(and so are nearby Disneyland & Knott's Berry Farm)
By Dean & Nancy Hoch
Real Travel Adventures
Are you ready for a "heavenly" trip to the sunny climes of Southern California? If yes, we can heartily recommend making your base at Irvine, a city quite unlike any other we've visited.
Why do we call Irvine divine? Because of all that this remarkable place has to offer. "You'll be amazed at how much there is to see and do," as the city's visitors guide says -- and "all within 25 miles and 25 minutes" - often much less. Here's a listing of just a few of the possibilities:
- Beloved by millions, Disneyland Park and Knott's Berry Farm-- both are minutes away from each other. Check out disneyland.com - and knott.com
- Discovery Science Center - discoverycube.org
- Bowers Museum & Kidseum celebrating world art and culture - bowers.org
- Baseball's Angel Stadium of Anaheim - angels.com
- Orange County Museum of Art - ocma.net
- Newport Sports Museum - newportsportsmuseum.org
- Crystal Cove State Park - crystalcovestatepark.com
- Laguna Beach - lagunabeachinfo.com
- Balboa Island -- balboa-island.net
Does this list make Irvine an intriguing place to visit? It did us, and we'd like to share a detailed rundown of the fabulous time we enjoyed there -- along with a nine-year-old granddaughter, Alison, who was thrilled (and extremely well behaved) our entire trip.
First of all, most of us might ask: Just where is Irvine -- a city named for James Irvine, grandson of a prominent cattle ranching family? Obviously, when most of us think of Southern Cal, it's the fabled suburbs of Los Angeles: Hollywood, Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, Glendale, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, and San Juan Capistrano, but if you haven't discovered Irvine, you're missing a delightful "hip hub" that opens doors to all the adventures mentioned above, and more -- Irvine itself being a great destination. Just check out a map of the area, and you will see all those wonderful open spaces for hiking, biking, horseback riding - as well as the city's close proximity to the ocean.
Our week-long adventure there started with a flight from Salt Lake City, nearest major airport from our home in Southeastern Idaho. With a change of planes in Oakland, our transit time took most of our first day. We landed at the newer John Wayne Airport in Orange County and were greeted with SUNSHINE - so great after a long, cold winter.
With our granddaughter in tow, you can bet we first had to see the two renowned and marvelous theme parks, and she loved them both.
Day One was spent at Knott's Berry Farm, a pioneer in the amusement park industry. We hadn't been there in years, but the Old West flavor remains, combined with a lot of up-to-date changes and first-class thrill rides. Just one of these extra exciting rides that Alison and Grandma decided to experience was the Supreme Scream - and scream everyone did - except Alison. Likely it just took her breath away.
This amazing new, non-roller coaster ride is one of the tallest thrill rides of its kind in the world. It takes four people at a time, seated in a row, straight up 30 stories into the air where the view is spectacular. Within seconds the riders are propelled to the ground in just three, negative-gravity seconds at speeds topping 60 mph. Chilling? Thrilling? You bet!
Meanwhile, there's oodles of gentler rides and other things to do at Knott's, with highlights including the Peanuts characters roaming the park, and seen in Lucy's Really Big Show situated in Camp Snoopy, as well as rides such as Lucy's Tugboat, the Butterfield Stagecoach, Calico Railroad, bumper cars, and much more.
Knott's is fun indeed - just look at the faces of the kids!
Day Two of our trip was full-steam ahead to DISNEYLAND, opened in 1955 by Walt Disney, and unarguably the most famous park of its kind in the world - now along with its newer companion park, Disney California Adventure. Here the three of us spent the "fullest" 16-hours imaginable. With a Park Hopper Pass, we started lining up at 7 a.m. to enter Disney California Adventure, going first on the new and immensely popular Radiator Springs Cars Land ride. Here Grandpa especially loved re-living his old drag racing days on this innovative attraction, among the other thrills of the ride.
"Soarin' Over California," is not-to-be-missed. Here you travel over much of the great Golden State in an amazing IMAX-style, simulated flight.
