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Orange County, More Than Disneyland

Published: 03/24/2011
by Thomas Dorsey, SoulOfAmerica.com

As a resident of great Los Angeles the last several years, I'd seldom ventured to Orange County, California for anything more than world-famous Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. Part of the reason was my own prejudice about suburbs. Grid-like street patterns and cookie-cutter single-family homes everywhere don't ring the bell of this city guy. I'm not surprised that much of Orange County looks that way. At one time it was part of Los Angeles County and every bit its suburb with citrus groves sprinkled in between.

Then I put my travel writer cap on to see this world as visitors might. Just after my next sip of coffee, I see other evidence that makes Orange County, or "OC" as many like to call it, has grown up as a distinctive mega-city-suburb. It demands day-trips and family outings - even if you traveled across country.

If you were looking out the window as you plane arrived at John Wayne Airport, the first thing you noticed was many patches of modern 15-20 story office buildings in the adjacent cities of Costa Mesa, Irvine and Tustin, which now challenging older Anaheim and Santa Ana for county leadership. Those three cities join Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach anchoring southern Orange County. They also provide a lot of wealth that supports attractions and bistros.

Irvine first catches your attention as the gateway to other OC cities. Decades ago, Irvine was simply 170,000 square miles of Irvine Ranch. Today, its the business hub of OC with 14 hotels, including a few in the AAA four-diamond category, plus the landmark 108-foot tall Giant (Ferris) Wheel at Irvine Spectrum. Having learned from land use mistakes by other cities, Irvine allocated a vast tract of land to the University of California at Irvine. It also preserved one of Southern California's largest coastal freshwater marshes, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, that is a must visit for nature lovers. Lastly, Irvine boasts more than 40 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails.

A web of freeways connecting to over a dozen major shopping centers - each with the requisite collection of gourmet restaurants, state-of-the-art cinema-plex and enough upscale shopping to make you drool. From the many airbrushed Barbie dolls finding just the right additions to their wardrobe, I imagine that ladies can find every designer boutique of note at Main Place in Santa Ana, The Block at Orange, Irvine Spectrum, and Newport Beach Fashion Island to name a few purveyors of grand shopping experiences.

South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa however, is the most exceptional shopping venue with more than 280 retailers, including some of the world's finest brands. Say you want to scale it down to a more intimate level. Laguna Beach features an enclave of many fine art galleries and the annual Festival of Arts and the Pageant of the Masters, the world's most famous presentation of tableaux vivants (living pictures), which is staged summer nights at the Irvine Bowl.

A Ferrari dealership on Pacific Coast Highway once boasted of being the top Ferrari dealership in America. But don't mention that to the many Lamborghini, Bentley and Rolls Royce owners tooling by. Despite many patrons sporting lots of discretionary income, the waterfront bistros dotting Newport Beach and Marine Avenue in Balboa Island accommodate all budgets. But don't be surprised if you Kobe Bryant at a corner table. He's an OC-resident too.

Next I asked, what if visitors bought a multi-day family pass at Disneyland and next want some supplemental activities with the kids? No problem Buena Park has you covered there too. Aside from Knotts Berry Farm, Pirates like the Caribbean call Pirate Adventure home. You can't go wrong with the pizza, games and fun atmosphere of John's Incredible Pizza. They were having so much fun, I had to force my kids to leave with us. If you haven't seen one of their other venues around the country, your family will also enjoy Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament. Some of their horseback stunts are amazing and you wonder how they pull it off without frequent injuries. Fair warning though, Medieval food is an acquired taste.

One of the biggest complaints leveled at suburbs is a lack of fine arts and culture. No such problem in the OC. Known as the "City of the Arts," Costa Mesa is home to the critically acclaimed Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Samueli Theater and Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory. In this cultural enclave of Orange County you can attend jazz concerts by touring groups like Branford Marsalis & Terence Blanchard, touring Broadway musicals, symphonic concerts and stirring repertory dramas. Artists from around the globe regularly perform on stage here - enough to rival Pantages Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl in LA. I can't imagine a more perfect place to enjoy live Jazz than intimate and architecturally brilliant Samueli Theater.

Costa Mesa also takes pride in placing spectacular artworks by Richard Serra, Jean Dubuffet, Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Charles O. Perry, among others on public display in the cultural center and office park. A centerpiece is Isamu Noguchi's 1.6-acre collection of sculptures and plantings called CALIFORNIA SCENARIO, a horticultural landscape that presents an abstract vision of the Golden State. Nearby in Santa Ana is the Bowers Museum, which displays the fine art of indigenous peoples from the Americas, Pacific Rim and Africa. Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach is no slouch either with its fine collection of nineteenth century and contemporary art.

Mild year-round temperatures and the pristine beaches of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach invite you to indulge in beach-combing, kayaking, fishing or boating. Arguably, the real heartbeat of OC is surfing. And that heartbeat is preserved at the Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach. This 100-year-old city maintains a lively surf culture and more than eight miles of golden sand beaches and waves that always attract visitors and a wide range of events. Volleyball players hit the beaches nearly every Spring and summer day. When the sun goes down, beach bonfires light up the sand for miles. And if you visit Huntington Beach in September, you must attend the slammin' BB Jazz Festival.

