Orange County:
Exquisite beaches, diverse cities and thriving arts scenes mark this Southern California county

by Christine Delsol

Days when Disneyland, 42 miles of idyllic beaches and swaths of orange groves were all that lifted “The O.C.” out of Los Angeles’ shadow are long gone. Orange County today is a diverse collection of cities counting famous surf breaks, historic missions, art colonies and scenic marinas among its attractions.

While beach towns—from surf-centric Huntington Beach to tony Newport to artsy Laguna to serene San Clemente—still embody the casual, creative California of popular imagination, inland cities have grown into shopping, entertainment and sports meccas. Irvine—encompassing a University of California campus, the evolving Orange County Great Park and several “villages”—was the vanguard of a trend toward master-planned communities in recent decades.

Defying the suburban stereotype, Orange County cities possess distinct personalities. Even Anaheim, with its modern convention center, revival of the historic Center Street Promenade commerce district, and bustling Packing House food market, has distinguished itself from the Magic Kingdom. About 30 percent of OC residents hail from another country, and English is a second language for 45 percent; 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, including 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 in 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.

City & Town

Anaheim is the largest of Orange County’s 34 cities. None has a typical 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 Great Outdoors

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 Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.

Family Fun

Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm are a given, but don’t overlook fun at Sky Zone Anaheim’s indoor trampolines and Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine, where kids go to “work,” collect their pay from ATMs and buy groceries. Santa Ana’s Discovery Cube Orange County offers dozens of hands-on science activities, and Dana Point’s Ocean Institute runs marine science and history expeditions on a tall ship or a research vessel.

5 must see, do

Disneyland Resort
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the Magic Kingdom’s top draw now—who could pass up a smuggling operation in the Millennium Falcon or battling the First Order with the Resistance? Pixar, Marvel Comics and Twentieth Century Fox acquisitions may overshadow classic Disney characters, but princesses, witches and cute animals galore still enchant youngsters. There’s also a new carousel and Emotional Whirlwind ride at Pixar Pier in California Adventure. Look for Mickey, Minnie and Goofy to make a big comeback in 2022 with their own high-tech ride in Toontown.

Orange County Great Park
Marked by a huge orange balloon floating 400 feet overhead, the continually evolving 1,300-acre park on a former Marine air station is a family favorite offering open space, educational play areas, art galleries and studios, summertime movies on the lawn, a performance plaza and a weekly farmers market. 2019 brought one of the nation’s largest public ice facilities and 1.5 miles of walking/biking trails through restored native landscape that includes a playground and picnic area. Also last year, the 194-acre Sports Complex, which opened in 2017 with a soccer stadium and fields and tennis and volleyball courts, added baseball, softball and basketball facilities.

Lot 579, Huntington Beach
Just south of “Surf City’s” downtown, steps from Huntington Beach Pier and the city’s famous sands, the sidewalk cafés and markets of this waterfront food hall offer a delicious variety of towering gourmet sandwiches, fresh fish, Vietnamese comfort food, gelato on a stick and other treats. Lot 579 is an anchor of Pacific City, the two-year-old shopping, dining and entertainment complex whose Craftsman-style bungalows pay homage to the early oceanfront village that became Huntington Beach. The communal space upstairs offers plenty of seating and a killer ocean view.

Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters
Art literally comes to life in the unique Pageant of the Masters, in which living actors take up positions against painted backdrops to re-create world masterpieces in eerie 3-D fidelity. It’s the pièce de résistance among the festivals, workshops, galleries and proliferation of public art in the picturesque beach town that began life in the early 1900s as a small artists’ colony.

Old Towne Orange
 Not to be missed in this square mile of Early California homes, sporting handsome Victorian, Craftsman, Bungalow and Spanish architecture, is the Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tour. The county’s oldest operating bank and soda fountain can also be found among the locally owned shops, galleries, fountains and pretty sidewalk cafés.

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