Back on the coast, if you want to get a sense of what wealthy Orange Countians do to enjoy themselves, spend some time along the clean white strands of Newport Beach. Located at the southern edge of Los Angeles’s suburban sprawl, Newport started life in 1906 as an amusement park and beach resort at the southern end of the LA streetcar lines. Since then thousands of Angelenos have spent summer weekends at the Balboa Pavilion, at the southern tip of the slender Balboa peninsula, where the Fun Zone preserves a few remnants of the pre-video game amusements—a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and those odd Pokerino games in which you win prizes by rolling rubber balls into a series of numbered holes. If you have some spare time, Newport is also a good base for taking the unforgettable cruise across the water to Catalina Island, a semi-tropical paradise 26 miles off the coast.
Midway along the peninsula, near 23rd Street, Newport Pier is flanked by another holdout from the old days: the dory fleet. For more than a century, small boats have set off from the beach here (often around midnight, landing back around 7am) to catch rock cod and more exotic fish, which are sold fresh off the boats at an outdoor market right on the sands.
A mile southeast of Balboa Pavilion, next to the breakwater at the eastern end of Balboa peninsula, The Wedge is one of the world’s most popular and challenging bodysurfing spots, with well-formed waves often twice as high as anywhere else on the coast.
To return to Hwy-1 from Balboa Peninsula, you can either backtrack around the harbor or ride the Balboa Island Ferry, which shuttles you and your car from the pavilion across the harbor past an amazing array of sailboats, power cruisers, and waterfront homes.
Crystal Cove State Park
Midway between Newport and Laguna Beaches, amid the ever-encroaching Orange County sprawl, Crystal Cove State Park (949/494-3539, daily dawn-dusk, $15 per car) protects one of Southern California’s finest chunks of coastline. With three miles of sandy beaches and chaparral-covered bluff lined by well-marked walking trails, it’s a fine place to enjoy the shoreline without the commercial trappings. Originally home to Native Americans, the land here was later part of Mission San Juan Capistrano and, until 1979 when the state bought it, the massive Irvine Ranch, which once covered most of Orange County.
The main parking area for Crystal Cove is at Reef Point near the south end of the park, where there are restrooms and showers plus excellent tide pools and a fine beach. You can stay overnight at Crystal Cove Beach Cottages (800/444-7275, $35 and up), a well-preserved collection of 1930s-1950s beach bungalows. There is also a large section of the park inland from Hwy-1, through the oak glade of Moro Canyon, which gives a vivid sense of Orange County’s rapidly vanishing natural landscape.
Compared with much of Orange County, Laguna Beach (pop. 22,723) is a relaxed and enjoyable place. Bookstores, cafés, and galleries reflect the town’s beginnings as an artists’ colony, but while the beach and downtown area are still attractive, the surrounding hills have been covered by some of the world’s ugliest tracts of “executive homes.”
During the annual summertime Pageant of the Masters (949/487-6582 or 800/487-3378, $20 and up), Laguna Beach residents recreate scenes from classical and modern art by forming living tableaux, standing still as statues in front of painted backdrops. Proceeds go to good causes. It’s a popular event, so get tickets well in advance.
Right across Hwy-1 from the downtown shopping district, which is full of pleasant cafés and a wide range of art galleries, Laguna’s main beach (called simply Main Beach) is still the town’s main draw, with a boardwalk, some volleyball courts, and a lifeguarded swimming beach with showers.
Many other fine but usually less crowded and quieter beaches are reachable from Cliff Drive, which winds north of downtown Laguna past cove after untouched cove; follow the signs reading “Beach Access.”
Laguna Beach has a number of nice places to eat. One place worth searching out is the small Taco Loco (640 S. Coast Hwy., 949/497-1635), at the south end of the downtown strip, where the ultra-fresh Mexican food includes your choice of three or four different seafood tacos, from shark to swordfish, in daily-changing specials for about $2-10 each.
Places to stay are expensive, averaging around $199, and include the beachfront Laguna Riviera (825 S. Coast Hwy., 949/494-1196). At the top end of the scale, the Montage (30801 S. Coast Hwy., 866/271-6953, $595 and up) has everything you could want from a hotel.
South of Laguna Beach, Hwy-1 follows the coast for a final few miles before joining up with the I-5 freeway for the 65-mile drive into San Diego.