High on Horses and a Free Balloon Ride

photo: Destination Irvine

By Carla Marie Rupp

Following a business convention in September in Orange County, CA, I decided to tag on an additional day and was looking for something to do before heading home.

I had done Disneyland, going on many of the new and nostalgic attractions, as well as Knott's Berry Farm, where I just had to once again ride the historic old log ride that I liked so much many years ago (and yes, to be honest, eat that chicken dinner for which they're so well known). And I was malled-out after trips to the luxurious South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and the new GardenWalk, a shopping and dining mecca in Anaheim.

During my last day I wanted to round off my OC experience by being out in nature, experiencing adventure and, most importantly, spending less money. I asked around and someone suggested Irvine.

Irvine? My perception of Irvine was suburban Los Angeles, complete with ranch-style houses and traffic. Boy, did I find out I was wrong.

My local California friends took a fellow conventioneer and me out to a rustic county park with an early California feel, where we got saddled up and rode through some of the most rugged land I've ever seen. There wasn't a freeway, theme park or housing development in sight, a total shock in amusement park-rich Orange County. I was so relaxed, thanks to some genius who came up with the master-plan to make the center of the county a balance of urban and preserved nature.

Our thoughtful and entertaining guide - she was actually a rock ‘n roll musician in her off-time - told us all about the wildlife and scenery and how the beautiful peacocks of all colors came to live in the Irvine Regional Park's area. It turned out to be both horse and peacock heaven!

Returning from the ride, we stopped at the adjacent Orange County Zoo, where I was surprised to see that admission was only two dollars. We looked at a number of animals, including some rescued creatures and a bear that was fed by hand, and then had a picnic lunch. After lunch we took a short drive to The Great Park to take a free, thrilling, huge "Up and Away" balloon ride.

Free? Yes, it's free for everyone, something that I first found hard to believe in a county where amusement park rides can wreak havoc on your finances. And the carousel ride turned out to be just as easy on our wallets, as well.

After the balloon ride we visited the expansive art gallery at the beautiful Palm Court Arts Complex. It's set in an old, magnificent airplane hangar that was part of the El Toro Marine Air Station base before its decommissioning. I soon learned, in fact, the entire park is part of the former air base and is now being transformed into Orange County Great Park, which they're calling "the first great metropolitan park of the 21st Century."

When completed it will be almost twice the size of New York's Central Park and contain several massive outdoor areas (including sports fields, a great canyon, a botanical garden, and a three mile-long corridor for migrating wildlife) and a Cultural Terrace containing a museum and library. On Sundays there's also a farmers market in the park.

In Irvine I stayed at the Atrium Hotel at John Wayne Airport - in fact, it was here on the second level where the famed actor John Wayne used to have a drink while viewing the takeoffs and landings - which was only a short shuttle-ride away from my return flight. The next day on my flight out of John Wayne to New York City I thought about the previous few days and knew I'd return to Orange County someday for more fun.

And I also thought about Irvine, the place that I had mistakenly thought was just another suburb, and how it provided a nice vacation I'll cherish.
If You Go:

Destination Irvine
2485 McCabe Way
Suite 150
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 660-9112

Country Trails and Riding School
1 Irvine Park Road
Irvine Regional Park
Orange, CA 92869
(714) 538-5860
Rides available Tuesday to Sunday. Make a reservation.

Orange County Zoo
Irvine Regional Park
1 Irvine Park Road
Orange, CA 92869
(714) 481-0355

Great Park Balloon
Great Park Carousel
The Palm Court Arts Complex
The Orange County Great Park
Marine Way off Sand Canyon
(866) 829-3829

Atrium Hotel
At Orange County Airport
18700 MacArthur Boulevard
Irvine, CA 92612
(800) 854-3012