That might be the Orange County coastline calling you — 42 miles of beach and beach towns, give or take, from San Clemente to Seal Beach. Follow the advice here, and this coastline might lull you with surfers on swells, startle you with circus tricks (look for the guy by the Huntington Beach Pier with the hammer, nail and much-abused nose), charm you with old shacks on priceless real estate, seduce or offend you with shiny new buildings on equally priceless real estate, tempt you with $2.69 corn dogs or $600-a-night hotel rooms. If you're lucky, at the end of the day, you'll wind up standing on a pier, surfers bobbing below and the faint funk of old bait hanging in the air, and these very coastal waters will swallow the sun. It's a nice trick, no hammer or nail necessary.
These 12 micro-itineraries are designed to get you started along the O.C. coast whether you're coming from near or far. This is the fifth installment in our monthly Southern California Close-Ups series.
FOR THE RECORD:
Southern California Close-ups: A May 29 Travel story on the Orange County coast incorrectly reported that George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence. Washington was not one of the signers. It also incorrectly described the Pelican Hill and St. Regis Monarch Beach golf courses as private. The courses are privately owned, but nonmembers can pay to play on them. —
1. Your ticket to 1955Beachcomber Motel (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Just about all of Southern California's sleepy little beach towns have been built up, priced up and, by many measures, messed up. But San Clemente's pier, beaches and red-tile roofs endure, and they're worth a look. The waves here offer some of North America's best surfing, including the spot known as Trestles (just south of town within San Onofre State Beach), which some people call "the Yosemite of surfing." San Clemente also has an Amtrak stop right by the pier — which raises the tempting idea of a carless beach weekend — and don't forget the beachside pedestrian path that leads north from the pier to a great playground at Linda Lane Park.
Don't bother looking for Richard Nixon's old Western White House; he sold it in 1980, and it's a private home now. The town is tucked in among hills and canyons — no tidy street grid here — and on the main drag, El Camino Real, many locals like Sonny's (an old favorite for pizza at 429 N. El Camino Real) and the Riders Club Cafe (a new favorite for burgers and other "slow fast food" at 1701 N. El Camino Real). But you're starting with the pier.
At the Fisherman's Restaurant on the pier, the waves crash just below and the sunset washes over everyone on the patio. And you're bound to notice the Beachcomber Motel a block south. With its pseudo-Spanish cottage style, its 12 rooms (all with kitchens) and its perch on a grassy knoll right by the train tracks and beach, the Beachcomber is what you'd dream about if you fell asleep reading a 1955 issue of Sunset magazine. Priceless views. Alas, the interiors are as tired as the exterior is classic, and the prices hit a hefty $375 on summer weekends.
So, on those nights, you might consider the nearby Casa Tropicana, where your $350 or so will get you more space and some jazzy furniture. Ah, but in the off-season, you can get into the Beachcomber for as little as $125 a night. Take that deal, kick back on the porch and start pretending Nixon is still vice president, surfboards are still 7 feet long, and your state government is still solvent.
2. Fickle birds and fresh brunchMission San Juan Capistrano (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Mission San Juan Capistrano, which went up about the time George Washington and company were signing the Declaration of Independence, is famous for the swallows that return every spring. Unfortunately, most of those swallows have ditched the mission in favor of a country club in San Bernardino County. Bummer. But you'll want to stop in SJC all the same, because the mission grounds are still atmospheric (and less spattered), and Los Rios Street, which runs alongside the tracks near the town's Amtrak/Metrolink station, might be the oldest surviving residential street in the state, with adobes and Victorians, a nursery and a teahouse.
Come on a weekend and line up for the $35 brunch on the patio at the Ramos House Café, which was built as a private home in 1881. Expect the chef's cat to brush past. Then wander over to the nearby Zoomars Petting Zoo, where you can commune with ponies, llamas, pigs, goats and chickens.
3. Ahoy, historyPlacid Dana Cove (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Now, we're a bit north of San Clemente, in Dana Point, with a little flashback: In 1834, a rich kid from New England decided to look for a little adventure before starting law school at Harvard. His name was Richard Henry Dana Jr., and he signed on as a merchant seaman on a tall ship working the cattle-hide trade along the coast of Alta California.
