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The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, California. (Lisa Corson)

The most famous flock in the West returns to this sun-soaked slice of Orange County every March. You’ll want to revisit for its charming shops and historic downtown. Robin Jones shows us around San Juan Capistrano.

Legendary birdsIn 2013, for the first time in more than a decade, Mission San Juan Capistrano’s swallows returned to nest—just in time to enjoy the fruits of a 10-year restoration project, which renovated the Great Stone Church and Serra Chapel. The ongoing construction likely kept the birds at bay, but now that it’s complete, the Mission staff hopes to see the swallows return again this month. To celebrate, there’s a daily walking tour, led by a docent who will explain why the swallows first came to San Juan and what staff are doing now to lure them back.

Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1775. (Lisa Corson)

Homey shopsIt’s no wonder wedding parties so often use Los Rios Historic District as a photo backdrop: The 31 homes along this quaint road constitute the oldest continuing neighborhood in California—and one of its prettiest too. Most of the lovingly restored houses went up between 1880 and 1910, and many remain residential. But several have been converted into shops, and charmingly, they don’t attempt to hide their original purpose. At Nest, for instance, women’s clothing hangs in the bedrooms, jewelry made by local artisans is displayed in the living room, and handmade soaps stack up on the bathroom sink. Down the street at Los Rios General Store, rustic outdoor furniture and potted herbs look right at home on the back porch.

Los Rios district of San Juan Capistrano, California. (Lisa Corson)

Hearty a.m. fareOn a weather-worn deck off the back of an 1881 board-and-batten home, Ramos House Café gets serious about weekend brunch. Selection is limited to a two-course, fixed-price menu ($40), but no one’s likely to complain when it features treats like apple cinnamon beignets and crab hash with bacon scrambled eggs. Champagne and mimosas are included, but the Soju Bloody Mary with a Scotch quail egg and crab claw is worth the extra charge. For a post-Bloody pick-me-up, friendly Hidden House Coffee serves top-notch, pour-over brews in an 1850s era farmhouse that’s refreshingly free of fancy postmodern decor.

Ramos House Café in Los Rios district of San Juan Capistrano, California. (Lisa Corson)

A vintner's happy hourGoing wine tasting in Orange County usually means heading inland to the canyons, but two fabulous tasting rooms uncork closer to the coast. At the end of 2012, Trabuco Canyon’s Hamilton Oaks Vineyard and Winery took over a 1923 farmhouse on the north end of town, where it hosts tastings, concerts, and parties and encourages guests to picnic in the orange orchards. In 2013, Five Vines Wine Bar opened downtown with a rotating list of 60 small-batch wines and hearty cheese plates.

A flight of whites at Five Vines Wine Bar. (Lisa Corson)

Permission to play in the dirtIt may be an educational outfit, but you won’t get any lectures at The Ecology Center, which aims to make green living simple and fun. In the Farm to Fork cooking classes, for instance, harvest ingredients from the center’s gardens, cook them with local chefs, and then share their creations at a communal table. In Backyard Skills workshops, meanwhile, students learn to install their own container-garden boxes and rainwater barrels, among other things. And at the Tools for Change general store, the staff teaches customers how to use everything from worm composting bins to DIY cleaning products you can get your hands dirty, have some fun, and do good.

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