TRAVEL: Southern California – O.C. Beaches

There’s a long road that joins Long Beach to San Diego, and it’s called the Pacific Coast Highway. I’d experienced this road once before, but with Laguna Beach vacation in mind, it was time for us to get better acquainted.

This time around, instead of simply passing through, we thought we’d take a better look at the beaches of Orange County, and see what the Pacific Ocean looks like from the other side.

The second time I visited Southern California was on April 29th, 2011. With a flight into Long Beach, followed by a one night hotel stay, Jessie and I were to drive south to Laguna Beach for a nine day getaway with some family friends.  As Laguna Beach is located on the Pacific Coast Highway (otherwise known as California State Highway 1), which connects some of the most iconic beaches of the West Coast, this trip seemed to be the perfect opportunity to explore the beaches of Orange County.


LONG BEACH

Before we reached the beaches of the OC, we had to survive the city of Long Beach. We had flown into Long Beach Airport because it was less busy than LAX and closer to our destination, and after a five hour flight from the other side of the county, we landed in the evening and had to find somewhere to stay for the night.  We checked in at a Best Western hotel and locked ourselves in.

The typical view from our hotel in Long Beach, with Mexicans working early in their backyard.

As the birthplace of rapper Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr., also known as Snoop Dogg, I thought Long Beach might be unsafe to walk to get dinner, so we ordered some quasi-Italian food to our room. Around fifteen minutes later, there’s a knock at our door, and I open it to find a stocky Hispanic man with baggy jeans and tattoos, holding our dinner. He wasn’t exactly aiming his pistol at me sideways (actually, he wasn’t holding a pistol at all), but he was easily the closest thing I’d come to a real American street thug in my life. After quickly counting through the cash I had, fearing I didn’t have enough tip money, I asked him to wait as I rushed back to find a handful of quarters. I then dropped the money into his open palm, and he spared my life and handed over our meals. Not knowing if I had tipped too much or too little, the delivery gangster suddenly raised his hand up in a fist and held it out in front of me. As time slowed to a stand-still, I almost automatically raised my own fist and bumped it against his. He then said thanks and walked away. I must have tipped him well, because it seemed that with this thug-like hand gesture, I had been initiated into his gang, perhaps in the role of ‘The Money Man’. Maybe they would even call me D-Tip, on account of my name being Dion and my tips being generous.

Morning came, and without any time to get used to my new gangster lifestyle, we were on the road and heading down to Laguna Beach. Ironically, despite us leaving to explore various Pacific beaches, we didn’t even visit the beach of Long Beach.


LAGUNA BEACH

Around forty minutes after leaving Long Beach, we pull into our little beach house residence in Laguna Beach and officially start our vacation. The city of Laguna Beach is a coastal town with its one main road being a portion of the Pacific Coast Highway, which is more of a main road with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. On one side of the road, you have the beach and the Pacific Ocean, and on the other, you have a few side streets that offer various stores, cafes, and restaurants.

Main Beach at Laguna Beach.

The beach is perfectly picturesque, running along the coast for miles, with various portions offering surfing, swimming, and rock pools. The main beach is in the heart of the town and has a new boardwalk, a playground, and volleyball net, along with a lifeguard tower. You can watch pelicans flying in formation over the shoreline, and even catch dolphins and seals playing in the water (at separate times – I did not see dolphins playing with seals). The beach’s western position also makes it perfect for catching amazing sunsets.

Despite the popularity of the reality TV series, Laguna Beach: The Real OC, the actual beach town doesn’t seem all that touristy. It has a few souvenir stores but somehow it has managed to avoid becoming a tourist Mecca, as there aren’t many hotels and resorts in the town, and most of the people seem to be locals. Most of the shops and cafes have a boutique style to them, and the town comes off as being very wealthy, with a lot of sports cars driving around and a lot of nice, big beach houses.

The town has a lot of nice looking restaurants and icecream parlours, but the ones I feel are worth mentioning are Active Culture, a healthy do-it-yourself frozen yogurt place that also offers fruit salads and smoothies, all at ridiculously cheap prices, and Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant, which dishes out complimentary tortilla chips and salsa when you sit down at the bar, and really good Mexican dishes once you’ve found a table outside.


NEWPORT BEACH

If you drive north of Laguna Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway, you will find yourself in the seaside town of Newport Beach. It consists of a long white sand beach that stretches out along a thin peninsula known as Balboa that parallels the coast. On the Pacific Ocean side of the peninsula, you have the beaches, boardwalks and piers, and on the other side, you have a fancy marina where you can find giant houses with rear access to private moors and ramps into the harbour.

