John’s note: The Local’s Take is a series where I interview some of my favorite travel bloggers and turn the tables, asking them to share their hometowns with us. After all, what better way is there to learn about a destination than from a travel writer who calls it home? So join along and learn how to make the most of a visit to Orange County, California with Ava of Be My Travel Muse.
Name: Ava Apollo
Hometown: Orange County
Website: Be My Travel Muse
Facebook: Ava, BMTM
About: Ava is a 20-something from Southern California who blogs about adventure travel, posts photoblogs of off-beat destinations, and plans journeys based on inspiration from the interwebs. Won’t you be her muse and share your best tips?
Tell us about Orange County.
Orange county (or the OC) is home to the most famous beaches in California – Newport, Laguna, and Huntington. Directly South of Long Beach (Los Angeles County), Orange County beaches are safer, nicer, and less polluted than their Los Angeles counterparts. Known equally well for the amazing surf, perfect weather, and silicone Barbie inhabitants, Orange County truly is a special place.
What makes Orange County unique?
I can’t drive this point home enough: the beaches are fantastic! Newport Beach is consistently rated as the top California beach by people who rate such things. Directly south, Corona Del Mar and Laguna beaches are spectacularly beautiful as well. I also really like the slightly more laid back, surfer vibe of Huntington Beach, known as Surf City USA.
What is Orange County best known for?
Either the surf or the movie, Orange County, that terrible show, the OC (which was actually filmed in Malibu), and that truly wonderful show, Arrested Development. Orange County was never a secret by any means, but the attention from Hollywood put it on the map as a ritzy, upscale vacation destination. There’s no denying that it’s an enclave for the super rich and plastic, but there are some cool areas fitting for young beach go-ers as well, mostly in Huntington and Laguna Beaches.
Where is the best place to grab a pint/cocktail/glass of wine?
There are many! In Newport Beach on the Balboa Peninsula (you can get there by taking the 55 South until it ends), there’s Mutt Lynch’s, which is a dive bar with big windows that open up to face the ocean. They serve schooners of beer and cider, or a “snake bite,” which is both. For something even divier, head to Beach Ball to play pool. For something divier still, Cassidy’s is for you. All of these bars are within walking distance of each other between 25th and 17th streets.
In Corona Del Mar, some classier establishments include the Quiet Woman and Landmark. Huntington Beach offers the Brewing Co., and Hurricane’s, which has a light up dance floor. If you want a club-like atmosphere, the nearest option is Sutra in Costa Mesa. Sometimes they have decent DJs, but if you really want to go clubbing, head to Vegas or Hollywood.
What’s a unique experience that can only be had in Orange County?
There are a few things: Watching the Wedge in Newport Beach – an area where the waves can reach up to 30 feet during the right conditions, is a personal favorite. Surfers and bodyboarders love OC because the waves break fast and the surf is world class. Also a fun activity, Huntington Beach hosts the US Open of Surfing every summer, bringing in top competitors like Kelly Slater, who won out in 2011. There is no question that this is a surfing hub.
If you have a little cash to burn, the sailing, diving, and fishing are great here too. The Channel Islands that border the California coast offer kelp forests, purple hydrocoral, sustainable California Sea Bass, scallops, and HUGE lobsters.
Lastly, though you can see dolphins all along Southern California’s coastline, I almost always see them here, along with harbor Seals, and endangered Brown Pelicans. Usually they can be viewed from the shore or one of the piers, but getting on a boat is even better. I am being truthful when I say that every time I get on a boat in Newport Beach (and SoCal in general) dolphins come and swim in the wake without fail. Every single time!
*a cheap dolphin-viewing option is offered out of Balboa Harbor across from the Balboa Pier. Discounts are regularly offered online (through Goldstar and Groupon) and in-person for $15 “whale watching” tours. You probably won’t see whales unless you pay up and take a cruise that spends much longer out in the ocean, but this cheap cruise has many dolphin sightings. Stand at the front or back of the boat for the best vantage point.
