Orange County has all the yachts, harbourside restaurants and socialites you see on TV in 'The OC'. But it also has authentic beach towns, top-class art museums, historic buildings and plenty of buzz
A ramshackle set of beach cottages is not what you expect folks to get excited about in the ritzy OC. But their curiosity value, as well as their charm, have made the hippie enclave of Crystal Cove one of the most popular haunts for locals on the Southern California coast.
These colourful houses, which date back to 1917 - as old as Hollywood itself, which filmed Treasure Beach here - are California’s answer to English beach huts. Like beach huts, they were built without cooking facilities or plumbing - but unlike them, they are larger, and were actually slept in by families who revelled in the chance to sleep on the beach, even without mod cons. The cottages had a heyday in the hippie area, and a few colourful sixties characters have stayed on.
The good news for travellers is that while Crystal Cove has been left largely intact, the cottages are being gradually restored and modernised. Crystal Cove Cottages now offer tourists a comfortable but still rustic overnight experience in the midst of an otherwise sanitised-for-your-protection tourist area. Even if you don't stay overnight, it's fun to while away a few hours at the Beachcomber Restaurant feasting on eclectic dishes like a cooked Greek salad of roasted feta and tomatoes or the signature bacon, cheese and avocado omelette.
Crystal Cove State Park and its jolly beach are only one reason to take a closer look at Orange County. Sure, it really is full of the “Newpie” socialites and spoiled teenagers portrayed in the TV series, but has lots of charming corners besides.
Just down the road is Laguna Beach, a delightful little beach town with a terrific little art museum, lots of galleries and a gorgeous stretch of white sand. It also has a jolly bar and casual restaurant in Las Brisas (361 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach; 949 497 5434; www.lasbrisaslagunabeach.com), which overlooks the beach and buzzes from breakfast till late. Head north from Crystal Cove and you’ll be in Newport Beach, which claims 100 of the best dining choices in the OC. This coastal town is about more than the restaurants, yachts and ritzy shopping it’s most famous for.
Those restaurants are worth looking at, though, and the newest are not necessarily the most intriguing. A personal favourite is the 77-year-old Villa Nova (3131 West Coast Highway, Newport Beach; 650 681 4698; www.villanovarestaurant.com), which like more recent arrivals in Newport Beach, started life 50 miles north in Hollywood. This is where Marilyn Monroe got brought on a blind date by Joe DiMaggio and Judy Garland got her proposal from Liza's dad, Vincent Minelli - both these chaps had an eye for the ultimate romantic setting. Dean Martin, John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplin probably came mostly for the excellent Italian food. It's interesting to watch the shiniest of today's Italian-Americans mooring up to the back door in their sleek crafts, but you don't have to be a member of the clan to enjoy old-fashioned dishes like veal piccata, fettucine Alfredo and salads bursting with garbanzo and kidney beans.
The sweet little houses and tiny harbour of Balboa Island, Newport’s great charm, are best explored on foot, and walking tours are now being offered by a team of civic-minded residents (contact Carolyn@newportatyourfeet.com for more details).
There’s even high culture at the Orange County Museum of Art, where portraits by American greats from Ansel Adams to Andy Warhol will be on show from April to October. For details of this and many other arts events, restaurant offers and hotel specials, visit www.visitnewportbeach.com.
For those who want to experience real Newport Beach high style, perhaps on honeymoon, The Resort at Pelican Hill is a new resort with all the swank and faux-Italian detailing you might expect from a new arrival in the land of arrivistes. It’s a long way up the hill from the beach, and the “villas” are grand, but a touch sterile, and mighty high-priced.
However, there is a great spa, and the “fine dining” restaurant Andrea (22701 Pelican Hill Road South, Newport Beach; 949 467 6800; www.pelicanhill.com) is definitely worth a visit for some very fine and authentic northern Italian food. They fly in burratos, the most buttery and delicious form of buffalo mozzarella, from the homeland, and make their own pasta and gelato. Service can be deferential to the point of silly - a waiter I asked for parmesan returned asking permission to “revisit” my pasta with cheese bowl and pepper mill - but the food is delicious and the room has a great buzz.
How to get around
As in the rest of southern California, public transportation is improving rapidly in Orange County, and it’s not too far to cycle between Newport, Crystal Cove and Laguna Beach. A shuttle bus will bring you down to the area from LAX, but you will still see a lot more if you hire a car and drive yourself down and around this surprisingly diverse and rewarding area.