Things to do
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Go for an art walk in Laguna Beach
Stroll through the dozens of funky art galleries lining the streets of Laguna Beach or opt for something more “official” by taking a free tram tour of the area on the first Thursday of April, May or June. The tram shuttles visitors to some 40 galleries and is a great way to explore the region. On these special art walk evenings, artists discuss their work with visitors and galleries offer painting demonstrations, free wine and cheese and some blockbuster sales.
You’ll quickly discover each gallery comes with its own personality. Don’t miss the Fingerhut Gallery, where there’s an astonishing collection of limited edition art pieces by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). His whimsical cats, hats, Sneetches and Loraxes are for sale and can fetch up to US$30,000! The good news is that you can keep your credit card in your pocket and simply check out the original sculptures, lithographs and prints for free.
A five-minute stroll up the Pacific Cast Highway is the famous Wyland Gallery. Whale music plays as the massive undersea mural of marine life lures visitors through the doors.
Once inside, you may be stunned at the scope of Robert Wyland’s work, spanning 12 countries on four continents. From life-sized sculptures of sharks, to tiny turtle bookends, to hundreds of oil paintings, you’ll soon see why USA Today dubbed him the Marine Michaelangelo. His monumental Whaling Wall has been recognized by the United Nations and the Sierra Club. And Wyland himself is listed in the Diving Hall of Fame.
Discover secrets at the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach
Jammed with all things related to America’s surfing scene, this little gem of a museum is the perfect place to learn how Huntington Beach earned the trademark Surf City USA.
The museum was founded by Canadian realtor Natalie Kotsch who grew up just outside of Toronto before moving here in the 1970s. There are a few mentions of Tofino, BC (Canada’s own surfing Mecca) but most of the memorabilia here runs the full gamut, from sketches of Gidget – the fictional teenage surfer girl from Malibu – to a bust of Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian surfer.
Lots of surfboards (some decades-old, weighing more than 35 kg) dangle from the ceiling – as do guitars and oddities such as mobiles made of shark teeth. In between these gems are sections of the museum devoted to surf music (think The Beach Boys and Dick Dale), movies (look for the ancient jury-rigged camera that shot Endless Summer), surfing legends and photos.
Take a surf lesson at an Orange County beach
With 68 km of beaches, there are plenty of opportunities to make like legendary surfer Kelly Slater. Start with a surf lesson. Many hotels will arrange either private or group lessons, typically lasting two hours. Others rent boards and wet suits. Be sure to ask around for tidal charts and riptide information – it’s not as easy as it looks.
Most instructors begin with a dry land session where you will practice paddling, spinning your board around and popping up.
Once you grasp these three key steps, you’ll be guided out into the frothy surf and told to play, play, play. Make sure you keep an eye out for dolphins as well, who love to play peek-a-boo with surfers.
Birding on the Back Bay in Newport Beach
One of the largest coastal wetland areas in Southern California is this 1,001-acre nature preserve made up of fresh and salt waters. The conditions here make it the perfect habitat for birds. In fact, some 30,000 winged friends converge on the Back Bay every winter, en route to warmer climates.
Keen birders aching to spot some rare species are often on the lookout for light-footed clapper rails, brown pelicans, black rails and peregrine falcons who spend part of the year here. A superb way to get up-close-and-personal with the birds of the Back Bay is to take a guided kayak tour (available every Sunday from Newport Bay Naturalists & Friends).
Try stand-up paddling or kayaking
Surrounded by an RV park and one-bedroom cottages for rent, the Back Bay of Newport Beach is an ideal spot to learn a new sport. Rent anything from a stand-up paddleboard or kayak, to a six-seater Surrey bike or pedal boat. Protected from ocean swells, these waters are always flat and shallow, making it nearly impossible to get yourself into trouble.
Watch body surfers at The Wedge
At the southern tip of the five-km-long Balboa Peninsula lies one of the world’s wildest surf spots known as The Wedge. This unique place was recently ranked “toughest body-surfing spot in the U.S.” by Sports Illustrated magazine. And legend has it that John Wayne tried tackling these seven-metre waves back in his prime.
If you’re a surfin’ cowboy, give it a go in the shallows near the beach. Or, if you’d rather be a spectator, grab a towel and claim a section of sandy beach for some spectacular monster-wave watching.
Rummage for vintage finds in Fullerton
A five-minute drive from Anaheim puts you in the historic town of Fullerton. Fullerton was once thought to have more orange groves than any other city in Orange County. Only about 50 acres of groves remain today. Now famous for its 70 historic buildings, you’ll find that these brick charmers have been converted into antique shops and cafes. But the real standouts in this university town are its vintage clothing shops.
