By Erik Torkells
Thanks to TV shows like “The O.C.,” “Laguna Beach,” and “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” many people have a distorted– or should I say surgically enhanced?– idea of the California county. Parts of it can be as depicted, but most of it isn’t, even in the relatively glitzy towns along the coast, such as Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. In fact, the best way to enjoy life there is do the kind of activities people have been doing for decades.
1. House-watching in Balboa Island. House-watching is like people-watching, if a little trickier. (You risk being called a peeping Tom.) The best place in Orange County to do that is Balboa Island, an island tucked inside Newport Harbor. Not only is the island walkable, but each of the houses is unique — something Tudor might sit next to something Spanish might sit next to an old-school bungalow. Then stop for a Balboa bar, an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate and rolled in toppings of your choice, on Marine Avenue.
2. A stroll on Laguna Beach. There’s also great house-watching in Laguna Beach. Park on or near Thalia Street, on the south side of town, and climb down the old staircase to the sand, and walk south. The houses, high up on the cliff, are highly covetable, and the beach tends not to be as crowded as it might be elsewhere.
3. The cutest beach around. Little Corona, at the south end of Ocean Boulevard in Corona del Mar, is a tiny jewel-box of a beach, frequented mostly by locals.
4. Oceanfront dining for a song. Pacific Coast Highway has no shortage of restaurants with water views, but none can compete with the Ruby’s on the Balboa Pier, at the tip of the Newport Peninsula. Ruby’s is a local diner chain, with food that’s fine, but the setting will knock you out, especially if you sit on the roof deck. Squint and you could be in Greece.
5. Dressing like a surfer. Surfers know style, but they don’t always have a lot of money (even in Orange County). The area has many surf shops, where you can buy all sorts of cool T-shirts, shorts and more, but the easiest is Jack’s Surfboards, a chain with outposts in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Corona del Mar and Dana Point.
Formerly the editor of Budget Travel magazine, Erik Torkells has written for many other publications, including Travel + Leisure, the New York Times and T Magazine. He has appeared on MSNBC and “Good Morning America” on Orbitz’s behalf. (And he grew up in Orange County.)