Are you planning a family vacation? If your travel plans include California, you don't want to miss visiting Irvine in Orange County. During my recent 6-day trip to Southern California with my two kids, we found Irvine to be the perfect destination for family-fun as well as a great home-base for several day trips we took to the Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach areas.
Many thanks to the folks at Destination Irvine who set-up travel and coordinated some of the activities during our trip. I highly recommend visiting this site to prepare for your perfect Southern California family vacation.
At the center of Orange County and just minutes from John Wayne Airport, Irvine is a beautiful community filled with shopping, bike trails, good food and fun things to do. I'll be covering details of places to eat and our day trips in future posts, but first I want to share some tips about what to do in Irvine proper....a fabulous destination in itself!
Where to Stay:
Our home away from home for two days was the Embassy Suites Irvine - Orange County Airport. A comfortable place to rest and relax with plenty of room to spread out, the Embassy Suites, with separate living and bedroom areas great for families, also provides all guests a complimentary made-to-order breakfast each morning (hello omelets!) and snacks and beverages in the evening. We loved playing cards in the atrium before dinner while enjoying refreshments.
Plus - if you are smart enough to schedule some down-time during your vacation (I need to do a better job with this) you can swim in their indoor pool or take advantage of summer programming like a painting class we noticed they were offering on Wednesday evenings. Very cool.
We've stayed at Embassy Suites hotels in other states before. In fact, Annie still remembers staying at the one in Dallas when I took her to the American Girl Doll Store for her birthday when she was just five years old. Embassy Suites does a great job of providing consistently great service across their chain of hotels and the Irvine location just went through a $12 million renovation - apparent by the modern furnishings located throughout both the guest rooms and public areas.
Fun Things to Do:
We made a stop here Sunday evening - the first night of our trip. Open Thursday - Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., The Great Park (once a Marine Corps Air Station) is now home to sports fields, a carousel, a farm and food lab with interactive fruits, flowers and vegetable displays (open from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), a historical hanger with cool exhibitions including two World War II airplanes, a play area and visitor's center, and probably the most recognizable attraction - the Great Park Balloon.
The helium balloon goes up 400 feet offering views of Irvine; however, wind prevented us from riding it while we were there. Because of this fact (we learned that it hadn't been able to go up for several evenings the week we were there) and more activities offered earlier in the day then in the evening, I recommend going to The Great Park in the morning/early afternoon.
If I was lucky enough to live in Irvine, I would be out here. A lot. They have a farmer's market on Sunday mornings and host classes including sports and dance, yoga, photography, art, sustainable gardening, cooking and wellness throughout the year. They also offer activities like movies on the lawn and family craft and play programs. While we were there, a fencing organization was outside practicing. We heard they are building a new ice skating rink including a practice facility for the Anaheim Ducks there as well as well as fields for many different sports. My kids, who both play lacrosse, were happy to hear that lacrosse facilities were included in the plan.
We were bummed we weren't able to experience the 15-minute helium balloon ride, but we checked out a frisbee and soccer ball from the visitor's center at no-charge and had a great time enjoying the sunset and beautiful evening playing together on the lawn.
We are slowly learning that when we travel, we have to be flexible and deal with the unexpected...making the most of the journey as it unfolds naturally. You can plan (and boy do I plan!) but certain things, like the weather, just can't be helped. Getting stressed out doesn't make things any better. We ended up having a great time doing something that wasn't on the itinerary.
Tip: Bring a picnic and make a day at the park if time allows. Visit them online to see about free classes and activities that may be going on during your stay and take advantage of the Farmer's and Artisan market with food trucks and live entertainment on Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
We learned pretty quickly that there's no lack of shopping in Orange County. The Irvine Spectrum Center is an outdoor shopping center with two department stores (Nordstrom and Target), many full service and casual restaurants, tons of popular stores, and entertainment including a movie theatre, ferris wheel, carousel, kiddie train, Dave & Busters, and a comedy club.
Since we didn't get to ride the Great Park Balloon - we were very excited to get a bird's eye view of Irvine from the Giant Wheel, a ferris wheel in the middle of the shopping area with 52,000 energy-efficient LED lights. On a clear day when at the top, look towards the Santa Monica Mountains (53 miles away) and Downtown LA (40 miles away).
