Step away from the computer screen, stop refreshing social media and put down your phone. With all the distractions and demands of everyday life, it’s easy to forget that we live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Whatever your fancy – backcountry camping, rustic period lodging or five-star resort – it exists within a three-square-mile area along OC’s coast. The great outdoors – our great outdoors – beckons.
Where the Wild Things Are
I am not what you would call a born camper. I prefer Italian prosciutto, burrata and arugula sandwiches to soggy PB&J, and happy hours with seasonal muddled-fruit cocktails over cans of warm domestic beer. And while I love the sound of wind whispering through long-limbed trees and even the occasional distant coyote howl, the sound of those four-legged creatures scampering by our tent at 2 a.m. as a strong breeze threatens to tear down our protective tarpaulin is not generally my idea of a fun weekend getaway.
So it was with veiled dismay that I agreed to go on a camping trip for a friend’s birthday. The location: Moro Canyon in Crystal Cove State Park. Located on the eastern side of Pacific Coast Highway, Crystal Cove counts 2,400 acres of backcountry as its wilderness playground for the adventurous. The website describes the camping as “primitive,” which, depending on your perspective, is either a really good or a really bad thing.
I began trying to convince myself that it was a really good thing. When we were kids, my parents would take my brother, sister and me on camping trips to Cuyamaca and Death Valley. My memories are mostly good (except for the time my dad drove us through the Badlands mountain range using our four-wheel-drive and I got car sick; off-roading still haunts me), so it seemed a fair chance that I could conjure some of those childhood experiences in order to cast the presently looming foray into OC’s wilderness in a positive glow.
I started with the good things I remembered: My mom, a marvel of organization, always packed copious amounts good food and snacks and cooked three meals a day, including pancakes for breakfast, over our green two-burner Coleman camping stove, and hiking always figured prominently into our family excursions (I once famously declared, when I was about six years old, that I could see Israel from the peak of one of our hikes). I resolved to incorporate the same aspects into the Moro Canyon trip.
I made grocery lists and inquired about camping rentals; I bought an outdoorsy-sounding fleece jacket from REI; and I researched the amount of potable water we’d need. When the day came to meet the group at the Moro Canyon parking lot, my husband (then boyfriend) and I donned our hiking shoes and got ready for the three-mile, mostly uphill hike that lay ahead before reaching the campsite. Because I’m small (and because my husband is amazing), I wound up carrying very little of our gear, which made the hike enjoyable rather than tedious. This was camping as I hadn’t experienced it in childhood: Moro Canyon’s campsites are hike-in only, which means you can’t drive up and park your car and have amenities a few steps away. Instead, everything must be walked into the backcountry, including water, food, tents, cooking devices, propane, clothing, and any potential entertainment. And there are no trash cans, which means all waste must then be hiked back out. Forget showers – a pit toilet was as modern as plumbing would get.
Dubious as I was that there was any “backcountry” in Orange County to speak of – I kept expecting (OK, hoping) to see Fashion Island emerge around every bend – once we were out of the Moro Canyon parking lot, the terrain became rough and wild. Sagebrush threatened to envelop the otherwise well-marked trails; traffic noise, though PCH was only a couple miles away, was non-existent; and animal prints dotted the landscape. Soon, the only sounds to be heard were our own voices and crunching on gravel as we hiked further and further into the canyon to our campsite.
A picnic table and a patch of flat dirt were all that existed off the trail, and after setting up our tents and eating sandwiches for lunch, a state of panic began to set in. Now what? It was mid-afternoon and there was the rest of the day to get through. We took a nap; went on another hike to explore the area; and, when night fell, someone had had the foresight to bring a card game that kept us entertained until at least 9 p.m. Out in the wilds of OC, it seemed an appropriate enough time to retire to our sleeping bags.
I didn’t sleep very well that night, whether from the hard, uneven ground or the unfamiliar nature sounds (read: animals rustling through the brush), but when the sun began to rise, and us with it, I was glad we were there, with nothing to do but savor the moment – even if there were no scones with clotted cream and freshly brewed espresso on the horizon.
Hark back to a day when coastal Orange County was an undeveloped middle-of-nowhere, a veritable seaside stake-your-claim wilderness. Imagine that, "Gilligan's Island"-style, a community gathered, hammered together some planks and formed its own beach world, far removed from the excesses of the cities. The only traffic on Pacific Coast Highway was a flock of seagulls; martinis flowed from sunset until sunrise; and attire, if it could be called that, was designed solely for basking in the sun or taking a leisurely afternoon ocean swim.
