The opening song to the prime-time TV soap opera The O.C.dusts off the sentiments behind an old Al Jolson road trip anthem:”On the stereo / Listen as we go / Nothing’s gonna stop me now /California here we come / Right back where we started from.”
Watch the show, and you’d think that Southern California’sOrange County is a place where a new BMW, stylish clothes, and asurfboard (whether you know how to use it or not) are make-or-breaknecessities.
Perhaps. Our list of the 20 absolute best summertime experiencesnorth to south along the Orange County coast certainly includes ataste of the area’s high-end resorts and restaurants. But there’smore: secluded beaches, kid-friendly tidepools, even some fine art.And even a grommet (an inexperienced surfer) on a budget canexperience what one fairly erudite California historian called “thelast American paradise.” And that’s the real O.C.
Best of the O.C. coast
1 Seal Beach. With its tree-lined Main Street, ice creamparlors, and curio shops, Seal Beach may be the last bastion ofclassic Southern California beach towns. The 1,865-footold-fashioned pier, once the longest on the West Coast, is perfectfor strolling or fishing. The Seal Beach Historical Society’s RedCar Museum (12-3 second and fourth Sat of each month; free; cornerof Main St. and Electric Ave., Seal Beach; 562/683-1874) is housedin a 1925 tower car used to maintain overhead electrical wires forPacific Electric Railway passenger cars that ran between NewportBeach and Los Angeles from the early 1900s to 1950.
2 Walt’s Wharf. Stroll out to the end of the Seal Beach pierwhile waiting for your table at Walt’s Wharf, known for itsoak-grilled artichokes, extensive selection of seafood, and sassywaitresses. $$$. 201 Main, Seal Beach; 562/598-4433.
3 Surf culture. Near the Huntington Beach Pier, a statue ofsurfing legend Duke Kahanamoku lets you know you’re in “Surf City.”Check out the Surfing Walk of Fame, next to Jack’s Surfboards(corner of Main and Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach;714/536-4516), where contemporary surfing legends are immortalizedon granite plaques in the sidewalk. TheInternational Surfing Museum (call for hours; $2; 411 OliveAve., Huntington Beach; 714/960-3483) is nearby.
4 Family-friendly resort. At the Hyatt Regency HuntingtonBeach Resort & Spa, a pedestrian bridge over Pacific CoastHighway makes it easy for kids to get from the hotel to the beach;better yet, the resort store sells firewood, for fire rings on thesand, and fixings for s’mores. For grown-ups, the Red Chair Loungeoffers bottles of champagne at half-price every night from 4:30 to7 p.m. Where else on the beach can you get a bottle of VeuveClicquot for $38? 517 rooms from $215. 21500 Pacific Coast Hwy.,Huntington Beach; 714/698-1234.
5 Irvine Museum. See The coast on canvas.
6 Great wave. West of Newport Pier, Blackies is a favoredspot for novice surfers. For surf conditions, call949/673-3371.
7 Midnight tacos. The best fish tacos north of Ensenada canbe had at the Blue Beet Cafe, a noisy dive hidden in an alley nearthe Newport Pier. One catch: They’re only available after therestaurant’s kitchen closes at 11 p.m. But at a buck each, they’reworth going late. $; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. 107 21st Place,Newport Beach; 949/675-2338.
8 The Crab Cooker. Even SpongeBob Square-Pants would abandonthe Krusty Krab for the Crab Cooker. The line outside testifies tothe quality of the Crab Cooker’s wood-grilled seafood, served onpaper plates, and its popular prices ― the best deal on thecoast. $$. 2200 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach; 949/673-0100.
9 Duke’s place. Formerly a private retreat, the Balboa BayClub & Resort opened to the public last year following a $65million renovation that includes 132 guest rooms and the Duke’sPlace lounge, named after former club member John Wayne. Rooms from$295. 1221 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach; 949/645-5000.
10 Old salts’ haunt. Housed in an actual paddle-wheeler, theNewport Harbor Nautical Museum enshrines Southern California’smaritime lore. $5 donation suggested. 151 E. Coast Hwy., NewportBeach; 949/673-7863.
11 Bodysurfing. A fabled experts-only spot at the end of theBalboa Peninsula, the Wedge, has the best bodysurfing break inSouthern California ― maybe the world. Accessible from thesouth end of Balboa Blvd., Balboa; call 949/673-3371 for a surfreport.
12 Kids beach. Picnic tables, firepits, showers, and lots oflifeguards make the generally calm waters of Corona del Mar StateBeach, east of the entrance to Newport Harbor, a popular hangoutfor the under-12 set and their moms and dads. Accessible fromInspiration Point at the end of Orchid Ave. and from Jasmine St. atLookout Point, or park (from $10 per vehicle) in lot on MargueriteAve. at Ocean Blvd., Corona del Mar; 949/644-3151.
13 Prince of tidepools. School groups swarm the exposed rockoutcroppings around Little Corona Marine Life Refuge. Less knownare the tidepools at Treasure Island Cove, beneath the Montageresort in Laguna Beach. Little Corona Marine Life Refuge:accessible via path from foot of Poppy Ave. and Ocean Blvd., Coronadel Mar; 949/644-3038. Treasure Island Cove: accessible via pavedtrail from public parking lot south of Montage resort in LagunaBeach.
14 The Monkey Flip. You can get fresh lemonade at theCrystal Cove Shake Shack but, as the name implies, shakes are thething. The Monkey Flip has chocolate, peanut butter, banana, anddates ($4). $. 7408 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; 949/497-9666.
15 Serene beach. You have to take an underground tunnelbeneath Coast Highway and then hike down a small hill past aghostly enclave of abandoned cottages (preserved but not yetrenovated), but the flat expanse of sand at Crystal Cove StateHistoric District beach is usually populated with more seabirdsthan people. Along E. Coast Hwy., about 4 miles south of NewportBeach; 949/494-3539.
16 Art town. Galleries, a thriving restaurant scene, and thebest people-watching beach in the county ― Laguna Beach hasit all. The Cottage Restaurant ($$$; 308 N. Coast Hwy.;949/494-3023) serves up hearty California cuisine, and Main Beach(free; Broadway at N. Coast Hwy.) attracts basketball andbeach-volleyball enthusiasts as well as gawkers of all ages.
17 Laguna Art Museum. See The coast on canvas.
18 Hush. Opened in February, Hush quickly established aloyal following. Try a Hush burger or oysters from the After Darkmenu, or order from the vast wine list. $$$$. 858 S. Coast Hwy.,Laguna Beach; 949/497-3616.
19 Seaside splurge. Opened last year, Laguna Beach’s MontageResort & Spa is romantic, charming, beautiful, and not cheap.Likewise, a meal at the resort’s restaurant, the Studio ($$$$), canset you back plenty ― but the delicate, eclectic food is sogood, and the setting overlooking the Pacific so unforgettable,you’ll probably decide it was worth it. 262 rooms from $560. 30801S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; 949/715-6420.
20 Seaside splurge no. 2. With a Robert Trent JonesJr.-designed golf course, three pools, and clay tennis courts, theSt. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa is a luxury resort for thesports-minded. For seafood lovers, the resort’s Aqua restaurant($$$$) is a sure bet. 400 rooms from $450. 1 Monarch Beach ResortDr., Dana Point; 800/722-1543 or 949/234-3200.
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