For the record....I was never scared. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Tip: Visit Honey & Butter for the best darn macarons. Our friend Rob at the fabulous Andrei's Conscious Cuisine and Cocktails restaurant recommended this to us. (I promise I'll fill you in about Andrei's later!) The character macarons are even more delicious than they are adorable. Annie was thrilled to get a Pig macaron - she is nuts about pigs. Other flavors to die for: milk and honey, sea salted caramel, thai tea and matcha. We bought a bag of assorted flavors to take back to the hotel to enjoy later but they were gone before we got back to the car.
Don't judge....we were on vacation!
One of the absolute, hands down, top highlights for all of us during our week in California was our tour of Irvine with Bob at Pedego Electric Bicycles. I used to want a Vespa, now I want an electric bike. Bob, the store owner, is awesome. You couldn't meet a nicer guy who truly loves SOCAL and Irvine.
Amazing bike trails begin literally outside Bob's store's door. One of the reasons we all fell in love with Irvine is because it's truly a bike friendly city. We only experienced a taste of what the area has to offer in terms of trails....it left us wanting to experience more.
These bikes have heavy frames compared to the road/race/triathlon bikes the kids and I are used to - but they are extremely easy to operate. Unlike Houston, Irvine is very hilly so riding up some of the inclines, especially on long rides, can be challenging. On a Pedego, you can either pedal like on a regular bike, stop pedaling and let the electric bike do all the work or do a combination of both. Pedegos can go up to 20 miles per hour and operate with a throttle. These are particularly wonderful if you are recovering from a sports injury (like my recent tendon tear in my leg).
Bob sells bikes as well as rents them and offers guided bike tours. We went out for about 1 1/2 hours and experienced spectacular views along Shady Canyon Trail, University Trail by Quail Hill, Woodbridge Trail, and Turtle Rock Trail. We rode by beautiful homes, water, a golf course and even saw a road runner while we were out. Bob gave us a lot of background information about Irvine during the ride. If you really want to know a city, get out of the car and get on a bike. Irvine trails and Pedego bikes make it easy.
Tip: If you're shorter than me (I'm 4'10" - about the average size of a 5th grader) then you'll probably have trouble riding these bikes on your own. But no worries. They have tandem bikes and my 10-year-old daughter, Annie, rode one with Bob (and loved it).
I may or may not be in love with chocolate.
Wait. Yes - definitely, yes. And Irvine is home to one of the best Chocolatiers, ChocXO...the only Bean to Bar Chocolate Factory in Orange County.
In addition to a shop full of goodies, ChocXO on Irvine Center Dr. offers 45 minute to 1 hour tours of the factory. For just $10.00 a person you can learn about how they make their specialty chocolate and the tour includes three, free chocolates from their chocolate case as well as samples of raw cacao pulp, cocoa nibs and cocoa liquor. Sasha, our guide, walked us along the educational wall of the factory with windows where we saw the machines they use to make chocolate. She told us what happens before they get their fine flavor cacao beans from Central and South America and what they do with them to make their products.
This tour was especially interesting for us since we just returned home from the Dominican Republic with Fathom Impact Travel were we worked at Chocal, the women's chocolate co-op in Altamira. Many of the activities we did by hand to assist production at the co-op, like discard the bad beans and separate the shells from the chocolate nibs after they were ground up, are done by sophisticated equipment at ChocXO. It was eye-opening to see how chocolate is made here versus in an undeveloped country. While there are many similarities, ChocXO certainly has the advantage of technology and the chocolate we sampled was unbelievably delicious.
I highly recommend just about any of the chocolate squares and truffles in their chocolate bar. My favorite flavors: birthday cake, lemon meringue, spicy PB&J, salted caramel and creme brulee. You can purchase them while you are there as well as order them online, but sadly - cannot find them in stores in Texas. Sigh.
Tip: Request tour guide, Sasha. She's fabulous! She'll give you a ChocXO quiz at the end of the tour and you can score two more free chocolates if you turn it in...especially fun for the kids.
What's your favorite thing to do in Irvine and Orange County?
Be sure to visit StillLivingTheDream.com again soon for posts about fabulous places to eat and details about our day trips to Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.
As a guest of Destination Irvine, some of our travel related expenses were covered in order for us to experience Orange County area attractions. We also happily paid for some of our own travel, food and activities during our journey. No other compensation was received and, as always, all opinions expressed are my own or taken from input received from my kids.