You may think Orange County culture begins with a mouse and ends with a shaggy, blonde surfer dude. But that’s not really the case.
Truth be told, the county has as many thriving historical and cultural spots as it does zip codes. Sure, its legendary beach towns come with a funky, laid-back vibe, but even they have distinct personalities.
If you can’t get enough of late surf legend Duke Kahanamoku and rooftop tiki bars, head straight for Huntington Beach, a.k.a. Surf City USA. But if surfing or beach volleyball isn’t your thing, rent a flowered beach cruiser bicycle and veer south to Laguna Beach.
Home to more than 100 art galleries, a Thursday-night art walk (complete with free wine and cheese) and a former hit MTV series of the same name, Laguna Beach is both chic and sophisticated bohemian. Here, you can leave downtown wearing flip-flops and a towel, beach comb for a few hours and discover exquisite little coves great for snorkelling and scuba diving.
Want more luxe and flash? Head to Newport Beach where you’ll find high-end boutiques, ritzy restaurants, incredible spas and a stunning boardwalk.
Even further north in Corona del Mar (a community in Newport Beach), you’ll find a perfect family beach with small waves for little tykes and nearby tidal pools.
Head inland to see Costa Mesa, where the arts are always on full display. Take a stroll around the Orange County Performing Arts Center and be dazzled by the wavy walls of the 3,000-seat, opera-style Segerstrom Hall and numerous other theatres. The scope of the complex is impressive and its roster of top Broadway productions and concerts befits a much larger urban centre.
You’ll also find the Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory close by, considered one of the finest regional theatres in the country. Keep walking across South Coast Plaza and you’ll have a chance to see outdoor art installations such as the world-famous 1.5-acre outdoor Noguchi Sculpture Garden.
In Orange County, you are bound to hear about Mission San Juan Capistrano. If you can, time your visit to coincide with the mission’s annual Return of the Swallows Festival in March. You can also get a history lesson on the Native American groups who lived in this area for thousands of years.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1775, when Father Lasuen founded the mission, that Europeans paid the region any attention. Now a beautifully restored complex, this mission was the seventh of 21 missions built in Alta California by the Spaniards aiming to spread Christianity.
Inside the rocky walls of Mission San Juan Capistrano are interpretive plaques telling the stories of the history-makers and boom-and-bust cycles Orange County has experienced. Take a guided tour and learn interesting facts, starting with the origin of the county’s name. Some say it was named after its famed orange industry. Others say it was named after William of Orange, who became the king of England in 1650. No one really knows. Most chalk it up as yet another Orange County mystery.