Costa Mesa at first glance looks like just another landlocked suburb transected by the I-405, but two top venues attract some 24 million visitors each year. South Coast Plaza is SoCal's largest mall – properly termed a ‘shopping resort’, and Orange County’s cultural heart is steps away in the performing arts venues Segerstrom Center for the Arts and South Coast Repertory.
In the SoCal beauty pageant for pint-size beach towns, the first beach town in from LA County enjoys an unfair advantage over the competition: 1.5 miles of pristine beach sparkling like a crown. And that’s without mentioning three-block Main St, a stoplight-free zone with mom-and-pop restaurants and indie shops that are low on ‘tude and high on charisma.
San Juan Capistrano
Famous for its swallows that fly back to town every year on March 19 (though sometimes they’re just a bit early), San Juan Capistrano is also home to the ‘jewel of the California missions.’ It’s a little town, about 11 miles south and inland of Laguna Beach, but there’s enough history and charm here to make almost a day of it.
Dana Point was once called ‘the only romantic spot on the coast.’ Too bad that quote dates from seafarer Richard Dana’s voyage here in the 1830s. Its built-up, parking-lotted harbor detracts from the charm its neighbors have, but it still gets a lot of visitors for its lovely beaches and port for whale watching, sport fishing and the like.
Old Towne Orange
Settlers began arriving en masse in Orange County after the Civil War, responding to the lure of cheap land and fertile fields. Rumor had it that almost anything could be grown in the rich soil, and many crops (such as oranges, apricots, corn, lemons, pumpkins, peaches and walnuts) did indeed thrive despite occasional irrigation and drought issues.
A 1-mile strip of coastal real estate south of genteelly retro Seal Beach, Sunset Beach is actually part of Huntington Beach but doesn't feel like it, or the rest of the OC for that matter. With a high concentration of dive bars, ratty motels and beach bum ‘tude, it’s a great place to surf, kayak and drink, but you might not want to, um, live here.
Just before reaching San Diego County, PCH slows down and rolls past the laid-back surf town of San Clemente. Home to surfing legends, top-notch surfboard companies and Surfing magazine, this unpretentious enclave may be one of the last spots in the OC where you can authentically live the surf lifestyle. Right on, brah.
Crystal Cove State Park
With 3.5 miles of open beach and over 2300 acres of undeveloped woodland, this state beach lets you forget you’re in a crowded metropolitan area, at least once you get past the parking lot and stake out a place on the sand. Many visitors don’t know it, but Crystal Cove is also an underwater park.
Bowers Museum & Kidseum
The should-be-better-known Bowers Museum explodes on to the scene every year or two with remarkable exhibits that remind LA-centric museum-goers that the Bowers is a power player on the local and national scenes too. Permanent exhibits are impressive too, with a rich collection of pre-Columbian, African, Oceanic and Native American art.
Discovery Science Center
Follow the giant 10-story cube – balanced on one of its points – to the doors of the best educational kiddie attraction in town, the Discovery Science Center, about 5 miles southeast of Disneyland via the I-5. More than 100 interactive displays await in exhibit areas with names such as Discovery Theater (playing 4-D movies), Dino Quest and more.
Surfers won’t want to miss world-renowned Trestles, just southeast of San Clemente. It’s famous for its natural surf break that consistently churns out perfect waves, even in summer. It's also endangered; surfers and environmentalists have for years been fighting the extension of a nearby toll road that they contend would negatively affect the waves. Visit http://savetrestles.