Stop by Out of Vogue and you might find hooked rugs next to a barrel of go-go boots, Jackie-O sunglasses, Jimi Hendrix albums and flowered bathing caps. At Road Kill, you’ll find kitschy T-shirts, recycled handbags, racks of second-hand jeans and poodle-emblazoned sun frocks. Other shops not to be missed include Stray Cat, American Vintage, Buffalo Vintage and Arc Value Village.
If you have time to pack in one more attraction, take a quick tour of the Fullerton Museum. Inside, you’ll see a collection of Fender guitars and other memorabilia linked to Leo Fender, the father of the solid-body electric guitar who grew up near Fullerton.
Get a feel for California’s History at Mission San Juan Capistrano
If you have time to visit only one of these outposts established by the Spanish Franciscans, make it this one. The adobe-styled mission is ranked the No. 1 historic site in Orange County due to its remarkably preserved buildings and elegant fountains. It’s impossible not to feel moved by the changing powers that ruled – and later destroyed – this mission in the 1800s. The chapel, dating back to 1777, is the oldest building still in use in California.
As you wander through its serene gardens, you’re bound to hear a romantic story tying this mission to the annual return of swallows that have come back to nest under its eaves every March. In fact, if you’re visiting here in March, time your trip with the parade and weekend festival celebrating the swallows’ return.
When you’re ready for a break from the sun and theme parks, there’s always shopping. For surfers and sun worshippers, the beach towns of Orange County are home to the best places to find board shorts, beach totes, pukka shell necklaces and more flip-flops than you can shake a sandy towel at. Jog inland and the shopping scene shifts to outlet malls and some of the most exclusive retail strips in North America.
Jack’s and the Rock and Roll Emporium (Huntington Beach)
The granddaddy of surf shops is Jack’s. In business since 1957, this is where you’ll find official U.S. Open hats and T-shirts, as well as Bob Marley rasta hats, Quiksilver board shorts, Paul Frank glasses, Ripcurl bikinis and every other surfing brand under the sun. You’ll find Jack’s on Main Street, about a block away from the Pacific Coast Highway.
While you’re in the neighbourhood, head along Main Street and you’ll also bump into eclectic spots like the Rock and Roll Emporium and American Vintage – a trove of Hawaiian floral muumuus and 1970s-era jumpsuits.
A’maree’s (Newport Beach)
If you love designer goods, head straight to A’maree’s. Known as one of America’s most exclusive boutiques, this shop features a hand-picked inventory of haute couture from Comme des Garcons to Current Elliott, Lucien Pellat Finet and Lanvic – all displayed at a stunning waterfront location.
Fashion Island (Newport Beach)
Most stylish types make a beeline for Fashion Island, a pleasant, open-air, Italian-esque complex of dozens of stores built around circular plazas, koi ponds and a Venetian carousal. Anchored by a handful of department stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus, the island also includes popular chains such as L’Occitane, Kate Spade, The Limited, Kenneth Cole, Lululemon Athletica, Fluxus and American Rag Compagnie.
Before you begin your shopping spree, pop into the information kiosk to scoop up a VIP brochure with discounts of 10 to 20 per cent off goods at most stores.
South Coast Plaza (Costa Mesa)
If you think shopping doesn’t get more desirable than Rodeo Drive, pack your plastic and head to South Coast Plaza. No cars, no subways, no traffic lights - just a huge parking lot surrounding 250 high-end boutiques.
All under one glass roof you’ll find Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Burberry, Valentino, Chanel, MaxMara, Balenciago, Hermes, Madewell, H&M and many more. The mall also offers deluxe services ranging from multilingual guides and valet, to personal shoppers and the ultimate private suite (the Access) for those who drop a minimum of US$500 a day.
Want to know more? The Access is a series of soothingly quiet rooms, where you can snack and drink bubbly while trying on fashions that are wheeled in to you by staff. You’ll never need to roam the marble floors with the masses. Built by Henry Segerstrom, the same man who contributed US$40 million to the nearby Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, this retail space of 260,128 square metres is the biggest mall on the West Coast and definitely one of the most luxurious.
The LAB and The CAMP (Costa Mesa)
Fondly referred to as The Anti-Malls by locals, the shops here are a mix of hippy styles and unconventional finds.
The CAMP focuses on outdoor and action-sport shops. Look for discounted Toms shoes at Active and superb tacos at the Taco Asylum.
The LAB, an acronym for Little American Business, was actually built from remnants of a goggle factory. Slouchy couches can be found in the “living room” that’s close to Urban Outfitters, Blends + Carve (men’s street wear) and Commissary.
Dozens of funky one-off shops pop out of little garden spaces in this compound of offbeat gems. Arrive hungry since there are plenty of yummy spots to eat – from Habana (Cuban goodies) to Zipangu (great Japanese fusion, tapas and sushi), not to mention the Gypsy Den – an excellent coffee and dessert bar.
