Story and photos by Clint Williams
Orange County in Southern California is a place you don't know much about and that's too bad. Los Angeles County to the north has, well, Los Angeles and all the cultural icons associated with it: the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sunset Strip, the Santa Monica Pier, the LA Lakers. San Diego County to the south has, well, San Diego and it's world-famous zoo and beaches.
Orange County hasn't a major city everyone has heard about - after all it's Housewives of Orange County, not "Housewives of Irvine", or "Housewives of Newport Beach." But Orange County does have a little place called Disneyland. Millions travel from around the world each year to visit Disneyland, which opened in 1955, and the neighboring Disney's California Adventure Park. Most of them come to Orange County and go home without ever wandering outside the Magic Kingdom.
Those folks are missing a lot. Orange County is home to more than Mickey and Goofy and self-absorbed trophy wives. There are beaches and tide pools. There are mountains and canyons and trails that wander through both. There are kid-friendly attractions and adult dining.
And the weather is almost always glorious.
Relish it by getting outside with Cheri Ikerd, owner, operator and guide with OC Wildlife and Beach Tour. The half-day tour of the beaches, bluffs and tide pools of Laguna Beach provides a glimpse of what this part of the world was like long before Mickey and Minnie moved into the neighborhood.
Cheri provides a running commentary of the history, culture and ecology of Laguna Beach, a funky art community, and the surrounding coastline. And it can't be overstated how great it is to have someone else do the driving in the infamous Southern California traffic. But the real star of the tour is Mother Nature.
Cheri takes you to a series of city parks that offer jaw-dropping views of sea cliffs and the deep blue Pacific Ocean. Crescent Bay Point Park overlooks Seal Rock, which - as you might expect, given the name - is a sunny, haul-out spot for sea lions and harbor seals. You're likely to see an assortment of sea birds resting among the mammals.
One of the many tidal pools to be found in the area. One of the many tidal pools to be found in the area.
The tour also includes a stop at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine mammals stranded along the Orange County coastline. Depending on the time of your visit, you'll find 10 to 100 sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals here on the mend. Some are malnourished pups. Some are injured adults. The animals will stay at the center two to four months before being released back into the Pacific.
You'll get a much closer look at sea creatures after taking a steep paved path through the Montage Laguna Beach resort (save your shekels to stay here some day) to the tide pools of Treasure Island Beach. Tide pools are basically puddles among the rocks created when the tide recedes. They are wondrously full of life: hermit crabs, sculpin, green neon sea anemones, vivid purple sea urchins, a fish called opaleye and a galaxy of star fish. Cheri knows the tide pools intimately and directs you to the rare finds.
The tours are $79 per adult and $65 per child ages 5 to 12. The tour schedule depends on the tides.
The Great Balloon with its 30 person capacity gondola. The Great Balloon with its 30 person capacity gondola.
Go from sea level to 400 feet over the rolling terrain of Orange County in the basket of The Great Park Balloon. The big orange helium balloon is now the principal attraction at The Great Park, a former military base being converted into a 1,347-acre county park. The Great Park Balloon, the first of its kind in the United States, stands 18 feet tall and holds 210,000 cubic feet of helium. Up to 30 passengers can ride in the 1,810-pound gondola.
And the rides are free. There is always a chance weather conditions will ground the balloon, but it's worth the drive.
At the end of its tether, the views reach from the mountains to the east to the Pacific to the west (on a clear day, anyway). Take the ride about 9:30 p.m. and you can look down on the fireworks display at Disneyland to the north.
And did I say it's free?
Somewhere between free and the $80+ daily adult tariff at Disneyland is the Orange County Zoo, part of the 477-acre Irvine Regional Park. The park entrance fee is $3-$7 per vehicle, depending on the day, and it is just another $2 per person to get into the zoo. You won't find elephants and tigers at the zoo, but you will learn about animals of California and the Southwestern United States. There is a hyperactive coyote and a Channel Island fox that likes to sleep in a tree. There are coati and javelina and a mountain lion and black bears that are actually cinnamon colored.
The zoo also offers a free audio tour using your cell phone during which you hear from animal keepers, the veterinarian and other zoo staff about the animals.
And, that my friends, is a full, fun, family-friendly day in Orange County beyond the boundaries of Disneyland.