For many travelers, California’s Orange County is regarded as a place for amusement parks, or as the backdrop for television series and reality shows. But there’s so much more to the area, especially in the southern part. South Orange County is not only home to the wealthy, but also offers world-class shopping, dining, and extraordinary attractions. And because it’s located between Los Angeles and San Diego, it’s an ideal place to explore on a road trip. It’s easy to visit multiple cities in the area during one visit, and with all there is to do in each, the only hard part will be fitting everything into your schedule.
Home to the largest recreational harbor on the West Coast, the city of Newport Beach offers fishing, swimming, surfing and more along a ten-mile stretch of beach. With ten distinct neighborhoods, each unique in their own way, there’s something for everyone, including sunset cruises, surf lessons, and wine tastings. Take advantage of the famous Duffy boats of Newport, where anyone can cruise the harbor in an electric boat for the day. The city has also introduced a “Dock & Dine” lunch or early dinner program with the Duffy boats, and has partnered with restaurants like The Cannery and Sol Cocina. And when it comes shopping, Newport Beach is often referred to as the “Beverly Hills of the Beach.” Ritzy outdoor mall Fashion Island is one of the best spots for high-end shopping, with department stores like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s.
With seven miles of coastal bluffs and pristine beaches, Dana Point is a hidden gem, and given the caliber of top luxury hotels located within city limits, it’s also a secret getaway for those seeking out high-end service and experiences. Visitors can rent bikes to cruise the shoreline for inspiring views of the ocean, or hit the waves for a bit of surfing or to find some balance while trying out stand-up paddleboarding. Dana Point is unofficially known as the “whale watching capital of the West,” and it truly is an ideal place to spot the majestic animals. And for families, the Ocean Institute is a great place to enjoy immersive activities and eco-minded adventure expeditions.
This year-round retreat for beach and art lovers offers seven miles of soft sand as well as miles of hidden coves. Take a kayak tour and explore Seal Rock, or go on a hike and discover Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The views in Laguna Beach are one of a kind, and the streets are lined with boutiques, restaurants, and day spas. But what makes Laguna Beach unique is its thriving art scene. With a range of galleries, Laguna is a good place to discover up-and-coming artists. Another factor that makes Laguna Beach a popular destination is the annual “Giant Blue Whale Migration” which brings hundreds of blue whales off the coast. In 2014 alone, more than 600 blue whales were spotted during the migration period.
San Juan Capistrano
The historic streets of San Juan Capistrano provide a glimpse into the area’s past. There are trails, a train depot, and a quaint downtown, all of which add to the charm factor. The downtown area has boutiques, museums, gourmet coffee stores, saloons, and various antique shops, but the main attraction here is Mission San Juan Capistrano, the most beautiful of all the California missions. This is a place of not only historical and cultural significance, but one of religious significance as well. The mission has been inspiring and educating the local community and visitors for over 200 years.
San Clemente feels like a tiny Spanish village next to the sea thanks to stucco adobe facades with red-tiled roofs lining the streets. This small surfer’s paradise has fine wine, farm stands, and a very laid-back atmosphere. Located right off Interstate 5, San Clemente is conveniently located next to some of the best coastal surf in Southern California. The beach offers three distinct areas to enjoy: State Beach is the largest and has the calmest surf, Calafia is perfect for sunbathers, and Lobeiro Park is the more family-friendly stretch, with lawn areas that are great for picnics. San Clemente is also a wonderful place to find some quirky shopping. La Casa Verde de Granada, an artists’ co-op, is a fun find for shoppers looking for unique garage-sale finds.
This planned community offers a great balance of urban living and green space. Home to the University of California, Irvine, as well as over 100 company headquarters, Irvine is becoming a family-friendly destination due to its proximity to it’s neighboring beach cities and, of course, the theme parks. Irvine also offers massive, open-air shopping centers that at times can feel like a theme park. The Irvine Spectrum Center features a wide variety of stores and dining options plus a Ferris wheel for the kids. Although Irvine is not located directly on the coast, it’s centrally located to various beaches, all easily accessible by streets, freeways, and toll roads.