By Christine Delsol

Beneath the suburban facade, Orange County is a diverse collection of cities with distinct personalities. Even Anaheim has established an identity apart from Disneyland, with its massive convention center, revival of the historic Center Street Promenade commerce district, and the bustling Packing House food hall and market.

Forty-two miles of idyllic sands fringe the robust, ever-developing “OC,” which counts renowned surf breaks, historic missions, art colonies and scenic marinas among its attractions. Its beach cities still embody the casual, creative California of popular imagination, from surf-centric Huntington Beach to tony Newport Beach to artsy Laguna Beach to serene San Clemente. Inland cities that grew among the bygone orange groves have been joined by master-planned communities. Chief among these is Irvine, encompassing a University of California campus, the still nascent Orange County Great Park and several “villages.”

About 30 percent of OC residents hail from another country, and English is a second language for 45 percent; its Little Saigon is the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. A true melting pot, the county hosts a dizzying array of ethnic food, festivals, markets and cultural events.

Performance venues such as the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the South Coast Repertory are sprinkled throughout the county. Destination shopping malls such as Irvine Spectrum, Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island in Newport Beach vie with dozens of local shopping districts.

Sports fans cheer the Los Angeles Angels at the Angel Stadium of Anaheim and the Anaheim Ducks hockey team at Honda Center, which doubles as a big-name concert venue. More than 40 championship courses and a temperate climate await golfers, while hotel and day spas stand ready to soothe aches and tone muscles.


Anaheim is the largest of Orange County’s 34 cities. None has a truly distinctive downtown, though Huntington Beach offers a vibrant seaside city center. History buffs gravitate to San Juan Capistrano’s beautifully preserved 18th-century mission, Yorba Linda’s Nixon Presidential Library and the restored Victorian homes and historic city centers in Santa Ana and Orange.


The coastline with its world-famous surf spots (Huntington Beach, the Wedge at Newport Beach, Trestles in San Clemente), yacht harbors (Newport Beach, Dana Point) and protected areas (Crystal Cove State Park’s underwater reserve, the wetlands of California’s first state beach, Doheny) are just the beginning of Orange County’s natural wonders. Inland canyons and parks teem with wildlife and hiking and biking trails, such as Irvine’s 300-acre San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary.


Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm are a given, but don’t overlook attractions such as Sky Zone Anaheim’s indoor trampolines, more than 100 hands-on exhibits at Santa Ana’s Discovery Science Center, and marine science and history learned aboard a tall ship or a research vessel with Dana Point’s Ocean Institute. The new Great Wolf Lodge offers a multitude of family activities, such as a game theater, miniature golf, a bowling alley and a kids’ spa, all open to the public. But the big attraction is restricted to guests of the 600-suite hotel: a 2½ acre indoor water park with a river, a wave pool, a variety of thrill rides and slides, and a constant 84-degree climate (sans sunburn).


Disneyland Resort
The wait for the as-yet unscheduled opening of Star Wars Land is a good time to take advantage of the “Walk in Walt’s Disneyland Footsteps” behind-the-scenes tour. Uncle Walt might not have seen “Star Wars” coming, but participants will learn just what a visionary he was–and take a spin on some classic rides along the way.

Old Towne Orange
This one square mile of Early California houses handsome Victorian, Craftsman, Bungalow and Spanish architecture. Among the locally owned shops, galleries, fountains and pretty sidewalk cafés are the county’s oldest operating bank and soda fountain. The one thing that must not be missed is the Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tour.

Laguna Beach and Pageant of the Masters
Remaining true to its origins as a small artists’ colony in the early 1900s, Laguna Beach stages many festivals, galleries and abundant public art. Its pièce de résistance is Pageant of the Masters, 90 minutes of living art tableaux in which costumed people portray some world art masterpieces with eerie fidelity.

Balboa Island Ferry
Fun-seekers can drive, bicycle or walk onto the ferry for the short crossing to this manmade island in Newport Harbor. Diversions include viewing classic beach bungalow architecture, parasailing, a fishing pier and the Balboa Fun Zone–a mini version of California’s old seaside amusement parks. Getting there truly is half the fun.

Diamond Jamboree
Irvine’s answer to the question of where to start sampling the OC’s abundant ethnic food is a collection of 20-plus international eateries serving fare originating primarily in Taiwan, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand. Wildly popular with UC students, it has a comfortable collegiate air. Be prepared: Parking is a challenge.

Del Norte
Pismo Beach
Visit Mammoth
Ventura County