Our Park Hopper Pass allowed us to hop from that park over to Disneyland in just a few hundred yards away. Our favorites in this original park were the ever-popular Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan, "it's a small world," the train ride, the monorail, and thrilling Splash Mountain, all culminating with the evening finale, Fantasmic! This incredible, stunning show on the lake features Mickey Mouse in a battle of good vs. evil and is followed by an amazing fireworks display. What a way to end our delightful day!
In one day, of course, we barely scratched the surface of all these sister parks have to offer. A special treat for Alison, however, was having breakfast with Minnie Mouse and some of the other Disney characters. She had her photo taken with several of them.
Before you go, be sure to check out Disney's relatively new FASTPASS to many attractions. With it, you insert your park ticket into the proper kiosk; get a FASTPASS ticket to that particular ride with a return time shown. Then go play in the park instead of waiting in line. Come back at the return time and walk right past the often very long lines of people waiting to ride that particular attraction. It's a great concept - and it works.
The Disneyland Hotel, by the way, is a great property with its three lovely outdoor pools and its welcoming rooms. In our room, with its two queen beds, the touch of a switch provided a relaxing tune from one of the Disney musicals and, at the same time, lighted up a beautifully carved wooden mural on the wall behind the beds complete with tiny pinpoints of light. These are cut into the mural's background and depict the fireworks exploding above Fantasyland's castle. It's a lovely way to fall asleep after a full day.
A plus for staying at the Disneyland property is the "Extra Magic Hour" pass which currently allows guests to enjoy an early entry -- depending on the day of the week and prior to the times for the general public.
A book could be written about Disneyland. Suffice it to say that it's no wonder millions of people from around the world come to this magical jewel -- many folks opting to spend two, three and even five days where something new is always being added.
Day Three was a major change of pace -- devoted to environmental and wildlife concerns. Our host was Cheri Ikerd, owner and operator of OC Wildlife & Beach Tours (the OC stands for Orange County). She picked us up at our hotel for one of her wonderful afternoon tours and took us first to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a place devoted primarily to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing hundreds of threatened baby seals and sea lions. Over 70 volunteers help the staff with this remarkable and much-needed effort, saving so many of these orphaned creatures.
Then, in the Laguna Beach area, Cheri took us to see just a small fraction of the Pacific Ocean's endless tide pools that are now highly protected by the State. We reveled in the wonders of the beach's ever-changing panorama - meanwhile getting a good dose of Vitamin D, as well. We learned much about the colorful sea life that can only be seen in the tiny pools left on the beach when the tide is out, including sea stars (not starfish, since they are not really fish at all), sea anemones, sea urchins, tiny crabs, and so much more, all in a colorful array. This is an unforgettable and highly educational experience that kids and adults as well, enjoy. The website is www.ocwildlifebeachtour.com.
Our week was speeding by much too fast as DAY FOUR presented itself. However, the pace slowed as we thoroughly enjoyed stepping back in time at the lovely, relaxing Irvine Regional Park with its signature California oak trees and its many massive Coast Live Oak trees, some 400 years old. This 450-acre -- and very inexpensive and uncrowded park -- opened in 1897 and was California's first regional park, located about 20 minutes from our hotel in Irvine.
If you happen to go at Easter time, as we did, this park's Eggstravangza is loads of fun, and it's amazingly well-organized for the hundreds of excited children that attend - and very inexpensive.
The ten-minute, train ride around the park's peaceful lake is especially relaxing, and a paddleboat ride among the ducks was a great treat for all three of us. The park also features hiking, biking, equestrian trails, and pony rides, as well as the Orange County zoo showcasing animals and plants native to the Southwestern United States.
In addition to the reasonably priced paddleboat rentals, which we thoroughly enjoyed, there are several kinds of bike rentals and old-fashioned "horseless carriage" rentals. Really, what more could anyone ask for in a casual, uncrowded and old-fashioned day at the park?
Check it out at www.IrvineParkRailroad.com
The rest of Day Five was spent at Irvine's amazing Spectrum Center, a shopping, dining, and fun center like no other - with free, multi-level parking. The center's striking Moorish and Spanish architecture was inspired by the ancient Alhambra Palace-Citadel built in the 13th Century in Spain. Spectrum's 108-foot Ferris wheel was shipped from Spain, and its vintage carousel and a 21-screen theater (including IMAX) are all part of the offerings.