For two years, his brigantine plied the coast, calling at San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara and the port of San Juan, now known as Dana Point Harbor. These adventures gave Dana all the material he needed for his memoir "Two Years Before the Mast." Take in the broad coastal view from Lantern Bay Park near the headlands, then head down Dana Point Harbor Drive to the marina, past the kayak rental place, the ferry collecting tourists for the trip to Catalina, the toddler-friendly waters of well-protected Dana Cove. See an old-fashioned ship with the word "Pilgrim" on its side? It's a 98-foot-long replica of Dana's brigantine, and it's used for marine education programs by the nonprofit Ocean Institute, whose handsome modern offices neighbor the docks.
On most Saturdays and Sundays, the institute's headquarters is open for educational tours. And from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. most Sundays, you can step aboard the Pilgrim for a tour and enjoy the sight of a docent pacing the decks and hollering sailor jargon and sporting a puffy shirt straight from the closet of a certain 18-year-old "Seinfeld" episode. But don't pity him, because he's busy pitying you. If you're a seasoned sailor, Dana once wrote, "there is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor's life."
4. On the beach and over the topMontage Laguna Beach (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The O.C. coastline is no place for penny-pinchers, especially when it comes to hotels, especially around Laguna and Newport beaches. Among golfers, two of the most popular lodging splurges are the Resort at Pelican Hill (Newport Beach) and the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort (Dana Point), both of which stand beside private courses. Shoppers might book the Island Hotel or the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach near Fashion Island mall in Newport Beach.
But if you want luxury right on the beach, you're likely to wind up choosing between the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel (which opened in 1984 next to Salt Creek Beach Park in Dana Point) or the Montage Laguna Beach (which opened in 2003 next to Treasure Island Beach at the southern end of Laguna Beach). They're both fit for plutocrats, set on cliff tops, each with acres of immaculately landscaped grounds, kids' programs, grand pools and walkways leading to sandy beaches. But they're not twins.
The 396-room Ritz, built as a fairly formal palace, has made itself more playful and casual; last year, the hotel reopened its one full-fledged restaurant as Raya, specializing in pan-Latino beach cuisine.
Up the coast, the 250-room Montage pays homage to Craftsman style, with California landscapes on the walls and two full-fledged restaurants. The Ritz rooms begin at about 400 square feet with varying views. The Montage's rooms begin at about 500 square feet, and all have ocean views. If money is no object, the Montage is the clear winner — but its rates start at about $600. The Ritz's start at about $400. Your call.
5. Echoes at the coveCrystal Cove Historic District (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Down along the shore between Laguna Beach and Newport, local activists and state officials are rehabilitating a beloved old beach-cottage community called Crystal Cove. "It's just a rustic walk back in time," says cottages manager Lindsay Lane. More than a dozen films have been shot at the site, including "To Have and Have Not," "Herbie Rides Again" and "Beaches."
The good news is that there are 21 vintage beach-facing units that Crystal Cove State Park rents for less than $200 a night. The bad news is that everybody wants one. Occupancy is about 98%, and cottages are typically snapped up six months ahead, within minutes of being made available. (On Feb. 1, August reservations open up, and so on.) More cottages will join the inventory, including two later this year. Meanwhile, forget about reservations and just show up, take the shuttle down from the state park's parking lot, walk the beach, dine on the patio of the Beachcomber café and climb the steps that lead north to the park's modest cultural center.
That last stop is an important one that many visitors miss. It will give you a chance to read about the Japanese American families who arrived in 1927, leased cottages from the Irvine family, farmed hundreds of acres, built a schoolhouse and other buildings, then were shipped off to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. By the time they were released after the end of World War II, Crystal Cove was otherwise occupied, and those families had to start over elsewhere. The cove is a scene of many happy memories, but its human history is not all sweetness and light.