I wasn’t alive during this Crystal Cove-naissance, but I didn’t have to be to experience life there as it was in the 1930s and ‘40s, when the area was first founded as a seaside colony. It was an untouched corner of coastal California paradise to which pleasure-seekers flocked in search of a slower pace and a peaceful life. Not much has changed; to enter into the historic district of Crystal Cove State Park is to take a journey back in time.
Some would call it a simpler time. And indeed, aboard the shuttle into the park, enveloped in bouncy tunes from a bygone era, it certainly felt that way. The cottages that dot the hillside and sandy beach below, 21 of which have been restored during Phase I of a three-phase restoration project, have been refurbished to reflect their original condition with period-appropriate furnishings, textiles and décor, including, in our cottage, an old stove and refrigerator.
Painter’s Cottage #32 was the name of our abode on the sand, a grand-looking and spacious residence with a pink kitchen and wide windows to take in panoramic views of the ocean. The floorboards were creaky, the furniture sparse and the main bed small, but with the sound of waves crashing feet from our doorstep, did it really matter? We had arrived with ideas of what a stay at these sought-after cottages would be like – words like “enchanting” and “well-appointed” had been thrown around – but “rustic” hadn’t been one of them, yet that’s exactly what they were: rustic, in that campy way, like the time you went to your sixth-grade retreat in the woods and stayed in log cabins with bunk beds, all the while feeling the presence of ghosts of kids past who still somehow haunted the pine-scented space. That’s what the cottages felt like – spaces where history was seeped into the walls, a throwback to a more innocent time when a romp on the sand and a dolphin sighting could right every wrong. And an opportunity, externally enforced as children but now a voluntary undertaking, of resisting the temptation of modern distraction – a check-in on Facebook, a filtered Instagram photo, a humble-brag hashtag about being #blessed.
Feeling shameful for even considering any of the aforementioned sins, and silently panicking at the absence of any modern media devices, including a TV, my husband and I took to the coastline, a rugged cove framed by bluffs and punctuated by tide pools seething with marine life. Because it wasn’t yet time for dinner, we stood watching the creatures clinging, quite literally, to the pool’s rocky outcroppings, marveling at the capriciousness of the life in them, totally dependent on the rising and ebbing tides to bring in sustenance and moisture. Like kids discovering sea life for the first time, my husband lightly touched a sea anemone and I squealed as it quickly closed its suctioning tentacles around his finger, as if to digest it like all its other prey.
Once the only light available was the moon’s reflection on the water’s surface, we walked down the beach to The Beachcomber, Crystal Cove’s sand-side restaurant. Perched at the edge of the tide, the breakfast, lunch and dinner mainstay of Crystal Cove was lively and cozy, with moonlit views for miles and a menu that, remarkably, rivals the scenery. Plump lobster pot stickers with a vibrant lemon-tomato sauce; braised beef short ribs with homemade gorgonzola ravioli; and wild mushroom and truffle mac and cheese were legions better than what you’d expect from standard beach fare (and from most fine dining restaurants) – so much so that we capitalized on the experience and added beignets with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce as well as a brownie sundae to the mix.
We ate enough of it that the only thing left to do was attempt a graceful exit to our cottage and waddle up the stairs, only to collapse on the daybed in the front room, surrounded by windows, the illuminated night ocean and the sound of waves crashing against the shore.
The truth is that, by the time we arrived at The Resort at Pelican Hill, less than two miles from the Crystal Cove cottages, we were ready for some luxury. This was the right place, certainly, having recently earned its second consecutive five-star rating from Forbes and a slew of other lofty titles, among them #1 Resort in the United States (Condé Nast Traveler) and 2012 Grand Resort (Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report). Entry under the resort’s bridge felt like coming home – exactly the way we like our luxury to feel.
Well, minus the two 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed golf courses, the impeccable landscaping and the staff that spoils guests at every opportunity. Those aside (and plenty else), arriving at The Resort at Pelican Hill is nothing short of a comfortable homecoming. This is no coincidence. The 500-acre hilltop resort with panoramic Pacific views feels like a return to domesticity because that’s precisely what it was meant to do.
Inspired by the work of 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, who is best known for the grand homes he designed in the Venetian countryside, Pelican Hill’s understated luxury is the result of countless hours that went into thinking about thousands of tiny details throughout the property. Counterintuitive as that may seem if the goal is to effect a relaxed atmosphere, this near-obsessive attention to detail didn’t conclude in a show of gaudy opulence; instead, timeless design in neutral tones, an Italian plaster finish that gets better with age and handmade terra cotta tiles make for a warm finish – the kind you’d like to fall into at the end of a long, hard day of luxuriating.