Newport Beach is one of the wealthiest communities in California, if not the entire United States. Its world class marina attracts sailing enthusiasts from all over the country, and its surf beach brings in a great deal of surfers. The town also has a long concrete boardwalk that runs along the beachfront making it popular with recreational cyclists, too. As far as shopping goes, Newport Beach has a lot of little boutique stores but most people go to Fashion Island, which is a giant fancy mall located in the city.

A cheeky and blurry seal tries to steal a fisherman's bait at Newport Beach Pier.

Unfortunately, I didn’t actually spend that much time in Newport Beach, so that’s about all I can say on the subject. We basically just went down Newport Pier, and had lunch at the restaurant at the end. There were lots of people fishing off the pier, and one Mexican guy caught a weird fish that looked like a stingray mixed with a shark, and then we saw a seal trying to steal bait off fishing lines. To be honest, the only way I got to see any more of the town was because we got a bit lost trying to get out.

The final thing I can mention about the city of Newport Beach is that it was the hometown and setting of the TV series The O.C. There you have it.


HUNTINGTON BEACH

Continuing north from Newport Beach on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) brings you into Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City. This city is a large suburban city that backs away from the long 8.5 mile beach, with the PCH running along the coast, and the heart of the city being split by its central pier and Main Street that heads inland.

There is a lot of sand at Huntington Beach.

As its nickname suggests, Huntington Beach is mostly known for its surfing. The beach is both long and wide, and you have to walk across a lot of sand before you finally get to the water. I didn’t go swimming but I read some science-type stuff that the beach has really good surf because of the swells bouncing off a nearby island, and because of offshore hurricanes. I doubt the surfers really understand that stuff, either.

Huntington Beach Pier hosts a Ruby’s Diner 1950s style restaurant at the tip of it with fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean, so I read (I didn’t actually eat there). There are also many beachside cafes and bars along the waterfront and a boardwalk that joins them all together.

The people that hang out around Huntington Beach are mostly what you’d expect – travelling surfers or locals that work in surf shops. In my time in Huntington Beach (all two hours of it, max), I saw a lot of kombi vans parked up on the side of the road, so you can imagine keen beach bums coming across this place known as Surf City and just setting up camp.

Other things I can mention about this place is that it was formerly known as Pacific City, and then got called Surf City after the 1960s Jan and Dean surf rock song of the same name. It was also mentioned by name in the Beach Boys hit ‘Surfin’ Safari’.


SEAL BEACH

If you continue even further north of Huntington Beach on the Pacific Coast Highway, you come across the northernmost beach of Orange County known as Seal Beach, bordering Los Angeles County and Long Beach. A quick Google search shows me that it used to have a bit of a seaside amusement park, and is now home to a large gated retirement community and a naval weapons station. Really, I didn’t go to Seal Beach, so this is all I’ve got.


DANA POINT

Heading the other way, if you go south of Laguna Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway, you find yourself in the small city of Dana Point. Like Laguna Beach, this town appears to be home to quite a wealthy community, with many big mansions on the headlands overlooking the water. Most of the roads in the town are named after coloured lanterns, such as Blue Lantern Street, and Green Lantern Street, which is quite nifty.

A beach at Dana Point... pretty standard.

Other than that, it has a nice little harbour and a beach with a playground near it. Apparently, the beach used to be home of a legendary surf break called Killer Dana until they built the harbour that ruined it.

Another thing I can mention about this place is that a specimen of the extremely rare megamouth shark was caught off Dana Point in 1990. When I was here briefly, I did not see any megamouth sharks.


SAN CLEMENTE

Continuing south of Dana Point, and you find the last main beach town of Orange County, San Clemente. This little town’s slogan is ‘Spanish Village by the Sea’, with most of the architecture being a sort of colonial Spanish design. At least that’s what I saw from the highway as we drove past – I didn’t really stop at this place, either.

Something I learned about this place is that, being home to some fully sick all year round swells, it is also the surfing media capital of the world.


Background:

Jessie and I stayed one night at the very average Best Western of Long Beach, before moving on to Laguna Beach the next day.

In Laguna Beach, we stayed at one of the Laguna Vista on offer by Best Laguna Vacations. It had a big courtyard with a firepit to toast smores, perfect sea and sunset views, and steps going right down onto a secluded beach.


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