By Christine Tibbetts/The Tifton Gazette CNHI

TIFTON - My posture's better when I'm in Southern California.  Probably the mystique of keeping up with tall tanned beautiful women.

Mother made little-girl me walk around with a book on my head and press my shoulder blades into a wall to stand up straight.

Orange County---or OC as folks in the know call this set of Southern California communities---is a better way to be tall.

Always wondered about this region - is it a concept or reality -- and finally delved in.  Four nights and sunny September days confirmed the mystique: an abundance of beautiful people and food, gentle breezes, art and animals, theater, dance and singing, and cosmetic surgery clinics on most every corner.

Botox I skipped in favor of wading in tidepools with huge red starfish and hunting the Irvine Museum to surround myself with the paintings of California Impressionists. Until then, I'd only known the Monet/Manet style of such landscape artists.

Also skipped paddleboard lessons to climb in a big orange helium balloon for a tethered ride high above OC (and that's pronounced OH CEE).

Many pleasure choices in this county 30 minutes south of Los Angeles, depending on traffic.  Irvine is the big city with its own international airport; I found a cheaper-from-Atlanta flight going to LA, even paying for a shuttle to Orange County.

Mystique starts immediately because Irvine itself is a vision: streets, parks, neighborhoods, shopping extravaganzas, all created as a concept and incorporated in 1971. They call themselves America's largest master-planned city.

I don't know if 45 square miles or 217,000 people make that so, but everything certainly felt crisp and clean, well labeled and easy to find. Nothing haphazard or spontaneous.

Last year the FBI declared the lowest violent crime of any place with more than 100,000 residents to be Irvine. In 2008 said it's the fourth best place to live in America.

Well, I came home again. Here's my notion of how to access some Southern Cal mystique when you go.  

Think and talk in abbreviations, like Cal for California and OC for Orange County.

Comment on the lovely weather throughout the day.  People here spread happy thoughts by mentioning often how they like their air and skies. "Doesn't get any better than this," I heard over and over again.

Visit in July or August for Pageant of the Masters, Festival of Arts and Sawdust Festival, distinctive art events.

Wait until September and October to avoid the crowds.

Either way, start with the beaches. They are so lovely with much more than sand and waves.  Forty-two miles of coastline in OC, more than 20 coves, and an abundance of flowers, shorebirds, rocky outcroppings, sea lions and whales.

Forget about seeing harbor seals, however, because they gather in a gated community at Emerald Bay, north end of Laguna Beach.  Really. This is Southern California.

Cheri Ikerd told me that, and she should know because she runs a comprehensive wildlife and beach tour.  Half a day with her put me in the picture of art-filled Laguna Beach, big broad ocean views across Willow Canyon, the gray whale gathering place called Crystal Cove and safe spot Crescent Bay where injured mammals are released after rescue and recuperation at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

OC Wildlife & Beach Tour took me along the coast to beaches with names like Newport, Balboa, Huntington and Laguna.  Something stirring about driving on Highway #1.

A catamaran and separate excursion are needed to visit San Juan Capistrano but I didn't manage that.

The beauty of these Southern California beaches started drawing artists here in the 1890s, maybe earlier, and their impressionist landscapes fill the Irvine Museum.

"This is a type of American painting heavily influenced by landscapes showing what we looked like before great periods of development after the world wars," says Museum Director Jean Stern, "and we still have landscapes looking just like these paintings."

Expect more paintings because I saw Plein Air artists on grassy meadows and gardens overlooking the beaches, painting as they observed instead of working from photographs in studios.

After the beaches, get the big picture riding high in a tethered helium balloon. Orange of course.  Gently rises three feet per second to a high of 400 feet, well connected to a massive cable with secure standing space, screens to keep you inside and railings to grip. Not dare devil.  Not scary.

The view toward the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ana Mountains enhances the grand concept of land use this orange balloon rises over.

