The sun is always shining in Orange County, or so it would seem from popular TV shows like “Laguna Beach” and “The OC.” But rain does fall in the O.C., and the people who live there are more than gorgeous teens in skimpy bathing suits and gaudy displays of wealth. Nestled along the Pacific Coast Highway between San Diego and Los Angeles, Orange County is enjoying a renaissance.
People are bypassing the usual summer break spots and converging upon towns such as Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.
Spend 36 hours in the real O.C., and you’ll never watch those shows in the
same way again.
FRIDAY 10 a.m. — Mission San Juan Capistrano is Southern California before Hollywood and gated communities.
Founded in 1776, it is the seventh mission in a chain of 21 built by the Catholic Church. Rooms where soldiers and priests once lived now house relics from a time when Spanish dons and Catholic priests ruled California. It’s quite the educational experience (if you’re into that).
And a lot of visitors aren’t. High school students from San Jose walk the grounds with a glazed look (they’re already missioned out on their tour). A bunch of elementary school kids are clearly more enthralled with the coins at the bottom of a well than the ruins around them.
“Are we behaving like we’re guests in someone’s home?” their teacher shrieks. She’s clearly not amused.
“No,” they say in united defeat and continue with their tour.
The gardens are the best part of the mission. It’s easy to block out everyone else when you’re sitting on a bench surrounded by koi ponds, Mexican sagebrush, lavender and bright orange California poppies.
That is, until the sky opens up and rain begins pouring down.
Details: Mission San Juan Capistrano, 26801 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano. Open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and Good Friday afternoon). $6 adults, $5 seniors and $4 children age 4-11. (949) 234-1300 or www.mission sjc.com.
11 a.m. — The best refuge in a deluge of rain is a teahouse.
After wandering slippery streets in flip-flops (and nearly falling spectacularly twice) I come upon such a place in the Los Rios Historic District.
Located just over the train tracks, the Tea House on Los Rios is reservation-only, but the receptionist takes pity on a drenched Arizonan and seats me at a corner table in a small side room. The Cottage Tea ($14.95, two heart-shaped scones, California cream and preserves) goes a long way to restoring my spirits, and so does the peach fruit tea.
It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s raining even harder when I get up to leave. As I take a deep breath and brace myself to leave, the hostess stops me.
“Would a garbage bag help?” she says. “You could use it as a poncho.”
Details: Tea House on Los Rios, 31731 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Reservations recommended. (949) 443-3914 or www.theteahouse onlosrios.com.
1 p.m. — Before I hit the shops in posh Laguna Beach, I ditch the garbage bag even though the rain is soaking through my silk shirt. Plastic poncho is hardly the fashion statement I want to make in this beach town known for its artists and physical beauty.
Locals are few in number. The buxom bottle blondes rumored to inhabit Orange County are doing the smart thing on a rainy Southern California day — they’re inside.
So the streets of Laguna Beach belong to drenched tourists taking refuge under store awnings (after paying a sizable chunk of money for parking).
The shops and galleries in Laguna Beach are pricey. It’s probably one of the few places where you would find expensive leather jackets on one rack and OC sweat shirts on the next. The latter were selling out quickly because it was so cold.
Between boutique browsing I take refuge under an awning. A homeless man with a rainbow golf umbrella approaches me, and I instinctively reach into my bag for some spare change. But this guy doesn’t want my money.
“Didn’t you bother to check the weather report?” he snarls.
3:30 p.m. — My sister calls to find out what I’m up to. I tell her I’m in Laguna Beach.
“The Laguna Beach?” she says? “As in MTV’s Laguna Beach?”
She needs a minute to absorb this. “Laguna Beach” was one of her favorite MTV reality shows, a consolation after “Newlyweds” went off the air and Nick and Jessica broke up.
“I can’t believe you’re there,” she says. “Do you think you could find what’s-her-face’s house (Lauren “LC”)? It was so tight.”
4 p.m. — At the turn of the 20th century Laguna Beach was thought of as “SoHo by the Sea.” The Laguna Art Museum celebrates that past by focusing exclusively on contemporary American artists, most of whom are from California.
Getting into the museum is a bit tricky. There’s a large puddle in the street, and my heroic attempt to jump it fails. I land right smack in the middle of it, drenching my shoes (I switched to a sneaker after my disastrous walk through the Los Rios Historic District).
Squeaky shoes don’t endear me to anyone in this museum. But the art is worth the disapproving looks.
A real treat in this museum is the exhibit “Hillside Homes: The Architecture of L. Lamont Langorthy.” Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, one can’t wonder what’s keeping these homes up. This exhibit gives you the answer (lots of poles and other creative solutions).