The Block at Orange (Orange)
Only a five-minute drive from the Disneyland Resort, the Block has dozens of stores and a 3D theatre. There is also a Vans Skate Park, a Hollister Outlet, Victoria’s Secret, PacSun and Puma stores. Needless to say, this place is a big hit with teenagers. But adults will love the bargains too. Score at the discount racks in Neiman Marcus Last Call, Sak’s Fifth Avenue Off 5th, the Nike Factory store, , Ann Taylor Factory Store, Frederick’s of Hollywood and dozens more.
Bruxie (Orange County) (Fast food, $)
First came paninis. Next came cupcakes. Then maple bacon donuts. The newest culinary trend in Southern California is waffle sandwiches. And we’re not talking about the thick, syrupy Belgian variety, but two thin, crispy waffles that cuddle all sorts of gourmet fillings, from buttermilk fried chicken to prosciutto and gruyère. They are delicious! Ditto for the seasonal shakes made at Bruxie’s with old-fashioned frozen Wisconsin custard.
Café Rialto (Fullerton) (International, $-$$)
“If this is your first time here, you’ve got to order the quiche with the house potatoes – and just a half order – the portions are huge.” So says one of Café Rialto’s friendly servers – and she knows what she’s talking about. Turns out the wedge of quiche drizzled with sundried tomato aioli is divine and half is plenty. So is the stuffed french toast with fresh berry compote, mascarpone cheese and whipped cream.
Not to mention, the friendly service at this teensy, Parisian-like cafe makes you want to linger all morning long. So will the organic coffee, served in cute mugs.
House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer (Laguna Beach) (Seafood, $-$$)
It takes about five visits to work through Big Fish’s massive menu of seafood favourites. And then there’s the beer list – more than 75 varieties in total, sourced from around the planet. The best deal being a “bucket” of five Coronas for US$12.
More casual than other restaurants nearby, this bustling spot is perennially busy. Most customers come for the fist-sized pudgy oysters, Alaskan king crab legs and lobster fondue. But, the speedy kitchen also offers a full Hawaiian menu.
Those on frugal budgets will also love Lures – seven yummy dishes, from steak bites and guava barbecue meatballs to red curry mussels, priced at US$6 each. Just be sure your eyes aren’t too big for your stomach – the portions here are hefty.
Ruby’s Diner (Huntington Beach) (Fast food, $)
The pier you saw in Forrest Gump is the very one at the end of Main Street, Huntington Beach. And at its tip lies Ruby’s Diner. This blast-from-the-past setting with chrome, red vinyl booths and black-and-white checkered floors is the ideal place for a burger and a shake. Order a Double Deluxe Burger and a Froot Loopsey Shake. Visit on a Tuesday (Family) Night and kids under 12 eat free when one adult buys an entree.
Taco Asylum (Costa Mesa) (Mexican, $)
Less taco and more flatbread, you’ll find just the right amount of delicious inside the creations at this hip New Age restaurant.The small menu (with 10 types of tacos but dozens of teas, juices and beers) packs a huge punch, wrapping meals like braised duck in Camembert and Dijon creme fraiche. Or take wild mushrooms and coat them with a chickpea puree and parsley salad. Then tuck them in a soft, naan-like bread. All menu items at Taco Asylum are plate-scrapers.
The Beachcomber Cafe at Crystal Cove (Newport Beach) (International/Seafood, $$-$$$)
Two steps up from the sandy beach at Crystal Cove State Park, this seaside charmer has the feel of an old, marooned boat. This historic joint has ties to the 1920s, when a series of tiny cabins were built on the beach as dressing rooms for Hollywood stars. The cabins are now being restored and surround this cozy restaurant noted for its crunchy crab cakes, pecan-crusted barramundi and silky yellowfin ahi tuna.
Napa Rose (Disneyland) (California, $$$)
This highly regarded Disneyland Resort classic located in the Grand Californian Hotel continues to score perfect 10s with food critics, just as it has since it opened in 2001. And it’s obvious why. From its exquisite arts and craft furnishings to its selection of more than 500 wines (80 offered by the glass) and locally sourced menu items, this is the place to splurge on a meal.
Choose the Seven Sparkling Sins (a combination of seven exquisite appetizers for two) as a starter and you may not need to move on to the mains. But that would be a loss – especially if you bypassed the sauteed wild black sea bass with lemon whipped potatoes, or the duck breast served with a cauliflower almond couscous and tangy arugula salad. Just remember to save room for the orange crème brulée with winter pear. It’s irresistible.
Beach House Restaurant (Laguna Beach) (International, $$)
Feel like you’re stepping into someone else’s home? Well, you are. Formerly owned by actor Slim Summerville in the 1920s, this renovated seaside house has kept its original charm. It tells the story of Summerville, one of the stars of early 1930s classics like All Quiet on the Western Front, by way of photos and framed newspaper clippings hanging from its wooden walls.
Try to grab a patio table and scan the waters for dolphins, who like to show off at breakfast, as do the pelicans. Get the half-order of eggs Benedict stacked on a pillowy crab cake with slivered asparagus. (The portions here are huge.)
