Beyond the strip malls and waterfront mansions lies an Orange County that seems concerned about neither of those things. Instead, OC’s canyon country is about enjoying the California landscape, getting to know animals — its natives and its imports — chowing down on a good steak and feeling the wind in your hair or watching others feel the wind in theirs. The tab for this June getaway: $182 for one hotel night, $95 for a steak dinner for two; and $36 in admissions.
I just needed a place to sleep for one night, and what better place than a hotel in a business park at the end of the week? Answer: a business hotel that doesn’t charge $32 a night for self-parking. Still, the Irvine Marriott was clean, quiet and comfortable, which is what you need in a crash pad.
I picked up my friend Gary and headed for Orange County’s canyons, eager to ferret out the secrets tucked away in these canyons, including two wildlife preserves and the 4,500-acre O’Neill Regional Park, which spans Trabuco and Live Oak canyons. Lunch was a turkey sandwich eaten under an oak tree, so I felt no guilt about a steak dinner at Trabuco Oaks Steakhouse, which prides itself on its no-necktie policy. The cut-off remnants of neckwear have become part of the restaurant’s decor, including one from 1979 said to have belonged to former President Nixon. My 8-ounce sirloin ($26) went well with a skillet of hot button mushrooms, and Gary seemed happy with his 8-ounce filet ($36). Best steak we ever had? Not quite, but it was far more succulent than that turkey sandwich.
Animals! Getting a chance to see animals of many stripes was a surprise. Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon, owned and operated by Cal State Fullerton and celebrating its 90th year, is designed to give visitors a glimpse of some of California’s native species, including Henry, a Mojave Desert tortoise (hibernating for another month). Red-eared slider turtles sunbathed lazily in a koi pond, and hummingbirds sought nectar from about two dozen feeders. Rancho Las Lomas is a private residence and an events space, but also on its grounds is Rancho Wildlife Foundation. Here, you’ll find parrots, macaws, foxes, servals and zebras. The showstopper is Lily, a white tiger rescued from the Midwest. Lily’s beautiful face and blue eyes make it easy to forget one thing, our guide told us: You look at her as a big cuddly cat, and she looks at you as dinner.
THE LESSON LEARNED
If you’re a motorcyclist, you undoubtedly know Cook’s Corner, a bar and restaurant at Santiago and Live Oak Canyon roads that bikers frequent. The canyon roads are a draw so you will hear their mighty roar. What might be a respite from urban annoyances isn’t always, but it is fun to see the variety of rides and their owners.
Irvine Marriott, 18000 Von Karman Ave., Irvine; (949) 553-0100. Wheelchair accessible.
Trabuco Oaks Steakhouse, 20782 Trabuco Oaks Drive, Trabuco Canyon; (949) 586-0722. Mains, which include non-beef options, from $12. Wheelchair accessible.
Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary, 29322 Modjeska Canyon Road, Silverado; (714) 649-2760. Paths in the sanctuary are wheelchair accessible. Suggested donation $3.
Rancho Las Lomas, 19191 Lawrence Canyon, Silverado; (949) 888-3080. Valet parking $8; walking tours $15. Wheelchair accessible.