1. San Clemente: 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.
Pictured: A surfer pauses in front of the Beachcomber Motel in San Clemente. The pseudo-Spanish cottage style motel is like a trip back to the ‘50s, only with 2011 prices. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Distance: 56 miles one-way.
The Orange County town boasts a famous mission and the returning swallows (sometimes). It also has great restaurants, a heritage museum and more.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
A couple relax while visiting Mission San Juan Capistrano, which is more than 200 years old. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Serra Chapel, inside the walls of the mission, was named for Father Junipero Serra, who founded the mission chain in today’s California. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The signs point to a variety of attractions around the Los Rios Street Historic District in San Juan Capistrano. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Capistrano Trading Post, across the street from the mission and just a short walk from Los Rios Street, offers a free story about the swallows’ annual return to the area. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
3. Dana Point 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.
Pictured: Placid Dana Cove in Dana Point is a favorite spot for families with toddlers. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
4. Upscale lodgings. 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.
Pictured: Sea views decorate a mural at the Montage Laguna Beach, a luxury resort at the southern end of Laguna Beach. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The sun always rises on the Montage. Like your water with tides and sand? The beach is nearby. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
A couple is framed by the irregular edges of Keyhole Rock, on the beach below the Montage resort. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
5. Crystal Cove. 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.”
Pictured: A vintage beach cottage perches above the sea in the Crystal Cove Historic District, part of Crystal Cove State Park. “It’s just a rustic walk back in time,” says cottages manager Lindsay Lane (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times)
The Beachcomber is in the heart of the Crystal Cove district, just steps away from the sand and surf. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
6. Newport Beach 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.
Pictured: Fashion Island in Newport Beach is a magnet for upscale shoppers. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
A koi pond at Fashion Island provides a peaceful spot for visitors to relax mid-shopping expedition. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
7. Beaches of Laguna. 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.
Pictured: Sun, sand and surf: The view from Main Beach Park in Laguna Beach. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Stand-up paddleboarders float off Heisler Park in Laguna Beach. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
8. Laguna Beach lodgings. 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.
Pictured: From the Pacific Edge Hotel, it’s just steps to the water. The Laguna Beach hotel, in Orange County’s Gold Coast region, is along a stretch of one of the most breathtaking coastlines in the world. (Christian Horan)
Waves dance near the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
9. Laguna Beach art. 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.
Pictured: Eggs over easy and mermaid figures -- both are available at Madison Square & Garden Cafe in Laguna Beach. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Chris Wilder’s “UFO Sighting, Chroma Key Case #17" (1989) is among the works on display in the exhibit “Extract: Developing Exhibitions From the Collection” at the Laguna Art Museum. Laguna Beach has been an artists colony for more than a century. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Browse Laguna Beach Books’ selection for something to peruse while sunbathing or just plain relaxing. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
10. The Balboas, Part 1. 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.).
Pictured: Sweets beckon in the window at Balboa Candy on Balboa Island in Newport Beach. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Shirley McDonald, left, and Alison Cartwright eat frozen bananas outside Dad’s Original Frozen Banana on Balboa Island. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
11. The Balboas, Part 2. 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.
Pictured: Tyler Cruickshank skimboards off a wave at the Wedge in Newport Beach. The Wedge is a prime body-surfing spot that Esquire magazine once put on a list of “60 things worth shortening your life for.” (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
A paddleboarder makes his way through Newport Beach Harbor. Balboa Island is nearby. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
12. Huntington Beach. 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.
Pictured: A surfer leaves the water at the Huntington Beach Pier. For a historical look at surf culture, wander over to the nearby International Surfing Museum. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Sun worshippers play volleyball next to the pier in Huntington Beach. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Friends gather around a pit fire at Huntington State Beach as a bank of fog hovers over them on a late spring day. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)