Go Beyond the Housewives to Discover Orange County’s Natural Beauty

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huntington beach surfing
Huntington Beach is a paradise for the surfing community. Photo: Visit Anaheim.

If your idea of Orange County begins and ends at TV depictions and suburban sprawl, take note: These days, the area abounds with laid-back, yet lovely, seaside hotels; cool independent shops; and ample opportunity for outdoor adventure.

Where to Stay

Soak up easy-breezy SoCal vibes at the Paséa Hotel & Spa (from $259) in Huntington Beach, the northern-OC town whose consistent swells and surf-bum culture allegedly inspired Jan & Dean’s sunny ’60s classic “Surf City.” Opened in mid-2016, the airy, beach-adjacent hotel reflects its environs with an in-room palette of fresh whites and blues and cheerful touches like complimentary flip-flops. When you’re ready to dip your toes in the Pacific, see the house “beach butler,” who can hook you up with umbrellas and chairs, beach cruisers, or pedicab rides direct to the sand. Come evening, head upstairs to the open-air Treehouse Bar and watch the sun sink into the waves with a cocktail in hand.

Casa Laguna’s design was overhauled in 2016.

Get inspired at Casa Laguna (from $249), a onetime artists’ colony clustered on a vertiginous hill overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean beyond. In 2016, the entire property received a Moroccan-accented refresh from designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, whose celebrity clientele includes a Kardashian or two; now, 23 unique rooms feature tapestries and tiling in handsome Moorish motifs. For maximum relaxation, book a sunset soak ($125) in the outdoor spa tub, perched in a private nook above the tranquil pool. With housemade treats like chia pudding, quiche, and still-steaming croissants, the continental breakfast is well worth waking up for — but if you’d rather sleep in, you can ask staff to pack you a picnic of charcuterie and rosé.

Unplug at Crystal Cove Beach Cottages (shared cottages from $35/room; private cottages from $175), an assemblage of charming houses just steps from the water on a rugged, cliff-lined beach that did turns in the early-to-mid-20th century as a film location and a summer commune. Built between 1935 and 1955, the property’s 29 cottages were restored to period-appropriate (think TV- and WiFi-free) coziness in the mid-aughts. Drink kitschy sundowners (Harvey Wallbanger, anyone?) at the Bootlegger Bar, and once darkness falls, head to the beach for a bonfire, complete with s’mores, set up for your group by the onsite Beachcomber Cafe (from $65; advance booking required). Though cottage reservations, released several months in advance, habitually book up in minutes, you might score a same-day cancellation by inquiring in person at checkout time (11 a.m.).

Where to Eat

Come to Mix Mix on Wednesdays, when there’s a complimentary wine pairing with the prix fixe menu.

Dig into Santa Ana’s dining scene — arguably Orange County’s most exciting — at newcomer Mix Mix, where a white-walled, minimalist aesthetic belies a menu of bold flavors. Dishes like pork-cheek adobo ($12), housemade chitarra larded with rich guanciale and poached egg ($19), and tropical verrine ($7) (a take on the Pinoy shaved-ice dessert halo-halo) sample a broad range of globetrotting influences, from chef Ross Pangilinan’s Filipino roots to trattoria classics to homey abuelita fare. Get up close and personal with Pangilinan’s team by booking the five-course tasting menu ($65), dished out at a kitchenside counter.

Detour to Spain at Vaca, a buzzing Costa Mesa tapas-bar–steakhouse mashup from Top Chef alum Amar Santana. Beef rib steak ($55/pound) is dry-aged for 50 days before it hits the open kitchen’s wood-fired grill; another house specialty is the paella — in configurations familiar (shrimp-and-shellfish-packed paella de mariscos, $42) and less so (the clam-and-crispy-noodle-based almejas y fideos, $35). But you’d be forgiven for making a meal exclusively of the excellent tapas, like smoky canelon de pollo ahumado ($14) and intensely earthy rabo de toro ($14), paired with the Vaca Tonic ($12), an herbaceous frozen cocktail that’s perfect for balmy evenings on the restaurant’s patio.

Time-warp to old-world Saigon at LSXO, a super-intimate 28-seater tucked, rather improbably, behind an unmarked entrance within sunny Huntington Beach eatery Bluegold. Launched in late 2016, the petite, low-lit space features dark woods, rich upholstery, a scattering of antique-y Southeast Asian objets — and a wall sprayed, graffiti style, in a repeating motif of machine guns (plus hip-hop tunes cranked to 11). The substantial menu (from Tin Vuong of L.A.’s popular Little Sister) showcases southern-Vietnamese-leaning fare, like shaky-shaky beef with burnt-butter soy and tomato-garlic fried rice ($28), and spiced lamb belly over pea-tendril salad ($7).