6. The goodsFashion Island (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
You love shopping. And you know you need blow-drying by an expert ($35 at Drybar). Also, you need a massive desk that folds up like a steamer trunk ($3,400 at Restoration Hardware). You need a crack at Neiman Marcus and an hour or two to see how Macy's and Nordstrom compare. In other words, you need Fashion Island, in Newport Beach.
If a wave of thrift overwhelms you, you can sit by the koi pond and wait for it to pass, or get a $6 bowl of tasty miso soup (and with your menu, a written briefing on Dr. Andrew Weil's anti-inflammatory food pyramid) at the True Food Kitchen, which opened in August. Or you could dive into the world of modern art the Orange County Museum of Art ($12 an adult), a few blocks away. Through Sept. 4, the museum is showing a witty exhibition of mobiles and other works by the late Alexander Calder, along with pieces by seven artists he influenced. So many big, bright, impractical objects! So tenuously balanced! Now, what was that credit-debt counselor saying about your checkbook?
7. The beaches of LagunaMain Beach Park (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
If fate placed you in beachy, artsy Laguna Beach this afternoon, would you jump in the ocean first or start prowling galleries? If you choose No. 1, begin by taking the measure of Main Beach at Pacific Coast Highway and Broadway. Besides lots of body-surfing, skim-boarding, volleyball on the sand and half-court hoops on two of the best-sited courts in California, it's a scene of romantic strolls and playing children, all at the foot of a blue-and-white lifeguard tower that dates to the '20s.
There are tide pools at the northern end of the beach. And if you've forgotten little Jasper's beach toys, you can grab a plastic pail and shovel for $3.99 at Main Beach Toys & Games, near the beach's southern end. Then you'll be ready to start plotting time at some of Laguna's 20 or so other beaches. Surfers like Thousand Steps Beach (between 9th and 10th streets); families like Picnic Beach (which neighbors grassy Heisler Park); scuba divers favor Boat Canyon Beach; and about 200 yards off Cleo Street Beach, there's an old shipwreck. (More beach details at http://www.lagunabeachinfo.com.)
8. You're sleeping where in Laguna?Pacific Edge Hotel (Christian Horan)
You may be tempted to stay at the old Hotel Laguna, which looms familiarly just south of Main Beach. But be wary. Despite the great location and brilliant views from the restaurants, its rooms have needed updating for years. (What hotels still have metal keys?) Management says an upgrade is in progress, but until results are clear, head elsewhere.
Maybe you'll land at La Casa del Camino (where surf designers have jazzed up 10 rooms in an otherwise old-school '20s building); maybe the Inn at Laguna Beach (a more contemporary building with 70 rooms just north of Main Beach); maybe Pacific Edge (an oceanfront Midcentury motor lodge now boldly decorated and run by the trendy Joie de Vivre chain); or maybe you'll spend a bit more for the 165-room Surf & Sand Resort ($260 and up), where management has wedged many amenities into a tall, crowded collection of buildings on a beachfront perch.
Or turn your back on the beach and retreat to the frill-free, semi-isolated quiet and affordability of the Aliso Creek Inn (60 studios, one bedrooms and two bedrooms, all with kitchens), which is tucked into a canyon with a nine-hole golf course and pool (but no proper restaurant) at the southern end of town. On slow dates, you can get into a studio for less than $100 a night.
9. Never mind the landscapeMadison Square & Garden Cafe (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Show me the landscape paintings. Laguna Beach has been an art colony for a century or so. Though rising prices have worn thin the town's hippie veneer, you'll find galleries and festivals all over, especially in summer. Start with breakfast amid the decorative gnomes and greenery of Madison Square & Garden Café in north Laguna. Hop across the street to check the smallish but smart Laguna Art Museum and maybe have a look at blankets and beadwork at Len Wood's Indian Territory, just a few steps away.
From here, you might need to drive a bit. Dozens of galleries, scattered north to south along PCH, concentrate on classic California plein-air landscapes (the Redfern Gallery, 1540 S. Coast Highway, for instance), and there's plenty else too — Todd Kenyon's minimalist modern seascapes at the Pure Laguna Beach gallery (1590 S. Coast Highway), for instance, or the cool old movie and travel images at the Vintage Poster (1492 S. Coast Highway).
