In a city that feels like a boon to big business, with office buildings and hotels dominating the skyline, Irvine, California, also hosts a number of fun activities that both educate and entertain visiting families.
We stayed at Hotel Irvine, its retro chic, vibrant decor an invitation to lounge and relax with a young, hip crowd. It also boasts the largest number of guestrooms, 536 — with 16 of them suites — of all the hotels in the area. Our room on the 14th floor offered an East Coast-style view of this West Coast city.
Just a quick five-minute drive from Hotel Irvine is the San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, a wetland aviary in the middle of Irvine’s concrete jungle. It’s an unexpected urban retreat for birders and families. We drove along Campus Drive, turned into an unassuming concrete road with a fading white line dividing the street running along the San Diego Creek. This pocket of wilderness is managed by the Irvine Ranch Water District. Unless you were made aware, there is no way to guess that tucked between this modern city are 321 acres of restored marsh that shelters more than 200 bird species and more than 100 plant families. It’s almost two-thirds the size of Central Park in New York City. We walked along well-maintained dirt trails, marveling as the descendants of pterodactyls flew overhead. We encountered bicyclists and groups of people gaping through binoculars beneath their protective hats. We only had time to see two of the 11 ponds in the park, each split between trails, bushes and riparian wildlife. We came upon birds so brilliant it seemed they migrated from a storybook. The air felt fresh, filtered by reeds undulating in the cool breeze. Other families ran around the trails, stopped to look between leaves growing from the banks of the water and chased butterflies. Field trips and tours of this area, as well as other nature preserves nearby, are available through the Sea and Sage Audubon Society.
There are other outdoor activities also available for biking, hiking and walking.
When we returned to Hotel Irvine for dinner, we chose to dine at EATS, the in-house restaurant whose talented chef, Jeff Moore, created the best grilled artichoke we’d ever tasted. Moore came out to say hi to guests and when we fawned over his veggie burger, he came back with the recipe, like an old friend. Outside, a giant fireplace attracted wine tasters to sit around and learn about varietals at the hotel’s weekly Sommelier Fireside Chat. Other weekly events include Tapas Fridays and Red Cup Mondays. Seasonal happenings regularly bring in locals for sports-themed and holiday events.
A wonderful place to explore international culinary delights is the Diamond Jamboree, where 21 restaurants offer visitors a chance to eat through most of the Asian countries of the Pacific Rim. We first arrived looking for a late breakfast and were surprised to see so many had the same idea. The horseshoe-shaped plaza brimmed with pockets of people milling between restaurants like the 85°C Bakery Cafe to the Paper Lantern Dumpling House for early lunches. Smoothies and muffins called to our 8-year-old son at Kona Loa Coffee. Later, we returned for dinner at Tokyo Table where the boy had California rolls, french fries and teriyaki chicken while a table-side server prepared a hot pot dish of spicy, hot veggies and chicken for us.
We decided to explore Pretend City Children’s Museum, where kids can dress up and pretend to be workers in 17 interactive exhibits by circulating through with a time card they receive upon entry and which they must get stamped after every “job” they complete. Knox dressed up as a doctor for one and a Trader Joe’s cashier for another. He engaged in the marine biology station, which was wet and wild with kids running around discovering the world beneath the ocean. After getting all the slots stamped on his time card, a staff member instructed him to go to the “bank” and collect his paycheck so he could go back to Trader Joe’s as a customer. The possible skill sets to be learned from these activities were boundless. There’s also a section for free, unstructured play with giant foam blocks and a stage to put on your own show. Kids under 1 are free and the rest are $13.75. Knox was probably on the verge of being too old for this as most of the attendees that day were in the toddler playset.
We had heard about this Ferris wheel where riders could see miles from the top at the Irvine Spectrum Center and since I’d never been, we decided to stop and check it out. Our brief afternoon stop turned into a nighttime departure as we kept discovering place after place to keep us entertained. The Ferris wheel was fun but it was a real treat at night with thousands of LED lights creating hypnotizing patterns. I got to sneak into a couple stores after the boys discovered Dave and Buster’s, a Vegas-style tribute to the gamer kid in all of us. It was funny to see popular arcade games from the 1980s also represented. The boys loaded up a game card and attacked as many games as they could while I tried on a couple things next door.
On the 12th floor of the Hotel Irvine, with a patio offering unobstructed city skyscraper views, sits Club 12. For an additional charge, guests could receive VIP treatment at Club 12 with personal concierge service, a daily breakfast from 6–10 a.m. and an evening happy hour that includes wine, beer and snacks. We started our last day with visions of green wavy hills and the freeway looping its way around Orange County.
On our way out of town, we stopped to have lunch in one of the best restaurants in which I’ve ever eaten, Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine and Cocktails. This long-winded-named restaurant is dedicated to the memory of the Olenicoff family’s son who died in a car accident when he was 32. Before he died, Andrei’s dream had been to open a restaurant. He was a strong believer in the connection between nutrition and health and the restaurant serves organic, locally sourced food to create a culinary dynamo that included the best hummus and tabouli I’ve ever eaten and I’ve eaten a lot. The restaurant donates 100 percent of its profits to the Andrei Foundation, which initially supported organizations that helped those with blindness, as Andrei had been diagnosed with a retinal eye disease in his 20s that would have eventually led to his own blindness. The Andrei Foundation has since expanded to help with other charities close to his heart that support animals and the environment. There was nothing we ate during our lunch that wasn’t fabulous. The Olincoff family is preserving his memory in a tasty and heartfelt way. Yet another discovery in a city that has many unexpected family finds.