What to Do

Explore Orange County’s great outdoors by land or sea. Lace up your hiking boots and head inland to Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve, set within the 40,000-acre Irvine Ranch (designated a U.S. natural landmark), to drink in the Sinks, a rocky gorge sufficiently magnificent to be dubbed the Grand Canyon of Orange County. (The canyon is generally accessible only via free volunteer-led tours of varying length and intensity; register at letsgooutside.org.) Or learn to catch Huntington Beach’s legendary waves under the guidance of the easygoing crew of Banzai Surf School (lessons, including board and wetsuit, from $79). If quiet contemplation’s more your speed, pop into the Newport Aquatic Center to rent a kayak ($15/hour; two-hour guided tours, led by the Newport Bay Conservancy, $25) and pass a peaceful morning paddling Upper Newport Back Bay, a natural estuary and popular waypoint for migrating birds.

Stock up on vinyl in the Airstream-housed Creme Tangerine Records.

Leave the label-obsessed at South Coast Plaza and uncover the Costa Mesa shopping scene’s quirky side. Start at the Lab, a self-proclaimed anti-mall housed in retrofitted Airstreams, repurposed shipping containers, and even an erstwhile night-vision-goggle factory. Thumb through used wax at Creme Tangerine Records and pick up graphic harem pants ($25) for the hip wee one in your life at the Little Penguin Shop. Break in the shady courtyard for a raspberry-pistachio brioche doughnut ($4) and creamy chai ($4.50) at Goodtown Doughnuts. Across the street is the Camp, an outdoor assemblage of independent shops and restaurants punctuated here and there by succulent gardens and hammocks. Browse gauzy boho dresses and dainty gold necklaces at Pürre, and leave plenty of time to linger at Seed People’s Market, a soaring, two-story “green” department store that stocks ecofriendly tees and jeans from L.A. designers like Groceries Apparel, stylish camping gear from Poler, hand-thrown ceramics, and vintage Indian textiles. Finish up with a wine flight (from $9) served, mad-scientist style, in test tubes at Wine Lab.

Find out why Anaheim’s being touted as one of SoCal’s best beer towns on a brewery hop. First, pucker up at Bruery Terreux, the 48-tap tasting room and barrel-aging facility geared toward sour brews like Oude Tarte, a Flanders red ale, and Humulus Rueuze, a Belgian-style gueuze (tasters from $2). Next, try Bottle Logic, a snug space with beers (like juicy wheat ale She Shot First) that take their artwork inspiration from pulp-fiction covers (five-pour flights from $8). Finally, venture over to award-winning Noble Ale Works, a frills-free industrial-park brewery-taproom that’s become a critical darling for its program of dank California-style IPAs, like I Love It, and unusual brews like Naughty Sauce, a golden coffee stout served on nitro (flights from $10). And look out for the launch of Leisuretown, from San Diego fave Modern Times; the upcoming 30,000-square-foot complex is slated to feature a sour-leaning brewhouse plus a restaurant situated in a converted Craftsman home and a pool complete with a deckside bar.

Expert’s Tips

From Jeff Clinard, owner of coffee-geek mecca Bear Coast Coffee, a multi-roaster just opposite chilled-out San Clemente’s picturesque pier.

The best breakfast spot not everyone knows about is right in the middle of Orange County: Break of Dawn in Laguna Hills. Most breakfast places are greasy diners or pancake houses, but this place takes the same approach to breakfast that most places have toward dinner.

During the day, explore the beaches around South Orange County. I grew up enjoying the hard-to-get-to waves of Laguna’s Thousand Steps Beach. Most tourists are deterred owing to the massive number of stairs it takes to get down to it, but once there, it feels like a world away. The shore-break waves make it a prime place to skim-board.

One of the best indoor-climbing gyms I’ve ever found is Sender One. It has bouldering, top-rope, and tons of youth programs. If you haven’t tried climbing, you should. It is the most cathartic form of problem-solving I have ever experienced. Also, it’s a great way to wear out your kids.

Look for the Mae Day beer at Pizza Port. Photo: John Schulz/John Schulz Photography

The beer scene is amazing in Orange County. My favorite hidden gem is Pizza Port in San Clemente. If they have the Double IPA on called Mae Day, get it. It’s named after the brewer’s daughter Abby Mae.

My favorite restaurant in the world is Taco Maria in the OC Mix. It’s not a normal SoCal taco bar; it is a world-class dining experience. I daydream about the mushroom taco.

If you’re going to be in Orange County, you should do your best to drink and eat overlooking the beach. Go to the Deck for cocktails. The view is romantic enough that you will fall in love with whoever you are next to, so you have been warned. Parking is rough, so take a cab.

Resources

Page (or scroll) through OC Weekly for up-to-date intel on the worthiest Orange County happenings, from theater to concerts to gallery openings.

Don’t make your dinner rez till you’ve consulted Orange Coast Magazine for reviews of the latest arrivals on the area’s restaurant and bar scene.

Suss out the day’s best swells by checking the local forecast at Surfline.

The Best Tourist-Free Beach in Orange County, California