Monday, April 28, 2008

Orange County - Don't Knock It Till You Tried It

Our original plan did not include spending lots of time in Orange County. I confess, I had a bad attitude about the O.C. which was conditioned by the television show of the same name, an aversion to Disney and the county’s reputation for ultra-conservative politics. I was not convinced there was a good time to be had in a cultural wasteland best known for rich kids behaving badly, Mickey Mouse mind control and Bush-loving fundamentalists so when our soon-to-be-in-demand screenwriter got a job in Miami and our non-refundable tickets to LA remained non-refundable, we emailed the travel Yente of Southern Cal (known to frequent readers of this blog as Sandy of Soul City fame) laying our problem of the missing son/brother squarely in his lap.

Here is his response.

“I'll be on hand to meet your BA flight on the 20th. I'll spirit you away from the angry angst and vivid colors of Los Angeles, to the beatific mauves and washed-out blues of Orange County, located exactly 45 miles--straight-shot-- south of LAX. For the next 24-36 hours, we'll focus on entirely trivial pursuits, which would be the most suitable way to begin your California adventure.”

With such a splendid invitation on offer, we accepted immediately. And this is what we found.

Regardless of your take on the California culture wars, you can have big fun in Orange County. With sun, sea breezes and mild temperatures, the climate is near perfect. The beaches range from huge and sandy to intimate and craggy and to the OC’s considerable credit, a lot of effort has gone into making the 42 miles of coastline accessible to the public. There are extensive hiking, biking and riding trails many stretching from the mountains to the sea, some of the largest ultra-luxe shopping malls in the country and there is even an alternative amusement park, Knotts Berry Farm, that is smaller and cheaper than Disney. If southern Cal is all about flip flops, a beach towel and a set of wheels, then Orange County is a smart place to go to get this experience.

Retail Religion

Following the travel Yente’s advice that we stick to trivial pursuits, the first thing we did on our first day in southern California was to go shopping. Not just any shopping, mind you, we went to South Coast Plaza, the mega mall of Orange County which claims to be the only true competition to Rodeo Drive and the most visited mall in America. The place has gobsmacking metrics with 3 million square feet of enclosed space spread over a 128 acre site with 300 shops including Hermes, Pucci, and Bulgari plus nine anchor department stores. After Disneyland, it is Orange County’s most visited attraction.

The website, in addition to telling you which celebrities shop at South Coast, reports that some tour groups from Japan plan their entire vacations around the place. We’re not suggesting you go that far, but if you are looking for a California shopping experience straight out of “Pretty Woman”, South Coast Plaza has got it.

A Picturesque Village with an Artistic Past

After worshipping at the alter of ueber-consumption, we headed next for the seaside community of Laguna Beach. With a Mediterranean look and feel, an artistic vibe and an authentic bohemian past, this is a town where Europeans, liberals and East Coast refugees would feel right at home. Any place that could attract former residents such as John Steinbeck (he wrote Tortilla Flats in Laguna), Timothy Leary (Turn on, tune in, drop out), and Tennessee Williams, can’t be all bad.

With the average Laguna house now costing over one million dollars, there are few artists left but there are a number of art galleries and festivals, lots of quirky and interesting shops, restaurants and bars and seven miles of coast with 30 public beaches and coves. In a part of the world filled with planned communities and McMansions, this town feels much more authentic and interesting. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this gorgeous small village attracts three million visitors a year with the usual traffic and parking problems. We were there in late March and things were already getting a bit frantic and clogged up. If you are staying at a hotel near the village, it looked like a good idea to leave your car there and ride the local bus.

For our visit, we solved the parking problem by eating lunch at outdoor restaurant, The Cliff, which hangs spectacularly over the Pacific Ocean and has a convenient valet parking service. The food, mostly salads, sandwiches was nothing special but the combination of breathtaking views, good service and parking made this place a winner in our book. Lunch for three set us back $60.

An Inspiring Conservation Story

Just north of Laguna Beach off the PCH you will find the Crystal Cove Historic District, part of the 2,791 acre Crystal Cove State Park, and of all the things we saw in Southern California, this was the most inspiring. This enclave of rustic coastal cottages, built in the 20s and 30s has been saved by a fabulous piece of conservation work by residents and environmentalists after the State declared its intention to demolish the cottages and built an upscale resort on the land which sits directly on a beautiful stretch of pristine beach.

The efforts of local activists resulted in the creation of a 12.3 acre Historic District containing the 46 vintage coastal cottages, including the house used in the Bette Midler film, Beaches, pictured above. Twenty-two of the forty-six cottages have been lovingly restored with period d├ęcor and 13 of these cottages are available for rent starting at $30 a night for a room in a shared cottage to $175 a night for the most expensive cottage which sleeps 4. At four o’clock every afternoon the martini flag is raised and any one lucky enough to have secured one of the cottages will experience the charm of California beach life as it was lived in a more laid back era.

Securing a rental requires skill, organisation and luck. According to the Lonely Planet guide to Coastal California, here’s how to go about it:

1) Start planning more than 6 months ahead of your intended visit
2) Check out the cottages on
3) Set up an on-line account with the reservation agent, Reserve America at (800-444-7275)
4) Reserve exactly 6 months before your intended stay (for example, for a booking anytime in July go online and/or call at 8:00 AM sharp on March 1)
5) If unsuccessful, keep checking back for cancellations.

