We guide you through the best of the beach in OC.
Summertime is coming to SoCal, so it’s time to hit the sand and surf to choose the best of the good life on the California shore. And this year we’ve gone totally coastal by only looking on the ocean side of PCH to find our favorites, from bars and restaurants, to art and culture.
Parts of it were once known as the Roosevelt Highway. California Streets and Highway Code Section 635(c) provides that State Highway Route 1 from south of San Juan Capistrano to near El Rio shall be known and designated as the "Pacific Coast Highway." Other laws honor our veterans by designating certain stretches of it as U.S. Submarine Veterans of WWII Memorial Highway and Orange County Korean War Veterans Memorial Highway.
But whether we call it Coast Highway, Pacific Coast Highway or PCH, there’s no doubt that the stretch of Route 1 that hugs our beaches, bluffs and bays is OC’s main street. Just don’t call it The PCH if you ever want to be considered a local.
There are good arguments for almost any stretch of PCH to be included on a list of OC’s most scenic drives. But for our gas money, the mile or so between Emerald Bay and Crystal Cove is the coolest. Driving north, the dip down toward El Moro offers stunning views out to sea and up the coast, with stunning Catalina sunsets off in the distance on clear days. The cove is one of the top spots to see dolphins playing in the waves, and surfers too. Especially on the magical days when the wave at ElMo gets big enough to form a barrel, drawing wave-riders from around the world.
Best Underground Excursion
PCH is many things, but pedestrian friendly it isn’t – at least in most places. Laguna Beach probably does the best job in helping people cross the street, with the help of crosswalks that include flashing lights and reflectors (and who remembers the flags stuck in buckets of sand we used to take up and wave defiantly at cars that careened too close as we crossed?). But there are alternative ways to get across the highway that are more fun, like staying above the fray via one of the pedestrian bridges over the highway. There’s one at the entrance to Dana Point (who remembers the slogan on it?) and the other is just north of Aliso Creek in Laguna, which was originally built in 1926 and expanded when the highway went through in 1932. But we prefer the tunnels that burrow under PCH, many of which were first dug in the 1930s, including Aliso Creek, Victoria Drive and Crystal Cove. Some are pedestrian only, while others (like the one lane road connecting inland Emerald Bay to the beach) carry cars, too. Our favorite? The sandy-bottomed tunnel that opens onto the beach at El Moro that reminds us of halcyon times spent at the old trailer park there, now replaced. We’re happy that this oldest of tunnels (1926!) under the highway is still there, virtually unchanged with the addition of the new campground, now open to all.
Catch and Keep for a Cause
One of the coolest outdoor events this summer comes courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Guests staying at the resort can embark from Dana Point for a day of sport fishing, and all of the fish caught will be cleaned and donated to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County. The excursion costs $75 per adult and $50 for kids 3 to 12, and includes bait, rod rental with tackle pack, and a one-day California State Fishing License. Fishing for Second Harvest is part of the resort’s Give Back Getaway program that offers Ritz-Carlton guests the opportunity to volunteer in the community.
How can we possibly name a favorite beach, when there are so many amazing stretches of sand, surf breaks and hidden coves along the OC coast? Some love a broad, sandy beach with lots of amenities and plenty of room for toys and tents and such. Others favor rocky, tide-pool packed coves. There are hundreds of beaches to choose from, some officially designated and well maintained, others hidden and hard to find, with colorful names courtesy of surfers and others. Starting on the north border with Long Beach at Ray Bay and the Seal Beach Pier, this ultimate OC collection stretches 42 miles south through Surfside and Sunset Beach, past Bolsa Chica, and through Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Pirate’s Cove, Crystal Cove, El Moro, Crescent Bay, Aliso Beach, Thousand Steps, Salt Creek, Strands, Doheny, Killer Capo, San Clemente Pier, T Street and down to Cotton's and Trestles. If forced to choose one, or die, we'd go with Woods Cove. Still, everyone is entitled to their opinion.
Top Spots for Families
If you’ve got lots of stuff, parking is key. That’s why Big Corona is such a popular spot for locals, as well as those who drive in from elsewhere. And if you have kids, navigating stairs and difficult terrain is out, so the long, flat beaches of Huntington and Newport are in. But for us, the mass of humanity in the crowded beaches can be a bit too much when we have children in tow.
The stretch of Balboa Peninsula between 13th and 15th Streets is far enough away from the action at the piers, bars and major surf breaks that it’s not as crowded as many stretches of OC sand, while still boasting useful amenities like basketball courts and a big grass-covered play area.
Divers Cove in North Laguna and Little Corona in CdM are both among the prettiest beaches in California. And despite the rocky points nearby, the coves are usually very swimmable and family friendly when the swells are small. And both coves have ramp access nearby, allowing folks to avoid descending stairs, which is helpful when you have a wagonload of stuff and kids in strollers.
The Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort features easy paid parking, calm water with sandy beaches and plenty of activities for all, including large slides, trampolines and climbing walls, all floating in the bay.
Most Dramatic Break
When an irresistible force of a huge south swell meets the immovable object of the West Jetty at the tip of the Balboa Peninsula, the result is a spectacular 20-foot wave known as The Wedge that only the most experienced bodysurfers and boarders (surf and body boards are banned from May to October, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.) risk riding.
BBC Back in the Day
Though new owners are revamping and improving the Balboa Bay Resort, the strip of beach is still for members of the club only, a few of whom were around back when writer Joseph Wambaugh described the OC housewives of an earlier era in his book The Golden Orange: “The club's hot mommas were white-hot on that Saturday afternoon. There was a tanker load of Bain de Soleil sliding over a thousand square yards of winter-white, health-club-firm, middle-aged female flesh on the tiny beach… It was astonishing what the Nautilus, the knife, and single-minded dedication had accomplished in The Golden Orange.”
Best South County Cruise
PCH officially ends at the 5 Freeway, though most still call the stretch that runs along Capistrano Beach by some variation of Coast Highway. Some maps even show it so-designated when it cuts inland in San Clemente to become El Camino Real. But our history teacher taught us that Old Highway 101 was El Camino Real (replaced by the 5 Freeway), while Highway 1 was PCH. It doesn’t really matter, because the best way to see the coast from a vehicle in this vicinity is via the railroad that runs along the sand. This is one train trip that’s truly world class.
The train is stunning, but nothing tops the free Laguna Beach trolley as a way to get to the town’s top beaches, and beyond. In summer, the open-air ride runs from Crescent Bay to Salt Creek, with multiple stops in between, as well as a route in the Canyon to the art festivals and parking. The trolley’s only real competition for best beach transportation is the Newport Harbor Ferry, though the best way to get around Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and most beach towns but Laguna is by bike. Whether cruising the bike path with family, or hitting the bars for Sunday Fun Day, it’s a great way to keep things in balance.
Finest Al Fresco
It’s one of our travel truisms that terrific cuisine in an aesthetically pleasing outdoor setting is a hard combination to find. Throw in a view of the water, and it’s pert near impossible. Studio at Montage Resort has outdoor seating, and it is sublime. And we love to drink and dine in front of open windows at Splashes lounge at the Surf and Sand Resort, especially during a high tide when the scent of salt in the air is invigorating. Who does't like drinks at The Rooftop in Laguna Beach, as well as the breakfast on the patio of the less buzzed Laguna restaurant called The Cliff. But if we had to choose one outdoor restaurant to show a visitor what the OC coast is really all about, it wouldn’t be a five star spot. In fact, it would be a shack. Ruby's Shake Shack, to be precise. Parking in the high season can be impossible, and the Ruby’s menu is far from cutting edge. But if you need a cocktail, the bar at Beachcomber Café, which sits on the sand in Crystal Cove, is just a set of stairs away. And there’s something about the shack’s simple pleasures juxtaposed with the world-class view that makes us fall in love with summer in OC, all over again.
Creative craft and vintage cocktails on the ocean side of PCH aren’t as easy to find as in our inland hipster villages (Santa Ana, Orange, etc.). We love the bars at Broadway in Laguna and The Corner in HB, but they're out of bounds for the purposes of this piece. Even without that bit of arbitrariness, the master mixologists at 320 Main in Seal Beach reign supreme. Though during the summer we also crave a jalapeño Margarita at SOL Cocina or Pimm's Cup at SideDoor in CdM.
New Foodie Finds
We’d also like to make an exception to our strict PCH rule for one of our favorite new restaurants, Brick. It is on the ocean side of El Camino Real in San Clemente, after all. And owner David Pratt was at Studio at Montage Resort prior, which is as close to the ocean as any OC restaurant this side of Beachcomber Café, which sits on the sand in Crystal Cove. Plus, it’s just that good. Other spots we’re looking forward to that are opening soon include the new location for The Winery, which will be taking over for the old Villa Nova in Newport Beach, and David Wilhelm’s return to town (and hopefully form) with his Jimmy’s American Tavern, set to debut near the harbor entrance in late July. And speaking of harbors, we can’t wait to try Bluewater Avalon Seafood Restaurant, which just opened on Catalina, courtesy of the OC-based Bluewater Grill.
Aloha to the Hawaiian
Laguna Beach lost a landmark when the Royal Hawaiian, a classic old Tiki bar and restaurant that sat on PCH since 1947 or so, closed almost a year ago. Though a good deal of the charm had been remodeled out of the place in an effort to bring the restaurant up to code, this once was one of the best bars in Orange County, and we miss it and its signature Lapu Lapu cocktail still.