K’ya Bistro Bar (Laguna Beach) (Fusion, $$)
Named best chef in Orange County in 2010, Craig Connole has morphed a Cal-Asian menu with old-school French-Italian cuisine to create a bustling little bistro famous for its small plates. Subtly flavoured wild Hawaiian poke, grilled filet mignon, truffle risotto and a zippy lobster mac ’n cheese will convince you love is in the details.
Golf and spa
Mandara Spa (Grand Californian Hotel, Disneyland) ($$)
This spa offers a little slice of serenity. And nothing is more heavenly than a fourhanded Balinese massage – or a tri-enzyme facial after you’ve spent the day being jostled about at a theme park. Open to non-hotel guests as well, this 370-square-metre candlelit space is the only Mandara Spa on the west coast of California. Four sister spas can be found on several Hawaiian islands and they’re precisely why you see so much island influence on the spa menu.
Whether it’s part of the aromatherapy seaweed massage or hot stone therapy treatment, you’ll feel the long, free-flowing moves of lomilomi (traditional Hawaiian massage) incorporated into many of the services at this intimate, nine-treatment-room facility.
Montage Hotel ($$$-$$$$)
Laguna Beach’s lavish Montage Hotel has a 1,900-square-metre oceanfront spa and fitness centre. Here you can choose one of the signature sea-salt scrubs, a yoga class, body masque or any one of the numerous other luscious treatments. This award-winning spa set the gold standard for spas in Orange County as it was the first spa in California to snare five-star status from Mobil.
Other posh spas include the Spa Gaucin at the St. Regis Monarch Beach in Dana Point Harbor, as well as its equally swank neighbour at The Ritz-Carlton. Head north to discover another glamorous spa at the 2-million-square-metre expanse of oceanfront property known as Pelican Hill, wedged between Newport Beach and Crystal Cove.
Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club
The handiwork of tour players Tom Lehman and Casey O’Callaghan, Arroyo Trabuco is an airy, rambling affair spread across 240 acres of natural preserve, bisected by a very-much-in-play riparian corridor.
This course is all about setting up shots, figuring out how aggressive to be off the tee and how that decision will affect your approach shots. Wind can also be a factor, as are forced carries. Green fees ranged from US$55 to US$95 as of May 2011.
Oak Creek Golf Club
Nothing urban invades Oak Creek and no roads cut through it. It’s a “core” golf course through and through. From the mind and mechanical pencil of Tom Fazio, the course rolls out easily, with open sightlines leading way to views of SoCal’s trademark golden and green hills. Push-up bunkers and mounding add vertical contrast, definition and depth-of-field.
Fazio’s trademark generosity off the tee also provides lesser-skilled players options between the either/or dichotomy of centre-cut fairways and doom. The Mission Revival clubhouse is a perfect complement here in the O.C. As of May 2011, green fees ranged from US$79 to US$165.
Pelican Hill Golf Club
South of Pebble Beach, a player would be hard pressed to find a more apt meeting of California coastline and the great Scottish game than at Pelican Hill. Of the two Tom Fazio courses, Ocean South plays lower on the land, with holes framed in dense stands of trees and a stunning pass by the Pacific’s edge with back-to-back short, gorgeous par 3s.
Ocean North is more rugged, with holes running along peninsular ridgelines, twisting and diving through and around arroyos (creeks) thick with vegetation. The vistas of Newport Bay and Santa Catalina Island are nearly ever-present. Caddies are provided. As of May 2011, green fees ranged from US$140 to US$270.
Tijeras Creek Golf Club
Situated east of John Wayne Airport, in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, Tijeras Creek opens with a watery nine traced through eucalyptus trees and housing. However, Tijeras really begins on the backside where constricted drive angles, aged sycamores and oaks, and huge elevation leaps put a premium on accuracy.
Originally crafted by the late Ted Robinson, Tijeras was renovated under the watchful eye of Dick Bailey in 2002. He placed particular emphasis on overhauling the course’s many bunkers. As of May 2011, green fees ranged from US$70 to US$120.
Visit Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park (age 2 and up)
It all began with a few scrappy chickens – or so the story goes. Back in the late 1920s, Walter and Cordelia Knott rented a 20-acre spread of land where they raised a few chickens and grew produce.
A few years later, they opened a chicken restaurant that remains a key attraction here at Knott’s Berry Farm, just 10 minutes from Disneyland. In fact, the first themed area, Ghost Town, was built for hungry guests lined up for Cordelia’s famous deep-fried chicken, biscuits and boysenberry pie (still big sellers).
Fast-forward to today, where you’ll find thrill-seekers making a beeline for the 30-storey-high Supreme Scream or other white-knuckle coasters like Montezooma’s Revenge and the Silver Bullet. Little tykes adore Camp Snoopy, the original Ghost Town, Huff and Puff and the Log Peeler. And folks of all ages still line up for Cordelia’s chicken!
