The Hollywood sign, perched on the hills above, may guide tourists to the Sunset Strip and movie-making studios, but there is more to the Los Angeles area than star tours and celebrity sightings. Located south of La La Land is The O.C. — Orange County. Whether you have one, two or three days to spend, the communities hugging the scenic Pacific Coast Highway have their own stories to tell.
Sweat and sand
It’s easy to see why Huntington Beach is known as Surf City USA. Wet suit-clad pedestrians — surfboards tucked under their arms — are as common a site as shopping bags and Starbucks coffee cups. A four-block radius located on the PCH and Main Street sets the scene for this city, but there are 8.5 miles of sand to play in. Start your day with breakfast at Michelle’s Sugar Shack Cafe on Main Street, before heading to the International Surfing Museum. It opens according to surf time. That’s 11 a.m. or noon, unless wave conditions are too good to ignore. If it’s closed, you can still check out the names of those honored along the Surfing Walk of Fame at Main and the PCH, including musician Dick Dale for adding to board culture. Spend your afternoon playing beach volleyball or catching waves along the beach. Stroll along the historic Huntington Beach pier that juts into the Pacific. At its end is Ruby’s Diner, a 1950s-inspired local restaurant chain. Before nightfall, stake out one of the fire pits located on the beach for an evening spent sitting on the sand and listening to the surf break on the shore.
Shop and sip
Located south of Huntington along the PCH are tony Newport Beach and artsy Laguna Beach. While Fashion Island is home to big brand stores, Laguna’s downtown features a number of smaller shops, showcasing local artists and handcrafted goods, all set against a backdrop of green hills. No afternoon is complete without sipping a cool cocktail at The Cliff . Offering a 180-degree view of the ocean, you can sit on the patio watch sunning locals on the beach below or scan the big blue for passing whales. You can also grab a treat at Gelato Paradiso in Peppertree Lane and take a stroll in Heisler Park located high on the bluffs above the Pacific. The popular Las Brisas, with its beckoning margaritas menu, offers a fusion of Californian and traditional Mexican cuisine, with fresh seafood offered each day. The building the restaurant is located in started life as the Victor Hugo Inn in the 1930s, before being converted in the late 1970s.
Sea and sanctuary
Located at the southern end of the O.C., Dana Point is a nature-lovers paradise. With a number of migration routes passing by, whale watching is in order. Dana Wharf has a fleet of 12 vessels that often encounter sea lions, blue and gray whales or even the occasional mega-pod of a few thousand dolphins swimming and playing in the wake of boats. Exhausted after a day at sea? Pamper yourself at The Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel. The hotel is located 150 feet above Salt Creek Beach and offers stunning coastal views. You can take them in while sipping wine on the 180blu patio — a perfect sunset spot — or enjoying a yummy meal at Raya, with its Latin-inspired menu of sustainable seafood, local produce and organic meat created by chef Richard Sandoval. Spend an afternoon walking through the grounds of the hotel and feeding the rabbits that hop around the property. Use the Ritz’s beach butler service to be carted down in a buggy from the resort to the beach below. They will set up chairs and umbrellas, provide recreational equipment and even build you a sandcastle to enjoy.