When is the best time to visit?
The shoulder seasons: May and September. The Orange County beaches are very popular. In the months of June through August, I sometimes wish I didn’t live here because if I leave my house to buy milk, it might take a half hour to get home and I may not be able to park when I get there.
About 100,000 people come to Newport Beach just for Independence Day alone. May and September are usually still hot months with slightly fewer tourists. Weekdays are always much better than weekends when it comes to traffic and parking as well.
Also, when the beach is super crowded, it’s black balled (a flag with a black circle will be hanging from the lifeguard towers), meaning you can’t surf! In the off season, however, the lifeguards board up their huts and surfing is open to all.
I love it in the off season, because we still sometimes get beautiful, hot beach days (we had a lot of them this winter). The only drawback is the cold water, which cycles down from Alaska. For most if not all of the year, the water is too cold to enter sans wetsuit. This is true all along the California Coast. Many are surprised that our water is so frigid.
What’s the best way to get around?
You really must have a car and a reliable map or GPS, and there’s no avoiding it. Public transportation in Southern California is pretty much nonexistent, and you really can’t walk from place to place – don’t believe anything to the contrary. I’ve lived here my whole life and have never taken a bus, and I’m a big fan of public transportation!
It’s really unfortunate, but renting a car and sitting in traffic will be unavoidable. Taking a taxi from Los Angeles to Newport Beach, for example, is prohibitively expensive.
Once at the beach, though, many visitors rent bikes and cruise along the bike paths from beach to beach. It’s a lovely way to spend a day.
Are there any good day trips from Orange County?
A lot of people would say Disneyland in Anaheim, which is 15 minutes north on the 55 freeway from Newport Beach. Get a park-hopper ticket in order to maximize the money spent. Those looking to spend time at the Orange County beaches without having to pay Ritz Carlton prices often choose hotels in this area.
From OC, you can also head north on the 405 or 5 freeways to Los Angeles in about 45 miles (I won’t quote minutes, it could be 45 to 200 depending on traffic). My favorite things to do in L.A. are seeing Laker games, finding amazing and unassuming eateries, and visiting the Getty Museum (it’s free!). Honestly, the Hollywood walk of fame is one giant tourist trap that I’d avoid.
Head south on the 5 freeway to reach beautiful San Diego, or even Mexico, in about 2 hours driving time.
*A word to the wise, as of this writing in April 2012, Mexican border towns are still experiencing some cartel issues and violence. It would be much better to fly in, and avoid Tijuana.
The San Bernardino mountains also offer great skiing and snowboarding, as well as the famously beautiful Lake Arrowhead.
In about 4 hours, you can drive to Las Vegas if you head east on the 15 freeway. In short, there is a lot to do around here – but you really must have a car.
What is the best aspect of living in Orange County?
Hands down, the beach and the weather. There are no mosquitos and the weather isn’t humid – my typical complaint of other beach towns. I never turn on the heat in my apartment and I don’t have (nor need) air conditioning. Also, it’s absolutely beautiful, and much cleaner than other beaches nearby. The central location between Los Angeles and San Diego is the cherry on top.
What is the worst aspect of living in Orange County?
In the summer time, the congestion and litter due to the influx of visitors who aren’t always respectful of keeping the beauty. Also, Orange County is essentially made up of very poor migrant communities and uber wealthy beachside communities. It’s odd to see such juxtaposition, and the obvious divide between rich and poor. There is no intermingling of the two – a common complaint about Greater Los Angeles. Since I’m not really part of either pocket, I feel a little out of place sometimes.
But, when the warm sun is shining on my face, I look up to see dolphins playing in the crystalline dark blue waves, and I’m surrounded by people I love, I know there’s no better place to be in this world.
Thanks again to Ava for her participation in the The Local’s Take. If you’re a travel writer and are interested in participating in a future edition of The Local’s Take, get in touch!
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