California Dreamin' on the Orange County Coast

Picture your daydreams coming true on a 30-mile strip on a day's drive or an hour flight from Oakland.


Surf the Wedge

Tom Walker-CC

Consider pleasure.

No, really. Consider all its mellow elements combined within one 30-mile strip, a day’s drive or a one-hour flight from Oakland. Picture every surfy, smiley, sun-kissed California daydream coming true. Sea breezes, warm as love, sleeking down golden, far-as-the-eye-can-see, award-winning sands. Palm-crowned cliffs basking under sapphire skies. Wild nature meeting megawealth while you sip local IPAs, watch whales, and learn to stand-up paddleboard or plein-air paint. Voilà: You’re on the southern Orange County coast.

And there, from San Juan Capistrano’s rose-bedecked mission to Newport Beach’s panoramic Pelican Hill Golf Club to Dana Point’s safe, surfless, infant-friendly “Baby Beach,” you can retrace the golden footprints-in-the-sand of superstars, presidents, and at least one saint.

Start by riding the world’s gentlest ferry—operated continuously by the same family since 1922—across Newport Harbor to Balboa Island. Flaunting such vintage boardwalkiness as yolk-yellow Sugar ’n Spice, birthplace of the chocolate-dipped frozen banana, this much-upgraded mudflat separates the sea (namely a beach named one of the nation’s cleanest by Heal the Bay, including world-renowned surfing spot The Wedge) from a yacht-dotted haven where dazzling villas—including the former homes of John Wayne, Shirley Temple and Nicolas Cage—boast private docks and beachlets, one of which appeared in Gilligan’s Island.



Speaking of which: Want to add “skipper” to your résumé? Only a driver’s license—and no prior seafaring—is required to rent and operate a comfy, canopied, family-sized, invented-in-Newport-Beach electric Duffy Boat around this surrealistically placid harbor. Its psychedelically sparkly annual Christmastime boat parade is the nation’s longest-running and largest.

Five miles south on the Pacific Coast Highway—that loud, convenient blessing-and-curse—is Crystal Cove State Park, whose sage-perfumed, spring-fed, hikeable chaparral tumbles to 3-plus miles of pristine shore where funky 1920s and ’30s surfside cottages can be rented at rock-bottom rates at this once-private enclave. The Beachcomber Café, a converted cottage, serves lemon-ricotta pancakes as big as your face.

Like the other jewels of this county, Crystal Cove feels deliciously caught in some almost-remembered but possibly mythical midcentury moment when all was hopeful, beachball-bright, and start-the-car-we’re-going-to-the-sea carefree.

Head southward to Laguna Beach, whose scalloped shore, vertiginous bluffs, and craggy canyons have enthralled a century-plus of artists, aesthetes, bohemians, and multimillionaires. A gallery-studded, village-esque downtown—augmented by the Laguna Art Museum and such must-sees as the Sawdust Art Festival and Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters—virtually shouts “art colony.”

It owes that status to its setting: Six miles of Laguna Beach’s blue-on-ultrablue, gold-on-platinum coastline are an official Marine Protected Area. Year-round sunshine beckons you to bask or walk all day, sustained by date shakes and clover-sprout salads from vintage vegan snack-shack The Stand. Within sight of the waves, friendly midcentury surfboard-festooned Laguna Beach House Hotel serves its guests nightly milk and cookies.

Did someone mention pleasure?


Sugar ’N Spice, 310 Marine Ave., Newport Beach, 949-673-8907,

Crystal Cove State Park, 8471 N. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-494-3539,

Laguna Beach House Hotel: 475 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, 949-497-6645,

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