Cozy up to a campfire and roast s’mores (all ages)
Want to claim one of 600 free concrete fire rings at Huntington Beach for a little post-beach roast? Surround the fire pit with your gear and claim it.
If you find yourself aching for a marshmallow roast at the Slyder’s Pool at the Hyatt Hotel Huntington, you don’t even need to leave the grounds. Just order a s’more kit from the concession stand and gather around a poolside fire pit. A little box full of marshmallows, graham wafer crackers, chunks of chocolate plus manufactured wooden roasting spears soon magically appears. You can find the same little s’more kits at numerous corner stores and beachside vendors all along Orange County’s coast.
Disney Character Buffet at Storytellers Café (age 4 and older)
There is so much for you and your family to do at Disneyland Resort, it can sometimes be hard to know where to head first. A good place is the Storytellers Café where you can start your day with a massive breakfast buffet. From waffles shaped like Mickey’s ears to custom-made omelettes, fruit, muffins, porridge, cereal, tarts and baby quiches, you’ll likely not be hungry again until dinner.
You can also snap endless photos of your wee ones with Chip and Dale, Goofy, Mickey and the rest of the gang who romp through this lovely Mission-style space every morning.
Balboa Ice Cream Bar (all ages)
If you’re a fan of TV’s Arrested Development, you may recall the wealthy Bluth family owned a frozen chocolate banana stand on Balboa Island. It’s on Marine Avenue where a handful of shops sell frozen bananas on a stick and battle for “first,” “original” and “best” Balboa bar. It’s a square of vanilla ice cream on a stick rolled in everything from nuts and crushed Oreo cookies to smashed-up Smarties.
The tiny three-car ferry taking passengers to the Balboa Peninsula is a trip back in time. It links the upscale Balboa Island (part of Newport Beach) with humble little digs on the peninsula and takes less than five minutes to cross. Poke around Balboa Island before heading off to explore the old-fashioned wonders (a small Ferris wheel, duckie boats, a classic pony carousal) found on the other side in the Balboa Fun Zone.
Dive into the deep at Ocean Institute (age 4 and up)
It might be a brochure or a portable touch tank full of prickly anemones that’s been set up in your hotel lobby, but at some point you’re bound to hear about this remarkable organization in Orange County.
Headquartered in Dana Point Harbor, there are oceanside classrooms, labs, exhibit halls, shops, restaurants, kayaking and boat charters. Besides educating thousands of school children every year, the institute has a massive outreach program linking it to various hotels, parks and community centres where it conducts interactive sessions on the wonders of marine life.
If there’s a budding marine biologist in your group who would like to dissect the digestive tract of a mackerel or play eye-spy with a hermit crab, this is the place to go. Try to time your visit with the Festival of Whales in March. It has been running annually since 1972.
During the summer, numerous day camps are also offered, as well as family-friendly programs like sleepovers, tall-ship excursions, whale watching and adventure cruises.
Go back in time at Watson’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain (age 6 and up)
If your kids want a taste of an old-fashioned candy shop, pop into this Orange County landmark. This century-old pharmacy has been used as a set for many movies, including That Thing You Do. Six lengthy rows of candies, including Pixy Stix, Wonka Sweet Tarts, Blow Pops, Dots, Baby Ruths, licorice pipes, Sugar Daddy’s and more – are ready to be bagged into individual sweet dreams.
Nothing about this diner has been modernized, Not its chrome stools, thick oil cloth tablecloths or menu featuring meatloaf sandwiches, spaghetti and pork chops with mushroom soup gravy. Besides the candies, the root beer floats and banana splits are sure-fire hits with kiddies. So is the history lesson.
Take a surfing lesson (age 4 and up)
While we don’t recommend starting at The Wedge (where monster waves make for heart-thumping surfing), there are many mellow areas along Orange County’s coast that are perfect for beginners. The bigger hotels have activity desks where experts organize individual, group and family surf lessons. Most lessons last two hours and cost upwards of US$75 a person. Many surf schools accept kids as young as four years of age, but they need to be comfortable swimmers.
Explore tidal pools at Crystal Cove State Park (age 2 and up)
Buffered from the Pacific Coast Highway by wild woodlands, bluffs and canyons, this stunning five km stretch of beach is perfect for families hoping to beachcomb, swim, laze about in the dunes or poke through dozens of tidal pools. Although you’re near one of the most densely populated areas in the United States, you’ll feel like you’re on the lip of rugged wilderness.
Pack a picnic and make a day of it, or have a meal at the Beachcomber Cafe where the sunsets never fail to provoke “oohs” and “aahs” from all. Even kids.
Laguna Beach Art Walk (Free)
The best time to visit any of Laguna’s dozens of art galleries is the first Thursday in April, May and June. That’s when you’ll get to hobnob with artists, gallery owners and other patrons while enjoying free California wine and nibbles.
