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Four Hours in Corona del Mar, where it’s already Halloween

White Rabbit  at Roger’s Gardens “Malice in Wonderland”
An exquisitely dapper but slightly deranged White Rabbit greets visitors at Roger’s Gardens “Malice in Wonderland” Halloween store in Corona del Mar, one of several handmade dolls in the slightly scary store featuring a macabre twist on the “Alice in Wonderland” stories. The one-of-a-kind dolls are for sale, like everything else in the store, but the custom items usually sell out immediately. Don’t worry — they have to stay on display through October.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

By the end of August, summer has lost its luster. The year has passed its tipping point, most kids are back in school and we’re feeling the pumpkin-spicy tug of fall — which makes Corona del Mar the perfect destination for this time of year, when Halloween is already being celebrated in style.

Map of Rogers Garden’s and other sites.
(Lou Spirito for The Times)

Yes. this is the same Corona del Mar famous for its lovely beaches and spendy shopping at Fashion Island. “CdM” (as it’s known to locals) was annexed into the city of Newport Beach in 1923 but retains its own ZIP Code, 92625, and its own chamber of commerce, not surprising when you consider that a huge swath of this affluent community is affluent commerce.

But surprisingly, amid all this opulence, there are several free or modestly priced ways to have lots of fun and get a head start on fall at Roger’s Gardens’ fantastic Halloween store, which opened — believe it or not — on Friday. Visitors can bask in CdM’s beautiful weather by touring the sculpture exhibition at Civic Center Park, strolling the lovely grounds of Sherman Library & Gardens and gaping at that Disneyland of nurseries, Roger’s Gardens, all within a mile-and-a-half of one another and — bonus! — all offering free parking.

Fashion Island is on the loop with plenty of dining options, but if you want to treat yourself to a special meal after all that walking, plan your trip around nabbing reservations at Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens, which is usually packed, even on weekdays, and takes garden dining to a delicious new level. Expect lunch for two to cost around $65 (more with alcohol).

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A few insider tips: Corona del Mar is about 43 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Traffic is heavy, so if you’re connecting with people coming from different locations, plan on meeting up at Fashion Island, 401 Newport Center Drive, where there is ample free parking (so you can consolidate into one car) and plenty to keep you busy after your outing.

10 a.m. In keeping with our (mostly) budget theme, start at the Whole Foods, 415 Newport Center Drive., where you can grab a cup of excellent coffee and fresh pastries for around $6.

Succulent garden at Sherman Library & Gardens
The Sherman Library & Gardens features a diverse selection of plants, from an edible garden to a tropical conservatory to this colorful collection of succulents.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

10:30 a.m. Head to Sherman Library & Gardens, about 1.5 miles south at 2647 East Coast Highway. (Drive down Dahlia Avenue for easy parking.) Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children 12 to 18, and free for those under 11. The gardens created by businessman Arnold D. Haskell in 1966 cover a city block and are divided into manageable chunks, such as a succulent and cactus garden shaded by a giant gnarly pepper tree and a humid conservatory of tropical plants.

Oversized furniture blooms at Sherman Library & Gardens
An oversized Adirondack chair adds whimsy to the central garden at the Sherman Library & Gardens.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

They’ve scattered oversize “furniture” throughout the gardens, so you can pose in a giant Adirondack chair on the lawn across from the Cafe Jardin (which offers lunch on weekdays and dinner and spring/summer brunch on Sundays) or on the seat of an oversized swing in the Specimen Shade Garden, with its lush begonias, bromeliads and palms. Visit the library to browse the historic photos and books devoted to the history of Southern California, Arizona and northern Mexico.

Bunnyhenge at Newport Beach Civic Center Park
The bridge that crosses San Miguel Drive at the Newport Beach Civic Center Park provides a birds-eye view of "Bunnyhenge," as well as the park's Sculpture Exhibition and the sea beyond.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

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11:30 a.m. Head back to the Newport Beach Civic Center and Park, 100 Civic Center Drive, for a brisker walk around the Sculpture Exhibition. The mile loop is dotted with more than a dozen sculptures and a chance to see what the natural terrain was like before development. Climb to the top of the bridge that spans San Miguel Drive for its breathtaking views and bird’s-eye vista of the “Bunnyhenge” play space below, with its circle of 14 giant white bunny statues.

12:30 p.m. Drive across MacArthur Boulevard on San Miguel Drive and turn left into Roger’s Gardens, at 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road in Corona Del Mar. Even the most indifferent gardener will be impressed by the nursery’s huge array of plants, outdoor furnishings and gifts, but now through Oct. 31, visit the Halloween store, whose theme this year is “Malice in Wonderland.” The entry includes a giant teapot and cup, with visitors walking through a book into a frozen shower of giant playing cards. The store is eerie and dark, but more fun than frightening (except possibly for small children). The Roger’s Gardens Halloween display, designed by creative director Eric Cortina, includes four large rooms with Halloween-themed merchandise more or less connected to the Alice in Wonderland story, including skull-studded top hats and jeweled and skeletal candlesticks. Most wonderful, however, are the meticulous, one-of-a kind commissioned dolls of all the main characters, such as a very creepy Absolem the Caterpillar (with hookah), a slightly snarling White Rabbit and a coldly imperious Queen of Hearts, whose perfect bodice features a heart-sized hole from front to back. The pricey custom items usually sell out within hours after the store opens, but stick around until Halloween, for the public’s viewing enjoyment. No purchase required, but good luck getting out without buying something. How about a giant deck of cards, just $20?


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