Great Park is what it's called.  Straight forward enough name for a big notion?  Twice the size of New York's Central Park with 1,347 acres and well underway to being equally interesting to local residents and out of towners.

The tethered balloon ride is free, and so is the old-fashioned carousel.  Concerts too, with a fee for parking.  Another freebie --- dance lessons for an hour before dance events.

In the works are a 100-acre farm bordered by a 2,500-tree orange orchard.  Many trees are growing now in enormous planting boxes near the balloon and carousel.

The Great Park farm will be organic, providing produce to food banks and teaching farm to fork seminars. Small plots will be available for community gardens.

I like visiting places that make communities better; this seems like one in development to do just that.

Used to be Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and one of the runways is painted with a 1940s timeline, honoring the veterans who served here and reminding the rest of us what happened.

So, my notion kept emerging how this part of Southern California came to be. Irvine was carefully planned from its first street corner and an organic farm is rising from a former Marine base.

Bean fields became ballet studios, Broadway stages and symphony hall with the Performing Arts Center. 

James Irvine ranched and farmed nearly 100,000 acres in the late 1800s and many tell stories of what part of the Irvine Ranch their property used to be.

Beans were a big part of that farming past. I didn't see any growing but enjoyed the continuity of a you-pick strawberry farm on the corner of Sunflower and Main streets, just down the road from the Performing Arts Center. 

Call early for tickets when you plan a trip to OC because shows sell out fast.  I'd recommend a stop in the Concert Hall lobby just to see the glass front---an acre of glass constructed to survive a 7.5 magnitude earthquake.

The entire performance campus is worth a stroll with glass, lights, plazas, sculpture and creativity inside and out.

    Eating between discoveries seems a master plan too in OC with restaurants in chic shopping areas. So not your average mall. They call themselves lifestyle centers.

I did eat a big juicy orange in my hotel at 4:00 a.m. as I fought coast-to-coast jet lag, but a big range of food styles filled the rest of my days.

    The District at Tustin Legacy - one of those lifestyle centers -- expanded my taste buds in five restaurants and my knowledge of grocery stores.  The OC version of Whole Foods Market has a chef plus a healthy eating specialist. Give either one a call, or chat about your menus and dietary needs when you're in the store.

    Chef Tammy Lopes teaches cooking classes and helped launch a national healthy eating program Oct. 15.

    Difficult to take groceries on the plane home but in this store you can sit down and eat a meal.  Sit in the wine section too for tastings.

    Native Foods Cafe is a new favorite of mine, although I haven't a clue when I'll return. Another female chef, this one Tanya Petrovna with Eastern European parents and a childhood of fresh food and home cooking.

    Might be just the place for everyone to appreciate tempeh, peanut sauce, grilled tofu and jasmine rice as much as I do.

    The Auld Dubliner filled my dinner plate differently. Chips finished with duck fat were my first clue.

"I missed an Irish pub," co-owner David Copley from Limerick says, "so I started The Auld Dubliner." Feels like home he told me, like a small village pub in rural Ireland.

Artisans from Dublin shaped his request for simple wooden tables and benches, planked floors and wooden shelves. 

Copley oversees traditional Irish fayre, as he likes to spell it, and contemporary American cuisine, and insists it's all about socializing.

"The drinking is secondary in an Irish pub," he said.  Guess that's why I stopped after my first tall Guinness.

I'm not much of a shopper and no expert on shopping conglomerates but The District lured me back, strolling the promenade, stopping on a chilly September evening in front of several of the many big stone fireplaces, wishing the glow-in-the-dark bowling alley wasn't closed for a private party.

Ate fine calamari and also ponzu scallops with a little wasabi one night at Bluewater Grill.  This is Southern California beach eating since the owner-operators Richard Staunton and Jim Ulcickas also have restaurants at Newport and Redondo beaches.

Good band and plenty of dancing the Friday night I was there.


Plenty of plenty seems consistent in Southern California's OC.