Bonfires at Huntington Beach (Free)
Bring a beach blanket, kick off your flip-flops and cozy up around any of Huntington Beach’s 600 campfire rings to watch the sun slide down over the Pacific. Be prepared for serious volleyball players (on its more than 24 beach courts) and surfers who might want to share your bag of marshmallows.
Battle of the Dance (Anaheim) (Dinner theatre, $$$)
One of Anaheim’s newest venues, this 950-seat restaurant and theatre is modelled after Gelabert’s Son Amar dinner theatre show in Majorca, Spain. It’s big, it’s flashy and it showcases duelling flamenco, Irish and Bollywood dance numbers.
In between the dance segments are acts by ventriloquists, jugglers and an unbelievable shadow puppeteer. Dance is certainly the evening’s centrepiece, but a yummy three-course meal is included in the ticket price.
Heroes Bar & Grill (Fullerton) (Pub, $-$$)
Marvel at the rows upon rows of family-heirloom-esque memorabilia. Black-and-white photos, stuffed mooseheads, twinkly lights, trophies, piñatas and road signs fill this spot. You’ll love the prices and portions here, with a platter of chicken quesadillas big enough to fill most groups of four and a chicken fried steak sandwich that is plenty for two.
If you are travelling with a large group, get here early. This 1910 former blacksmith shop gets packed by 8 p.m.
Duke’s (Huntington Beach) (Beach bar, $$)
Belly up to the bar at Duke’s, right next to Huntington Pier, where the decor is surfboards and black-and-white photos of the surf scene from pre-war Huntington Beach.
Wooden ceiling fans whir in this shuttered space, while you sip on a mai tai – slowly – since the price here is twice what it is on Main Street. You pay for being in the only bar on the sand.
Fred’s Mexican Café (Huntington Beach) (Beach bar, $)
Perched upstairs on the key corner of Main Street and the Pacific Coast Highway, this thatched cabana-like Mexican joint offers up great ocean views with jugs of margaritas and pitchers of cheap beer.
Between the constant whirl of blenders and multiple televisions, it’s loud inside. So grab an outdoor table if you can and split a platter of grande nachos loaded with black beans, gooey cheese and chunks of chicken. This is all you’ll need until well past sunset.
House of Blues (Downtown Disney) (Music venue, $$-$$$)
It might be the moment you tuck into an order of cornmeal-crusted catfish or find yourself groovin’ to BB King, but it’ll happen. You’ll feel like you’re in Louisiana at a Bourbon Street bar, complete with velvety, rockin’ blues.
Order an Electric Lemonade or a Fat Tire beer. Look a little closer at the uneven floorboards, the antique portraits and the chipped chandeliers. Yep. They’re all remarkable replicas.
For some toe-tappin’, hands-in-the-air waving fun, buy a ticket to Sunday’s Gospel Brunch. Reservations required.
The Cliff (Laguna Beach) (Beach bar, $$)
Just a step off the Pacific Coast Highway in the belly of Laguna Beach is an unpretentious seaside shack adored by locals. Get there at happy hour (Monday to Thursday, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and save US$2 off your drinks.
The best seats in the house are on the second deck, on slouchy sofas that seem to hang over the ocean. Be there when the sun stains the Pacific a crimson pink. That’s when the staff strike up portable outdoor fire pits and everyone cuddles up to toast all that is right at this little seaside gem.
Hearthstone Lounge (Grand Californian Hotel, Disneyland Resort) (Cafe/lounge, $$)
Whether it’s a latte and croissant that you scoop up here in the morning or a flute of Champagne at night, this little sanctuary feels a planet away from the pulse of those nearby Disney gates. Tucked into a corner of the main level of Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, this space can be whatever you wish it to be. Enjoy some adult time and a cocktail at this rustically elegant, lodge-like lounge.
If it’s possible to have too much fun, Orange County might be just the spot to deliver such an order. Add the theme parks, cartoon characters and white-knuckle mechanical rides to the top-notch restaurants, shops, and the list of must-dos becomes boggling – and exhausting. So why not take a relaxing daytrip to laid-back Santa Catalina Island for a mini-vacation during your trip.
Located 35 km off the coast of Southern California (and technically in L.A. County, but closer to Orange), you can hop on the Catalina Express boat from terminals at Long Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point or San Pedro. Even the boat ride that whizzes you from the hurly burly life of the mainland to the mellow state of Island Time is an adventure. Scan the waters and you’re likely to see dolphins and whales.
If you smell something wildly fishy and hear bizarre barking, you’re likely close to Catalina, where you’ll soon find several groups of sea lions laying out on the rocks near the island’s edge.
The moment you step foot on this beach-ringed island, you’ll feel the pace slow. Part of that has to do with Catalina’s main mode of transporation – golf carts. With a few taxis and bicycles thrown into the ecologically friendly mix, you’ll soon discover that Catalina is not a place that was built overnight.
