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Nature on the Rocks in Southern Calif.

Published: 11/03/2010

Laguna BeachForget those out-of-control housewives of Orange County. The OC abounds with more fascinating wildlife.

I recently went on the  OC Wildlife & Beach Tour at Laguna Beach. It is easy to spot sea lions sunning on rocks just off-shore in the Pacific and enjoy the sight of cormorants soaring overhead.

As America's version of the South of France, this part of Southern California has drawn plein air painters for a century. Seascapes include pods of jumping dolphins and whales. During 10,000-mile annual migrations, 18,000 gray whales go through this region, traveling from Alaska to Baja California to mate and give birth. More elusive are blue whales, the length of two buses.

Beautiful fish and invertebrates reside below sea level-but some can be spotted in tide pools, natural aquariums that form as tides ebb over rocks along the shore.

Beneath the sun glints on tide pool surfaces dwell turban snails, lime green and magenta anemones, muscular sea stars much larger than mid-Atlantic starfish, sea urchins with undulating spikes, and dainty sculpin and opal-eye fish. Many of them reside in the same spot for decades. Of course, we tiptoed carefully to avoid disturbing the plants and animals on the rocks.

To protect fragile species, beach regulations prohibit removal of animals, shells, and rocks.

In Newport Beach, I spent a morning jogging to and around Crystal Cove, which is fragrant with coastal sagebrush, eucalyptus, and fennel. My afternoon stop: Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, also known as Back Bay. Migratory birds and other animals have this refuge thanks to the efforts of residents who years ago successfully fought plans to replace fragile habitat with a huge marina, according to tour guide Carolyn Clark. Surrounding the reserve are bicycle and walking trails. The dramatic bluffs-which have served as the backdrop for many Hollywood movies-were forced up from the ocean floor by earthquakes 10,000 years ago.

After working up an appetite with all the touring, you can enjoy the many vegan dining options, including Native Foods, an indie chain owned by chef Tanya Perovna, who decided 15 years ago that she could help all residents of the planet by creating delicious vegan foods. At the Irvine location in The District at Tustin shop-eat-entertainment mall, I enjoyed perfectly seasoned Saigon wraps and soy-based blueberry cheesecake. Mock-meat connoisseurs (as well as carnivores who frequent the joint) gave a thumbs-up to the "Native Chicken" and other meat substitutes. Nearby, I had a glass of vino at the Winery, whose chef told me he enjoys cooking vegan dishes and would like to see more American diners try plant-based food.

I found some fine vegan options in unexpected places. Newport Beach's award-winning Island Hotel serves food befitting its gorgeously renovated property. Its Palm Terrace Restaurant chefs love making vegan meals-just share your dietary preferences when you make reservations so that they can craft a meal from local seasonal produce. Small plates that I enjoyed included quinoa with English beans, fava beans in house-made tomato sauce, micro-basil/hearts-of-palm salad, garlic-free hummus, and kale-corn minestrone. The dessert involved artistically cut fruits that were almost too pretty to eat.

During an urban wine tour in the lovely Santa Barbara, a bit north of Los Angeles, I loved the wines at funky-casual Municipal Winemakers. As for lodging, Santa Barbara's Canary Hotel offers exquisitely decorated and comfortable rooms and a rooftop pool.

Vegan-centric places that I regrettably missed include Mother's Market and Kitchen, with several Orange County locations; Au Lac in Fountain Park; Bodhi Tree Vegetarian Café in Huntington Beach; and Sojourner Café in Santa Barbara. Perhaps you have more to share!

 

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