And it’s everywhere. Our bungalow was made cozy by a limestone fireplace, full marble bathroom, hand-hewn wood-beam ceiling, huge bed with soft Italian linens, and a furnished terrace from which sunset views are a guarantee. And strangely, even though we had arrived at a place where the latest in every kind of technology was available at the flip of a switch (a media strip assures that no device will ever go uncharged), the thought hadn’t even crossed our mind to turn on the TV or flop down on the couch, ready to Facebook-surf the night away. There was so much else to do and explore, beginning with the bungalow itself and its 850 square feet of comfort (bungalow guest rooms start at 850 square feet; bungalow suites go up to 2,500 square feet). Before dinner, we watched the sky change from dusk to orange to pink and coral, finally giving way to black; we turned on the fireplace and read books (for fun!); we took a brief walk around the grounds, feeling as if we may have stumbled into an Italian geography warp amidst the groves of mature olive trees and rows of lavender, cypress and fig trees; and we marveled at the Mediterranean-inspired rooftops that gave way to ocean views.
At Pelican Grill, the resort’s restaurant located at the Pelican Hill Golf Club, an open-concept kitchen further adds to the “our home is your home” theme, seeming almost as if you could walk right up and strike up a chat with the chap pan-searing your piece of fresh fish. Despite this air of casualness, a sense of luxuriousness permeates, with buttery leather seating booths and a heated ocean-view terrace. How a restaurant manages to also have an attached lounge featuring two nine-foot TV screens for the sports-inclined and still be one of OC’s classiest destinations I’ll never know, but it’s a talent the resort has clearly mastered.
Just as impressive is Pelican Grill’s Napa-inspired cuisine, with a menu appealing to the whole family. Fish dishes are a specialty, as we discovered with the pan-seared Chinook salmon, which was cooked perfectly and served over roasted corn, leeks, crispy pancetta, and Cakebread chardonnay sauce; and the Southeast Asian-inspired pan-seared Chilean sea bass with orange-coconut milk sauce, black forbidden rice, pickled red onions, and toasted almonds.
By the next morning, so intoxicated were we by our tech detox that, instead of reaching immediately for any informing device upon waking, we decided to take part in the resort’s Crystal Cove Beach Hike, a daily walk that departs from the spa and explores the bluffs and beaches of the cove below. Even though we had seen it before, and even though the OC coast is a familiar presence in our lives, there day after day when we come and go from home, it looked different not seeing it through an Instagram filter. Better, even.
The Great Outdoors
Plan your own tech detox by mixing and matching a visit to some of OC’s premier get-away-from-it-all spots.
O’Neill Regional Park
RISE AND SHINE • Wake up to the tranquil sound of Trabuco and Hickey creeks meandering through the park during winter and early spring, and to the sound of wind rustling the leaves of scrub oak and mountain mahogany trees.
BEDDING DOWN • Each campsite has a ground stove, barbecue and concrete picnic table that can seat up to eight people. On-site restrooms offer free hot showers and flush toilets.
STATS • Campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, or by calling or reserving ahead online. Reservation windows begin on the first of each month. :: Nightly rates: $20 :: 800.600.1600 :: ocparks.com
Doheny State Beach
RISE AND SHINE • Some sites have ocean views (check the map to reserve the correct number) and all are mere steps to the beach. Known for its gentle surf, Doheny is great for amateur surfers.
BEDDING DOWN • Campsites are sparse (think: dirt patch, a fire hole and a picnic table) but a short walk to the day-use area is rewarded with a five-acre lawn with picnic facilities and volleyball courts.
STATS • Reserve a spot online through Reserve America, but do it fast: Spots sell out quickly. :: Premium beachfront site: $60; inland site: $35 :: 949.496.6172 :: parks.ca.gov :: reserveamerica.com
Starr Ranch Sanctuary
RISE AND SHINE: Located on a 4,000-acre preserve at the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, this protected land, which is owned and operated by the National Audubon Society, is home to a variety of native species, including owls, cougars, bobcats, and coyotes. Overnight programs for groups participate in day and evening ecology programs and nature walks.
BEDDING DOWN • Overnight tent camping is available with Starr Ranch's Ecology Programs for kids and adults
STATS • In addition to the $10 charge for the Ecology Programs, there is an addition $5 charge for overnight camping. Visit the website for more overnight options.
949.858.0309 :: starrranch.org
Moro Canyon RV and Trailer Camping
WAKE UP TO • Panoramic ocean views, 3.2 miles of coastline and 2,400 acres of undeveloped woodland to explore are just the tip of the scenic iceberg at Moro Canyon. Rent an Airstream and set up camp on one of 28 designated sites.