Details: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 adults, $8 seniors and students. (949) 494-8971 or www.laguna artmuseum.org.
8 a.m. — My surfing lesson is canceled because of the rain (there’s too much bacteria in the water for safe swimming). Secretly I’m relieved (I probably look more like a seal to sharks than most tourists). But I still want to see some surfing, so I head to Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City U.S.A.
This is the family-friendly beach. Main Street is like an outdoor mall complete with chain restaurants and surf shops.
The surfers show up early and ride the waves from 6 to 9 a.m. Then some of them play volleyball.
Gary, the unofficial mayor of the beach, surfs and then hauls a sack of volleyballs and a rake out of his car. It’s his stuff, so he sets the rules on these courts.
“Most of the guys out here would rather not have a date Friday night so they can get here early,” says Huntington Beach resident Steve Curtis from his perch on the wall.
Noon — Tell the attendant that you’re a student of life and you might get into the International Surfing Museum for half price.
This little museum houses surfing’s entire history and pays homage to the sport’s founder — Duke Kahanamoku. An exhibit called “Gidget and Other Girls of the Curl” showcases the exploits of women who dared to surf with the boys.
Details: International Surfing Museum, 411 Olive Ave., Huntington Beach. Open noon to 5 p.m. daily. $2 suggested donation. (714) 969-3492 or www.surfingmuseum.org .
12:30 p.m. — Fish tacos are a staple in this community, and Wahoo’s Fish Tacos is the place to go if you’ve got about $5 in your pocket.
While the restaurant is part of a popular Southern California chain, the tacos are delicious and the decor is all about surfing.
Details: Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, 120 Main St., Huntington Beach. Open 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. (714) 536-2050 or www.wahoos.com.
2 p.m. — Fashion Island, Newport Beach’s über mall, is home to Orange County’s only Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus.
This is the place where I expect to see women who look as though they should be regulars on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County” rummaging through the racks.
There are more than 200 stores in this outdoor mall. The Lucky Brand store has baby clothes, and I make a mental note to call my sister and tell her (she likes to dress her baby in designer clothing).
Details: Fashion Island, Pacific Coast Highway and Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach. (949) 721-2000 or www.shop fashionisland.com.
4 p.m. — The guidebook says the Orange County Museum of Art is next door to Fashion Island, but it’s hidden in a nearby industrial park. Talk about difficult to find — I had to make three loops before I did.
Sadly, the most memorable thing about this museum is the gift shop. You will not find kitschy Frida Kahlo T-shirts, mugs or posters, but items created by local artists.
And, be sure not to bring a pen into the gallery even if all you plan to do is take notes. Pens make the docents nervous (or maybe after a day on the beach I just look like a would-be vandal). The docents actually sent an octogenarian security guard to tell me to put my pen away.
Details: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday. $10 adults, $8 students and seniors. Free Thursdays. (949) 759-1122 or www.ocma.net.
6 p.m. — Mole on the menu is always a good sign at a Mexican restaurant. Javier’s Cantina & Grill in Laguna Beach is no exception.
The restaurant is loud and crowded on a Saturday night, but it’s a fun atmosphere. Javier’s is a favorite for locals and tourists alike.
Trying to be a healthy eater, I ask Gustavo the waiter if the seafood is sautéed in butter or oil. He looks at me for a minute, the corners of his mustache slanting in a crooked smile.
“Mantequilla o aceite?” I say in Spanish.
“Butter,” Gustavo says with relish, as if there were no other way to do it.
After taking a bite of the seafood enchiladas I realize that Gustavo is right. There really should be no other way.
Details: Javier’s Cantina & Grill, 480 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. (949) 494-1239.
7 p.m. — Service is so quick at Javier’s Cantina & Grill, I make it out just in time for a spectacular Laguna Beach sunset. Crowds gather on Main Beach and wait in anticipation for the moment. Some brave the frigid waves of the Pacific while other just stroll the boardwalk, holding hands.
As the sun disappears behind a jagged cliff, my cell phone rings.
It’s my sister.
“Do you think you could find the place where (the female cast of “Laguna Beach”) got their nails done?” she says.
• Laguna Beach Visitors Bureau and Conference Center, 252 Broadway (800) 877-1115 or www.lagunabeachinfo.org
• Huntington Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau, 301 Main St., Suite 208 (800) 729-6232 or www.hbvisit.com
• Newport Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau, 110 Newport Center Drive, Suite 120 (800) 942-6278 or www.newportbeach-cvb.com