Yes, Orange County, California is still very blond-haired and blue-eyed, but you may be surprised to learn how more diverse it has become. And that diversity is seen on the beaches, shops, restaurants and attractions. Maybe it is becoming more like Disneyland.

by Thomas Dorsey, SoulOfAmerica.com

As a resident of great Los Angeles the last several years, I'd seldom ventured to Orange County, California for anything more than world-famous Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. Part of the reason was my own prejudice about suburbs. Grid-like street patterns and cookie-cutter single-family homes everywhere don't ring the bell of this city guy. I'm not surprised that much of Orange County looks that way. At one time it was part of Los Angeles County and every bit its suburb with citrus groves sprinkled in between.

Then I put my travel writer cap on to see this world as visitors might. Just after my next sip of coffee, I see other evidence that makes Orange County, or "OC" as many like to call it, has grown up as a distinctive mega-city-suburb. It demands day-trips and family outings - even if you traveled across country.

If you were looking out the window as you plane arrived at John Wayne Airport, the first thing you noticed was many patches of modern 15-20 story office buildings in the adjacent cities of Costa Mesa, Irvine and Tustin, which now challenging older Anaheim and Santa Ana for county leadership. Those three cities join Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach anchoring southern Orange County. They also provide a lot of wealth that supports attractions and bistros.

Irvine first catches your attention as the gateway to other OC cities. Decades ago, Irvine was simply 170,000 square miles of Irvine Ranch. Today, its the business hub of OC with 14 hotels, including a few in the AAA four-diamond category, plus the landmark 108-foot tall Giant (Ferris) Wheel at Irvine Spectrum. Having learned from land use mistakes by other cities, Irvine allocated a vast tract of land to the University of California at Irvine. It also preserved one of Southern California's largest coastal freshwater marshes, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, that is a must visit for nature lovers. Lastly, Irvine boasts more than 40 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails.

A web of freeways connecting to over a dozen major shopping centers - each with the requisite collection of gourmet restaurants, state-of-the-art cinemaplex and enough upscale shopping to make you drool. From the many airbrushed Barbie dolls finding just the right additions to their wardrobe, I imagine that ladies can find every designer boutique of note at MainPlace in Santa Ana, The Block at Orange, Irvine Spectrum, and Newport Beach Fashion Island to name a few purveyors of grand shopping experiences.

South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa however, is the most exceptional shopping venue with more than 280 retailers, including some of the world's finest brands. Say you want to scale it down to a more intimate level. Laguna Beach features an enclave of many fine art galleries and the annual Festival of Arts and the Pageant of the Masters, the world's most famous presentation of tableaux vivants (living pictures), which is staged summer nights at the Irvine Bowl.

A Ferrari dealership on Pacific Coast Highway once boasted of being the top Ferrari dealership in America. But don't mention that to the many Lamborghini, Bentley and Rolls Royce owners tooling by. Despite many patrons sporting lots of discretionary income, the waterfront bistros dotting Newport Beach and Marine Avenue in Balboa Island accommodate all budgets. But don't be surprised if you Kobe Bryant at a corner table. He's an OC-resident too.

Next I asked, what if visitors bought a multi-day family pass at Disneyland and next want some supplemental activities with the kids? No problem Buena Park has you covered there too. Aside from Knotts Berry Farm, Pirates like the Caribbean call Pirate Adventure home. You can't go wrong with the pizza, games and fun atmosphere of John's Incredible Pizza. They were having so much fun, I had to force my kids to leave with us. If you haven't seen one of their other venues around the country, your family will also enjoy Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament. Some of their horseback stunts are amazing and you wonder how they pull it off without frequent injuries. Fair warning though, Medieval food is an acquired taste.

One of the biggest complaints leveled at suburbs is a lack of fine arts and culture. No such problem in the OC. Known as the "City of the Arts," Costa Mesa is home to the critically acclaimed Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Samueli Theater and Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory. In this cultural enclave of Orange County you can attend jazz concerts by touring groups like Branford Marsalis & Terence Blanchard, touring Broadway musicals, symphonic concerts and stirring repertory dramas. Artists from around the globe regularly perform on stage here - enough to rival Pantages Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl in LA. I can't imagine a more perfect place to enjoy live Jazz than intimate and architecturally brilliant Samueli Theater.

Costa Mesa also takes pride in placing spectacular artworks by Richard Serra, Jean Dubuffet, Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Charles O. Perry, among others on public display in the cultural center and office park. A centerpiece is Isamu Noguchi's 1.6-acre collection of sculptures and plantings called CALIFORNIA SCENARIO, a horticultural landscape that presents an abstract vision of the Golden State. Nearby in Santa Ana is the Bowers Museum, which displays the fine art of indigenous peoples from the Americas, Pacific Rim and Africa. Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach is no slouch either with its fine collection of nineteenth century and contemporary art.

Mild year-round temperatures and the pristine beaches of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach invite you to indulge in beachcombing, kayaking, fishing or boating. Arguably, the real heartbeat of OC is surfing. And that heartbeat is preserved at the Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach. This 100-year-old city maintains a lively surf culture and more than eight miles of golden sand beaches and waves that always attract visitors and a wide range of events. Volleyball players hit the beaches nearly every Spring and summer day. When the sun goes down, beach bonfires light up the sand for miles. And if you visit Huntington Beach in September, you must attend the slammin' BB Jazz Festival.

Yes, Orange County, California is still very blond-haired and blue-eyed, but you may be surprised to learn how more diverse it has become. And that diversity is seen on the beaches, shops, restaurants and attractions. Maybe it is becoming more like Disneyland.

 

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