Meanwhile, for those adults and kids who like endless choices of video games set in a huge arcade, then Dave and Buster's 55,000 square-foot entertainment complex is the place to go. It features six party rooms, as well as an executive board room. Meanwhile, we were surprised with the quality of the delicious lunch we ate there in the larger of two dining areas -- our meal highlighted with edamame as our appetizer and ending with three of us sharing one of the gastronomical desserts - all a perfect respite from all the other activities provided.
Popeye Vasquez is the public relations manager at Dave and Buster's, and his name seems to fit the fun aspect of this particular venue.
Serious shoppers, meanwhile, need look no further than the more 100 shops and venues ready to serve them. This same kind of mall/resort atmosphere is evident at Irvine's Fashion Island - a part shopping, part coastal resort. Fashion Island draws more than 13 million visitors a year to its inviting courtyards, its many open-air shops and its stunning ocean views.
Our final day of adventure was purposely planned to help us wind and prepare us for re-entry into our busy lives. We chose spring break and Easter vacation for our trip, so we attended church services on our final day, then drove to the coast once again to take a three-car ferry ride from Newport Beach to Balboa Island, famous for its Balboa ice cream bars and a the quaint little community that begs more exploration than our time allowed. Newport Beach, too, is a lovely seaside community to enjoy.
For an additional and memorable treat, we enjoyed an exceptionally tasty buffet/holiday brunch at Irvine's upscale 6ix Park Grill located at the Hyatt. The restaurant features great ambience and the fun of patrons serving themselves in the working kitchen - something quite different. The choices of California Coastal cuisine, including local seafood, prime cuts of beef and ham, and a plethora of salads, soups, and more made for a highlight of our final day.
Because of its wonderfully convenient location, Irvine, as noted, is a fabulous jumping off point for the above sights and sounds and more. All-in-all we would encourage you to consider this upbeat city as your own hub of Southern California adventure seeking. All's that's written about this larger than life part of the world is real, and Irvine provides all you'll need for a delightful vacation spot.
We must be sure to add that we spent several nights of our stay at the inviting Embassy Suites Hotel located just a mile from the John Wayne Airport. How convenient is that?
Shuttles, of course, are provided, the beds are luxurious, the pool and whirlpool inviting, and a full, cooked-to-order breakfast each morning can't be beat. Offerings include tasty omelets, French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and more. Mmm! There's also a manager's reception each evening featuring veggie trays, nachos, and drinks.
One of the guests we spoke with said that he visits Southern California often and has stayed at some less-than-great hotels - many of which are not kept up to date. Not so with this premier Irvine property, located smack in the central business district with its many corporate offices. The hotel, meanwhile, recently underwent a 3.5 million dollar renovation completed in 2012.
"None of Irvine's Embassy Suites has ever disappointed me," he said, "so that's why I decided on this one on Main Street to bring my family this time." An impressive endorsement with which we can definitely concur.
Our experience was extra special because we had the need to check in early, and our room was not quite ready, so the management insisted we stay in the Presidential Suite. You can bet that was an adventure in itself. The 180-degree view from the three huge windows was a delight in itself, and with two bedrooms, two baths, three flat-screen TVs, and more, we felt pampered indeed.
We also checked out several of the regular rooms while we were there, and they, too, certainly leave nothing to be desired. We would stay in one of them anytime. It's a lovely property.
One thing we missed during our visit -- canceled due to a slight change in wind and weather -- was a ride on Orange County Great Park's tethered, helium-filled orange (what else?) balloon that soars up to 400 feet above the surrounding landscape. It holds 25-30 passengers and serves as a public observation deck for the $70 million development plan to expand the park's current 60 acres to more than 200 currently underway.
The metropolitan park itself is located in the heart of the Irvine area, and it also features a visitor's center, tournament-quality soccer fields, the Palm Courts Arts Complex, a kiddie cave at Kids Rock playground, a carousel and more. You can be sure this park is on our bucket list for our next trip to Irvine.
IMPORTANT: It goes without saying that it's best to plan, if possible, the least busy time you can arrange if you plan to visit Disneyland, and don't forget a GPS for ease in getting around "Divine Irvine" and environs.