More than 40 galleries stay open for art walks on the first Thursday of every month. (There's also a great selection of books at Laguna Beach Books, 1200 S. Coast Highway.)
As for the art festivals, the weirdest (and one of the oldest) is the Pageant of the Masters, in which volunteers don costumes and makeup and strike poses to mimic old master paintings (July 7-Aug. 31; $15-$100 per adult). Other summer stalwarts include the Sawdust Art Festival (June 24-Aug. 28), the Festival of Arts (July 3-Aug. 31) and Art-a-Fair (June 24-Aug. 28); the Plein Air Painting Invitational follows Oct. 9-16.
Because you're saving your pennies for art, sidestep the fancy restaurants and grab a tasty Mexican lunch or dinner, prepared with an emphasis on sustainability, at either La Sirena Grill downtown (347 Mermaid St.) or in south Laguna (30862 S. Coast Highway).
10. The Balboas, Part 1Balboa Candy (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Some of the best fun and most difficult parking in Newport Beach is on Balboa Island and the Balboa peninsula. They're connected by an old-school ferry that carries just three cars ($2 a car), which is fun, but otherwise you'll be happier traveling by foot, bike or watercraft. The highlight of moneyed and mostly residential Balboa island — which is also connected to the mainland by bridge — is the commercial strip of Marine Avenue, where you can buy boutique clothes for yourself and your kids, maybe have lunch at Wilma's Patio (get the sourdough cheeseburger) and perhaps buy a frozen banana, although that will mean choosing between Sugar 'n' Spice ("the original frozen banana," 310 Marine Ave.) and Dad's Original Frozen Banana (318 Marine Ave.).
11. The Balboas, Part 2The Wedge (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The Balboa Peninsula includes a lot: the Newport and Balboa piers, several small hotels, a bunch of restaurants, a 1.7-mile bike trail that connects the piers, watercraft rentals, harbor cruises, the historic Balboa Pavilion building and a neighboring Fun Zone with rides and games. If you watched "The O.C." on television (2003-07), many of these spots will look familiar.
At the peninsula's southern tip is the Wedge, a prime body-surfing spot that Esquire magazine once put on a list of "60 things worth shortening your life for." Partake if you dare, then rent a bike ($8-$10 an hour), pedal pier to pier, and stop near the Newport Pier at Jane's Corndogs (106 McFadden Place). Maybe later you'll pony up for one of the fancy surf-and-turf dinners at 21 Oceanfront Restaurant (2100 W. Oceanfront). But for now, get in line behind those tourists from North Dakota, fork over your $2.69 and taste that savory corn-dog goodness.
12. And now the scruffy cousinHuntington Beach Pier (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
If Newport and Laguna are the rich distant relations who might not remember you in their wills, Huntington Beach is the wild cousin who owes you money. Its downtown is all about scruffy surf culture, and the Main Street bars and restaurants stay lively late, with the usual attendant troubles.
For a historical look at surf culture, spend a few minutes in the free International Surfing Museum (411 Olive Ave.). From the pier, you get a great view of surfers at play, and you may bump into Lucky John, a street performer whose act relies heavily on (spoiler alert!) a hammer, a long nail and his own nose.
For a healthy helping of surf style and commerce, browse Jack's Surfboards (since 1957; 101 Main St.) and its competitor across Main, Huntington Surf & Sport (300 Pacific Coast Highway), where many a casual fashion trend has been incubated. Then grab a rental bike and take to the 12-mile Ocean Strand path, which begins down south in Newport Beach and ends near the county line at Sunset Beach.
On your right as you head north, you'll see the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. To your left, you'll have Bolsa Chica State Beach, which has camping, fishing and, unlike many beaches these days, dozens of fire rings.
Come back at sunset, pay the $15-a-car fee, and you can watch the flames dance, warm your sandy feet, roast marshmallows and howl like an unhinged extra on the set of "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini." Note, though, that booze is banned and you have to go home by 10 p.m. You can imagine how Huntington Beach party people feel about that.