Doheny Surf Festival is one of our favorite beach gatherings of the year. This year it’s at Doheny State Beach on June 29 and 30, while the surf contest/party is the newly dubbed Vans US Open of Surfing July 20 to July 28 in Huntington Beach. But the event we’re really looking forward to is at the end of the summer, August 29 at Bluff Park at Salt Creek Beach. That will be the last concert of the 2013 OC Parks Summer Concert Series (all the others are well inland), and will feature indie rocker Matt Costa, who's from Huntington Beach. We love when that Costa kid croons. His voice reminds us of summer.
Under the Sea
Laguna Art Museum's new Art and Nature initiative has its eye on the ocean this summer with an installation by artist Tanya Aguiñiga called "Sea Change" which runs through May 18, 2014. Using textiles and other man-made materials, the artist has created sculptural works of kelp, coral and other forms of life that transform the museum's top floor gallery into a colorful ocean environment. The exhibit draws on Aguiñiga's interest in the intersection between furniture design and making, craft and fine art (she has a BA and MFA in Furniture Design from SDSU and RISD, respectively), as well as her own personal history growing up in the border area of Tijuana and San Diego. The "bluebelt" experience can be seen, and visitors will also be able to explore the exhibition through touching, allowing for a truly immersive coastal encounter.
Take a beachcombing excursion along the coast, but look inland, and you’ll see art everywhere, especially on the walls. Much is beautiful, some banal. We’re fans of the colorful mural on the crumbling wall below The Cliff Restaurant, just south of Main Beach in Laguna. We love it when owners of sea walls allow artists to adorn the protective structures, or even tolerate less official renderings that add color to the community. Heisler Park is filled with official public art, with some of the best by Jorg Dubin. It’s also nice when resorts add to the ambiance by commissioning mosaics, like the one of sea life below the spa pool at Montage, and the poolside art at the Surf and Sand Hotel by Marlo Bartels that shows the beach between the hotel and the archway to Woods Cove.
Though our hearts belong to more contemporary fare, we are drawn to the great work of the California Impressionists for their beauty, but also their historic documentation of a time on the coast that’s lost forever. We can gaze for hours at paintings in the collection of the Laguna Art Museum or the Irvine Museum, or in books like Joan Irvine Smith’s A California Woman’s Story, trying to decipher what location the more obscurely named works depict. Or when it’s obvious, as in Guy Rose’s Moonlight – Arch Beach, Laguna, we look to see how much some vistas have changed, while others are still familiar. Rose’s work painted in Laguna circa 1916-1919 sold at Bonhams California & Western Art Auction recently for $290,500. Bonhams next auction of California & Western Paintings will take place in August in Los Angeles.
Best Beach Eats
OC’s beach towns provide some of the county’s most compelling cuisine, though we do lose quite a few local favorites with our self-imposed PCH point of demarcation. But if we stick to the ocean side of things, here are 15 or so of our favorites:
Bayside :: Newport Beach
Bear Flag Fish Company :: Cannery Village
The Cannery :: Cannery Village
Crab Cooker :: Balboa Peninsula
Crema Café :: Seal Beach
Crow Bar and Kitchen :: CdM
The Dock :: Cannery Village
EnoSteak and Raya :: The Ritz-Carlton
Harbor House Café :: Dana Point
Ruby’s Diner :: Balboa Pier
Sidedoor :: CdM
Sol Cocina :: Newport
Splashes at Surf and Sand :: Laguna Beach
Studio at Montage Resort :: Laguna Beach
Wahoo’s Fish Taco :: Laguna Beach
21 Oceanfront :: Newport Beach
320 Main :: Seal Beach
There’s something about OC’s classic beach bars that we love: the cheap drinks and cheaper dates, cool cover bands, bad-ass bartenders and sassy servers. Heck, we even like the smell. OK, so that’s after we’re a few cocktails in. We used to have strict criteria about what made a great dive, including obscure points like no windows that today would disqualify some of our five favorites.
Balboa Saloon :: Newport Beach
Beach Ball :: Newport Beach
Class of ‘47 :: Newport Beach
Mother’s Tavern :: Sunset Beach
The Sandpiper, aka The Dirty Bird :: Laguna Beach
The Pacific side of PCH is home to a creative cache of museums, theaters, science centers and significant architecture. Here’s our top 10:
:: Balboa Pavilion
:: Crystal Cove Historic District
:: Kerckhoff Marine Laboratory
:: Laguna Art Museum
:: Lido Theater
:: Lovell Beach House
:: New Port Theater
:: Ocean Institute
:: Sherman Gardens