BEDDING DOWN • Campsites for RVs and trailers at Moro Campground have access to water and electricity hookups, and a picnic table is included on every site. Only gas fires are allowed. The maximum vehicle length is 38 feet.
STATS • Book online at Reserve America to get the best spots, or check for cancellations. :: Nightly rate: $55 :: 949.494.9143 :: crystalcovestatepark.com :: reserveamerica.com
Canyon RV Park
RISE AND SHINE • Canyon RV Park occupies 63 acres on the 795-acre Featherly Wilderness Preserve along the Santa Ana River, where acres of grass and trees are the setting for all kinds of backcountry adventures. Rent one of the park’s 10 cabins for a flashback-to-sixth-grade-camp experience, then head to nearby Disneyland for daytime entertainment.
BEDDING DOWN • Each cabin has a set of bunk beds and a futon that folds out to a double-size bed. Amenities include a bathroom, sink, microwave, mini-fridge, air conditioning, and a floor heater, but linens (sheets and towels) are not included.
STATS • Each cabin sleeps four people, except for one, which is ADA-compliant and sleeps two. Reserve online or by phone. :: Nightly rate: $75 :: 714.637.0210 :: canyonrvpark.com
Newport Dunes Beach Cottages
RISE AND SHINE • At the entrance to the Back Bay Nature Preserve and the Newport Bay Conservancy is the 100-acre Newport Dunes, where guests can enjoy a mile of beach front with a waterpark, swimming and playground, or head out onto the water in an electric boat, sailboat or pedal boat.
BEDDING DOWN • Rent one of Newport Dunes’ beachfront cottages for the whole family or for a romantic getaway. Each cottage has a full kitchen and a host of other amenities to make the stay comfortable.
STATS • Cottages are only available for rental by calling Newport Dunes. Each cottage is one bedroom plus a loft. :: Winter rate: starting at $215; summer rate: starting at $325 :: 800.765.7661
Montage Laguna Beach
RISE AND SHINE • Ocean breezes and views that stretch to Catalina and beyond are integral to the Montage Laguna Beach experience. Cozy Craftsman-style architecture is a signature throughout the resort, and three swimming pools plus world-class dining are enough to keep any hedonist occupied.
BEDDING DOWN • Experience the coast in style in one of Montage’s 250 guestrooms, which range from intimate guestrooms to luxurious bungalows and roomy suites. Expect to become an expert in early California art, with examples in each room and throughout the property.
STATS • Reserve online or by phone through the resort. :: Nightly rates: starting around $475 :: 949.715.6000 :: montagelagunabeach.com
St. Regis Monarch Beach
RISE AND SHINE • With a five-star, AAA five-diamond pedigree, Dana Point’s St. Regis is designed for the uncompromising visitor. Six ocean-view restaurants, the onsite championship Monarch Beach Golf Links and the award-winning Spa Gaucin take luxe to a new level.
BEDDING DOWN • Rooms range from the signature 720-790-square-foot guestroom, all with an ocean-view balcony, up to the Presidential Suite, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, and even a grand piano.
STATS • Reserve online or by phone through the resort. :: Nightly rates: starting around $475 :: 949.234.3200 :: stregismb.com
The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
RISE AND SHINE • Arise to the sound of waves breaking and of early-morning activity from those eager to get down to the surf at Salt Creek Beach. Resting atop a 150-foot bluff, the resort is an outdoors-lover’s paradise, with oceanfront trails and views to watch passing whales or schools of dolphins.
BEDDING DOWN • Guestrooms start at 400 square feet, with either an ocean view or a garden view, and go up to 1,550 square feet for The Ritz-Carlton suite with one bedroom and one-and-a-half bathrooms.
STATS • Reserve online or by phone through the resort. :: Nightly rates: starting at around $475 :: 949.240.5020 :: ritzcarlton.com
Surf & Sand Resort
RISE AND SHINE • It doesn't get much closer to the sand than at the Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach. The Mediterranean-style resort is a sun-washed paradise for peace-seekers who are also looking for a bit of fun in the sun.
BEDDING DOWN • Newly renovated rooms are perched directly above the sea and have down comforters, iPod-ready stereos and marble baths with steeping tubs. Rooms range from ocean-view guestrooms to suites, as well as ultra-luxe penthouses with spacious parlors and expansive terraces.
STATS • Reserve online or by phone through the resort. :: Nightly rates: starting around $299 :: 877.741.5908 :: surfandsandresort.com