A Great Little Beach

As we were short on time and given my dislike of crowds, Sandy suggested that we visit Little Corona del Mar for our afternoon at the beach. Unlike “Big” Corona, with all the classic California beach amenities such as volleyball, lifeguards, food and outdoor showers, that always attracts the crowds, Little Corona is small, secluded and relatively uncrowded. The swimming is good and exploring the tide pools is a diverting activity for children. There is plenty of free on the street parking near the entrance to the beach and it is interesting to walk around this attractive seaside neighbourhood. The entrance to Little Corona can be found at the corner of Poppy Avenue and Ocean Boulevard.

A Norman Rockwell Town with a “Happy Days” Diner

Driving around Old Town Orange, you get the feeling that you’ve been there before. In a way, you have. Given the city’s proximity to LA’s film industry, more than 116 film and television programs including Tom Hank’s “That Thing You Do”, “Small Soldiers”, “American Wedding” and “Big Momma’s House” have all had scenes shot in Orange, according to the Internet Movie Data Base.

Driving around this historic neighbourhood with its old fashioned store fronts, homes and cars is an unexpected Southern California experience, but the real reason to visit Orange is to make a trip to the drugstore and diner called Watson’s which has been in business since 1899 and serves up authentic diner food and 1950s atmosphere in equal measure. With a full service soda fountain equipped with a real soda “jerk” (the guy who makes the sodas) Watson’s is understandably famous for their malts and milkshakes. The natives like to dip their French fries into their shakes, Service is fast and friendly and prices are reasonable.

Don’t Knock It Till You’ve Tried It

As our Orange County time drew to a close, it became clear that the soon-to-be-in-demand screenwriter had actually done us a favour. Without his absence, we might have dismissed the OC out of hand (lacking in soul, too many McMansions) and headed quickly north. Instead, we had the chance to enjoy some wonderful public resources, such as the beaches with excellent amenities as well as the hiking and biking trails. Eloise got to spend the day at Knotts Berry Farm, an American amusement park that once upon a time was a real berry farm and chicken restaurant. “You would not have liked it, Mom. It was pretty crowded. I had a fantastic time.”

By hanging out at South Coast Plaza shopping mall, we got a taste of the television version of the OC and by attending one of the mega-churches on Easter morning, we received a master class in the evangelism that informs so much of modern American life and politics. Power point prayer, valet parking and a cast of thousands deliver a religious experience that is pure California.

Sandy was right. Beginning our California adventure in Orange County was an inspired idea. We had a fabulous time and as Sandy’s daughter said after dunking her French fries into her milk shake – Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

South Coast Plaza
3333 Bristol Street
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 800 728 8888
Mon – Fri 10am to 9pm
Sat – 10am to 8pm
Sund 11am to 6:30pm

The Cliff Restaurant
577 South Coast Highway
Laguna Beach CA 92651
Tel: 949 494 1956

Crystal Cove State Park
8471 North Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949 492 0802

Little Corona Del Mar Beach
Corner of Poppy Avenue and Ocean Boulevard
Tel: 949 644 3151
Open 6am to 10pm

Watson’s Drugstore and Diner
116 E. Chapman
Orange, CA 92866
Tel: 714 633 1050

Monday, April 21, 2008

Eloise in the Land of the Lotus

It is a truth universally acknowledged that girls grow up and stop enjoying road trips with their mothers. Thank God for California which has saved us, if only temporarily, from this sad but inevitable day. Everything - the sun, the beaches, the friendly people and unfriendly cars - all conspired to make this “at risk” couple the happiest of travel companions.

Like most visitors to California, we focussed on the coast, starting south of Los Angeles and slowly making our way along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to San Francisco. To reduce the length of this post, over the next few days, we will divide the California story into three sections: Orange County, the PCH and the San Francisco Bay area. But first, a word about LAX.

Entering the United States through Los Angeles Airport (LAX) is a bad beginning. No, we were not cavity searched, finger printed or roughed up (with our US passports we were in the line for the chosen people) but we seemed to make it to the luggage carousel at about the same time as all the “aliens” on our flight, so they probably weren’t cavity searched either. Clearing Immigration took about 30 minutes, which I suppose, in today’s world, should be considered acceptable but the LA Times recently published an article about a substantial increase in foreign flights into LAX, so expect waiting times to get a lot worse.

What can’t get much worse is the whole business of retrieving your luggage, and oh the horror of the baggage hall at LAX. Eloise understood immediately that extraordinary measures were necessary, ducking, jiving and improvising like a native.
The British neophytes from BA Flight 283 took longer to get the hang of it. For a long time they just stared in disbelief at the third world chaos but finally, finding their inner Darwin, they launched into the fray, raising the threat level of being taken out by flying luggage to Orange. As one tired traveller remarked, “Can this really be the world’s only superpower?” I will say it now, as a gateway to the United States, LAX is a disgrace. Avoid it if you can. A much better idea is to enter via San Francisco which has a new, beautiful and efficient international terminal.

Despite the bad beginning of LAX, it did not take long to slip indolently into the pursuit of pleasure that is southern California. Before facing the famous rush hour freeways, we spent a pleasant hour in the LA beach town of Santa Monica, checking out the neighbourhood of a soon-to-be in demand and respected screenwriter (Eloise’s brother). We thought Santa Monica looked like a lot of fun. We especially liked the Santa Monica Pier with its old fashioned vibe and funny collection of amusements which include a beautiful vintage carousel. Since the screenwriter brother was out of town, we decided to save further explorations until his return and as the diabolical traffic had eased off, we began to make out way south to Orange County, now known as the OC, home of surfing, shopping and breast implants.