Bookended by the towns of Avalon and Two Harbors, the island’s rich history dates back some 7,000 years to when Native Americans ruled. But it wasn’t until 1542, when Don Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo of Spain stopped in its waters, that Catalina made its way into European logbooks. Discover these interesting facts and more in the newly renovated Catalina Island Museum in Avalon.
Little interpretive plaques tell the story of European interest in Santa Catalina, which ramped up in 1790 after becoming a haven for Yankee smugglers. Soon after, Americans brought sheep and cattle (and later bison – several hundred of which remain today), followed by a troop of Union soldiers who built barracks in the town of Two Harbors during the 1860s.
By 1898, tourists had discovered Catalina and the Avalon Tuna Club was formed. Now considered the oldest fishing club in the United States, the Avalon attracted the likes of Zane Grey, John Wayne and Winston Churchill.
But it was the purchase of the island by William Wrigley Jr., of chewing gum fame that put the island on the world map. The same Wrigley owned the Chicago Cubs and brought the players to Catalina Island for spring training for 30 seasons, attracting the interest of thousands of baseball fans.
Many movies were shot here and events like the Catalina Grand Prix were often hosted. That was, until the 1970s when various conservation organizations protested, claiming the island was being over-commercialized. That’s why cars have been banned and why most tour operators run small-footprint, outdoor adventures.
Serious hikers wanting a three- to five- day challenge should try the 85-km Trans-Catalina Trail. It starts southeast of Avalon and ends in the village of Two Harbors. The trek meanders through groves of eucalyptus trees and cuts across paths of prickly pear cactus, farmers’ fields and clearings where you should watch for bison.
The story goes that 14 bison were brought to the island in the 1920s to form the backdrop of the silent film The Vanishing American. The bison never made it into the final cut, but they were left on the island where their numbers quickly grew into the hundreds. They’re mainly harmless but there have been a few accidents over the years, so it’s best to stay out of their paths.
However, most day-trippers opt for softer adventures, such as the Zip Line Eco Tour from mountain top to shore. After zipping 183 metres down to Descanso Beach, guides will gear you up with a specially designed diving helmet and lead you on a Sea Trek. Dressed like an astronaut, you’ll bounce underwater along the ocean floor and see hundreds of fish swim right in front of your face.
There are also plenty of spots to go parasailing off the back of a boat, kayaking, snorkelling, biking and scuba diving in hidden coves.
With 80 km of pristine coastline, Catalina also offers many other watery adventures: Glass-bottomed boat tours, offshore fishing, motorboat and jet ski rentals, and sea kayaking through caves. Even snuba is offered here – a combination of snorkelling and scuba, available at Descanso Beach.
Those who like to mix and match activities love spending time inland. The standout adventures for landlubbers include: Segway tours of Avalon, mountain biking and cycling on electric as well as bikes built for two. Golfers can tee off on the same course where Tiger Woods once played as a tyke.
Spending a day on Catalina is a perfect reminder of the natural world that lies just 35 km from the mainland.
Home to the longest uninterrupted beachfront on the West Coast (not to mention some of the best weather), Huntington Beach has personified the Southern California “standard” since the 1950s.
Located just 60 km southeast of Los Angeles, you’ll find a surfer’s paradise. Surf as locals have done here since 1905. But first, you’ll need a board and a proper surf education. Sure, anyone can drop a surfboard in the water, paddle out and catch a wave. But it enriches the overall experience to understand the surf culture – and of course, helps you stand up on your board.
Huntington Beach is Surf City, where the Dawn Patrol rise early in the morning, rip some curls, shower out the salt and grudgingly report to work.
During peak times at Huntington Beach, you’ll see surfers find a point where the waves are breaking and literally line up to catch the curl. To drop into a wave and cut off another surfer, especially on purpose (to “snake”), is asking for trouble. So be courteous to your fellow surfers when riding the waves.
Main Street at Huntington becomes a party zone in the warm months, with bustling restaurants, packed pubs and a couple of highly successful surf shops at the corner of Main and the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Off Main Street, you can still find old-guard stores, such as the 5th Street Surf Shop, with scuffed wood floors, whitewashed walls and dozens of surfboards stacked vertically.
The salespeople at the long-standing surf shops know their stuff – and have plenty of great stories to tell. So, don’t shy away from asking questions you might have about the sport or the gear needed to partake in it.
Huntington is also home to the Surfing Walk of Fame, Bob Bolen’s Surf Museum, the International Surf Museum and the Surfers Hall of Fame. It also hosts the annual U.S. Open of Surfing, which draws a half-million spectators each summer.
In the 1960s, surfing was representative of the counter-culture hippie movement of system-defying, anti-material carefree living even for those who never got their toes on the nose of a board.
