As I drove from LAX to Orange County, I heard The OC’s theme song playing in my head…. “California, here we come, right back where we started from.” Just kidding, but before my trip to the actual OC this month, all I knew about the area came from that show and of course, Laguna Beach. Did anyone else own the box set of DVDs? Mine is still in my childhood bedroom.
So my visions of the OC as a glamorous place filled with beautiful people and endless beaches was soon to be smashed. Because the real OC is more like, corporate headquarters, middle class neighborhoods, endless highways running through the desert. And giant malls. So many malls.
The beach is just the edge (now that I’m writing this out, that seems obvious), but if you’re planning a trip here, I’d highly suggest you arrange hotel accommodations actually adjacent to the beach.
My primary purpose of travel to the west coast was for work – surprisingly enough, many of the action sports brands you know are headquartered in a town that has the least action in all of America – Irvine, CA. There’s really nothing to do there except go to the mall (I’m serious – that’s what our hotel concierge recommended), but the more exciting areas of Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach are all about a 20-30 minute drive away.
Heading to the OC? Here’s my breakdown of beach hopping:
Huntington Beach is also known as Surf City USA, and even if you’re not into the sport yourself it’s a great place to go and watch surfers catch a few waves while you lay on the beach. You might recognize it from the giant screen projected in Hollister stores (not that I’ve been in a Hollister in almost 10 years!).
I’m not really one for laying out on in the sun all day, so my sister and I decided to rent bikes and get some exercise. If you’re planning to do the same, skip all the boardwalk rental spots and head straight to Bargain Bike Rentals, where you can rent cruisers for $10, all day. The owner, Mike, is literally the friendliest person I’ve ever met. He gave us tips on which trail to ride, set us up with baskets to carry our beach bags, and even warned us about the wind we would face on our way back.
We decided to bike to Sunset Beach, which was about 12 miles round trip. It’s pretty easy to do, with a bike trail the whole way and several public restrooms to stop at along the way. One tip: apply your sunblock, and reapply. I ended up with a very unsexy shorts sunburn by the end of the day.
The area around Bargain Bike Rentals and the boardwalk is pretty busy with surf shops, restaurants, ice cream stores, etc. so it’s a fun place to spend the day. At night, it wasn’t really my scene. The bars were very bro-tastic. For a laugh, go to Black Bull – on weekend nights, they allow very drunk patrons to ride the mechanical bull and make fools of themselves. We were able to use Uber X to get around at night, and there were plenty of local taxis available. Don’t drink and drive!
Newport Beach isn’t much different than Huntington Beach (after all, they are right next to each other), and you’ll notice that many of the bars and restaurants you spot here are chains that are present in both. I’m not sure if this is always the case, but the beach here seemed to be more swimmer-friendly vs. surfers. Regardless, be careful when swimming in this area. The undertow was quite strong and the lifeguards kept coming in the water to warn parents not to let their kids swim out too far. The Pacific Ocean means business!
If you’re planning a trip out to Newport Beach, there are two restaurants you should definitely hit up. For brunch, go to Eat Chow, a modern and airy restaurant that serves classic staples along with Mexican-inspired comfort food. You’ll probably have to wait for a table, but the food is worth it.
For lunch or an early dinner, I loved Sol Cocina. It’s located right on the boat docks on Balboa Marina, and you can sit outside right next to the water. The food is Baja-inspired, and they have a very extensive menu of unique tacos. I tried the Shrimp Taco Dorado and Taco Xolo (pork in adobo sauce with pineapples) and they were delish.
While you’re in the area, definitely go for a stroll on Balboa Island. It’s a very upscale and picturesque area, perfect for walking around and feeling depressed about the fact that you don’t have a Pinterest-worthy home on the ocean. Just kidding! It’s super cute, don’t miss it (or feel creepy about photographing people’s homes… I didn’t).
So I didn’t actually go to the beach in Laguna Beach, but I did drive around the town and do some wandering and eating. First of all, it’s beautiful. Most of the houses are incredible and the nearby hotels, boutiques and restaurants are all really nice and upscale. This would be a good place to go with your parents, was the vibe I got. It was completely different from the frat party scene in Newport and Huntington Beach.
There are nice trails for walking along the beach and getting some photos of the cliffs. If you’re here in the evening, go for cocktails at Watermarc before having dinner at Nick’s Laguna Beach. Our Uber driver recommended Nick’s, and apparently it’s one of the most popular restaurants in town. There was about a 30 minute wait, perfect for dashing next door for drinks at the bar.
Cocktails at Watermarc
A well-deserved cheeseburger after a long day of work meetings at Nick’s Laguna Beach
And if you were a Laguna Beach fan in high school, you’ll want to drive by Laguna Beach High School. It doesn’t actually look like much on the outside, but how could I resist?
Costa Mesa doesn’t have a beach, but you’ll probably have to drive through it in order to get to one of the three above. As I mentioned at the beginning, when you ask your hotel for local restaurant/shopping recommendations, they’ll likely point you toward local malls: South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Fashion Island in Newport Beach and the Spectrum Center in Irvine. After hearing this over and over again, I was about ready to never visit a mall again. I mean, I get that they’re convenient but I did not fly across the country to hang out at the mall, guys! Plus I live in New York City… going to the mall is my equivalent of hell.
That’s why when I heard about the anti-mall, I was intrigued. The LAB is located in Costa Mesa, and it used to be a night vision goggle factory before becoming an eclectic retail collection in 1993. Basically it’s a little slice of Brooklyn hipsterism in California, and I felt right at home. OK, so it has an Urban Outfitters, but I can forgive them because the rest of the shops and restaurants are very cool. To mention a few, there’s a macaroon truck, a jewelry truck, very colorful yarn-bombed trees and a yummy vegan restaurant called Seabirds Kitchen. They have really good salads, and I can’t believe I’m saying this but the person dining next to me convinced me to try vegan eggs Benedict and it was actually quite tasty.
So, the lesson is, if you’re going to hang out at the mall in Orange County, at least pick the anti-mall.
That about sums up my adventures in SoCal for September! For the rest of this month I’m heading to Maine, which will be chilly, and then heating things back up with a weekend in Florida. See you there!
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