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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Corona del Mar
Savor some of SoCal’s most celebrated ocean views from the bluffs of Corona del Mar, a chichi community stretching along PCH and hugging the eastern flank of Newport Channel. In addition to stellar lookouts, several postcard-perfect beaches, rocky coves and child-friendly tide pools beckon along this idyllic stretch of coast.