During this time period, The Beach Boys recorded Surfin’ US and later came Surf City by Jan and Dean and many more hits like Surfer Girl and the ever-popular Help Me, Rhonda. There were magical songs about girls, cars and surfing – in otherwords, life in Hungtington Beach.
In SoCal, Huntington was where it was at – and still is – but with some changes. Surfers once hauled their boards to the beach here in “woodies,” or wood-panelled wagons that seemed custom-made for the task. They’d park alongside the oil pumpjacks that can still be seen today, working remnants of the oil-boom days. Today, the woodies are made-in-China die-cast replicas – hot sellers in the souvenir shops.
The beaches are now hedged by a wide boardwalk and offer clean bathrooms for changing into four-millimetre-thick neoprene wetsuits as well as showering off the sand and lotion when you’re done. Along the highway, parking meters and palm-tree landscaping have taken over the land where laissez-faire dirt parking once was.
But the beach remains the beach – a wide, unspoiled stretch of sand, stretching for almost 14 km until fissuring south into Newport Beach. The lifeguard stations get a fresh coat of paint every now and then but otherwise look the same as they always have – complete with sun-kissed ocean guardians still wearing red bathing suits (although the shorts now stretch below the knees). Come darkness, hundreds of fire rings are set ablaze with bonfires, now just as then.
Accommodations in Huntington trend to the luxurious, including the waterfront Hyatt, Hilton, Shorebreak and W Huntington Beach hotels. Across from Duke’s Restaurant and Bar, at the foot of the famous pier, the downtown strip bursts with places to dine when the surf’s flat. These include places like Aloha Grill, Crabby’s Boat House, Luggatti’s Italian Grill, Sushi on Fire and Silvera’s Steak House. Nearby, Jack’s Surfboards boasts the largest selection of board shorts in the world, and upstairs in the loft is a breathtaking collection of surfboards.
Other shopping here ranges from boutiques to an upscale mall; from fine jewelry to Helme Antiques. You’ll also find the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory as well as Pristine Motorsports, where vintage Porsches are restored.
But it’s out on the water that you’ll always find the best deals – plenty of sun, surf and peace of mind.
Calendar of events
Christmas Boat Parade (December)
Consider this parade Newport Beach’s Christmas card to the world. For five consecutive nights, more than 250 ships – from kayaks to multi-million-dollar yachts – light up the harbour before they set off from Collins Island on a two-and-a-half-hour, 23-km parade along the waterfront.
Tall Ships Festival (Dana Point) (September)
Here’s your chance to tour not one, but numerous tall ships at the largest annual gathering of vessels on the West Coast. You’ll have time to chat with blacksmiths, scrimshaw artists and lively Port Royal Privateers. The kids will love these history lessons as well.
Sawdust Art Festival, Art-A-Fair, Pageant of the Masters (summer)
This trio of arts events draws visitors from near and far. Like you’d expect from its name, the Sawdust Festival is held in a venue covered in sawdust! True to its roots, this outdoor festival was first held in 1966 in a dirt lot. In order to keep the dust and dirt from ruining the artwork, sawdust was laid down and the organizers have kept the ritual alive ever since. Artists and vendors all gather under one roof with plenty of live music at this carnival-like art fair.
Within walking distance of the Sawdust Festival, Art-A-Fair focuses on international artists in a juried competition of their creations. Another major arts festival is the Pageant of Masters, a unique celebration where performers dress up and recreate entire settings of classical and contemporary art works. Imagine an enormous gilded frame housing a life-size piece of art – that’s exactly what happens here – and models often hold these poses for hours.
Swallows Day Parade & Mercado (March)
Grab a seat on the curb and watch the nation’s largest non-motorized parade saluting the return of the cliff swallows to the San Juan Capistrano mission. Flying from Argentina, these beloved birds still build their mud nests in the eaves of California’s most-famous mission, as they have for centuries.
Festival of Whales (March)
Dubbed the Whale Capital of the West, you’ll be able to join the annual migration of the California grey whales on specially designed bus excursions and guided boat expeditions in Dana Point. A street fair and a massive arts and crafts show headline this festival that runs over two weekends.
Fourth of July Parade (July 4th weekend)
Get to a beach (any beach) in the O.C. for incredible Fourth of July parties and fireworks displays. Huntington Beach pulls out all the stops with oodles of cheap breakfasts, a parade, volleyball tournament and, of course, surfing.
A Taste of Greece (June)
You’ll go bonkers over the spicy souvlaki and juicy wedges of spanakopita that you can buy on Irvine’s streets near festival headquarters, St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church. Cooking demos, free dancing lessons, church tours and Greek goods are all part of the weekend-long hoopla.
U.S. Open of Surfing (July)
The world’s super stars of surfing showcase their stuff in the hallowed waves of Huntington Beach in July. It’s one of the most popular surfing events in the world and often attracts half a million spectators who visit the wide, sandy beaches for this nine-day event.