillsides. Spread out along the coast and into the hills, Newport Beach consists of several distinct areas, such as the down-to-earth Balboa Peninsula with a boardwalk that’s popular with walkers and cyclists, and European-style Corona del Mar filled with trendy shops and upscale eateries.
From 1784 to 1846, the governments of Spain and Mexico awarded vast tracts of land in reward for military service and to encourage settlement. Most of Orange County belonged to this “rancho” system except for Laguna Beach, its rocky coastline deemed unusable. Nowadays, ocean-front properties in that useless coastal land are selling for $30 million.
Begin your day on the bridge leading over to Balboa Island. Stroll down Marine Avenue checking out the boutiques and cafés. A dedicated pedestrian sidewalk wends its way around the entire circumference of the island. To your left is the harbor filled with sailboats, yachts, and canopied electric boats. To your right the sidewalk is lined with delightful cottages and gardens. After half a mile (1 km) is the Balboa Island Ferry (410 S Bay Front, Newport Beach). Operating since 1919, the ferry carries three cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians across the harbor to the Balboa Peninsula. Ride the ferry to the Newport Fun Zone. Take a ride on the Ferris Wheel for a great view of the harbor. At the Fun Zone Boat Company, one 45-minute harbor tour passes by the yachts and mansions and another goes out to the harbor entrance, where you’ll see sea lions. A good lunch option is Ruby’s Diner (949-675-7829) at the end of 1 Balboa Pier.
After lunch, rent a beach cruiser bicycle and ride along the 3-mile (5-km) long boardwalk between two piers on the beach side of the Peninsula. Spend your afternoon enjoying the friendly beach town. At the end of the day back on Marine Avenue, reward yourself with a chocolate-covered frozen banana from one of the shops on the right-hand side of the street. They’ve been making them there since 1945.
650 Laguna Canyon Rd • 949-494-1145 • Jul–Aug • www.foapom.com
This festival showcases the art of over 140 local artists. In an amphitheater, live models, elaborate sets, and an orchestra re-create famous paintings.
935 Laguna Canyon Rd • 949-494-3030 • Jun–Aug • www.sawdustartfestival.org
Laguna Beach artists exhibit original handmade crafts, and there are artist demonstrations and live music.
374 Ocean Ave • 949-376-6000 • Tours: by appt only • www.lcad.edu
Students from this highly regarded art college display their works in a downtown gallery open to the public.
307 Cliff Dr • 949-494-8971 • Open 11am–5pm Fri–Tue (until 9pm Thu) • Adm • www.lagunaartmuseum.org
The focus is on Californian art, with a vast collection of works from the early 19th century to the present.
On the first Thursday of every month, galleries hold demonstrations, receptions, and, often, live music.
Over 65 pieces of public art are on display throughout town. Be on the lookout in Heisler Park, the Coast Highway, or downtown.
326 Glenneyre St • 888-972-5543 • Open 10am–6pm Mon–Sat, 11am–6pm Sun • www.dawsoncolefineart.com
Come here to view the exquisite bronze sculptures of contemporary figurative artist Richard MacDonald. Don’t miss the sculpture garden.
1540 S Coast Hwy • 949-497-3356 • Open 11am–5pm daily • www.redferngallery.com
American Impressionists with an emphasis on early California plein air artists, such as William Wendt and Edgar Payne, are exhibited here.
509 S Coast Hwy • 949-376-8000 • Open 9am–9pm daily • www.wyland.com
Marine artist Robert Wyland painted his first of 100 outdoor whaling walls just next door. On sale are original paintings, prints, and sculptures.
21062 Laguna Cyn Rd • 949-494-1464 • Check opening hours • johnbarberglassdesigns.com
Tucked in a wooded area of Laguna Canyon, the studio and showroom of this master glass blower is a fantastic glimpse into an artist’s world. Pieces are quite affordable.
412 Walnut Ave, Huntington Beach • 714-960-2525 • $$
High-end gourmet burgers are fashioned to your desire. Choose from ground sirloin, tuna, turkey, or veggie and go from there. Garlic fries are a must, as is a spiked milkshake.
15 Crystal Cove, Newport Coast • 949-376-6900 • $$
Soak in the ocean view with coconut macadamia pancakes for breakfast or watch the sunset with lobster pasta at this prime-location café.
8112 East Coast Hwy, Newport Beach • 949-376-6990 • $$$
Romantic and sophisticated, Maestro offers steak and seafood cooked to perfection. Start with a seafood tower made to order and finish with their famous warm butter cake.
350 Ocean Ave, Laguna Beach • 949-494-6302 • $$
Claim a table in the outdoor patio and order your food at the counter at this popular café. Vegetarians will love the choices – everything from potato enchiladas to avocado toast.
361 Cliff Dr, Laguna Beach • 949-497-5434 • $$
Mexican seafood with a California twist is the main feature here, along with its breathtaking coastal views – you can’t go wrong for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The patio is the place for margaritas.
1555 S Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach • 877-741-5908 • $$$$
Situated just off the beach at the Surf & Sand Hotel, Splashes is elegant yet casual and very romantic. Breakfasts are excellent but pricey.
1740 S Coast Hwy • 949-715-7777 • $$$
Gorgeous dining rooms provide the ambience for excellent Southern African dishes. The rooftop hosts the best happy hour in Laguna Beach.
30862 S Coast Hwy, Laguna Beach • 949-499-2301 • $
A favorite with locals, this is the place for fresh, well-prepared Mexican food. Calamari tacos are excellent, as are the veggie enchiladas. Twenty craft beers are on tap.
31752 Los Rio St, San Juan Capistrano • 949-443-1342 • $$
In a 19th-century home in the Rios District, the Ramos House serves a delicious brunch. The smoked bacon scramble and apple cinnamon beignets are especially tasty.
611 Avenida Victoria, San Clemente • 949-498-6390 • $$
Situated at the base of the town pier, the most coveted tables overlook the ocean. Enjoy seafood while watching the surfers with the sunset beyond.