That might be the Orange County coastline calling you — 42 miles of beach and beach towns, give or take, from San Clemente to Seal Beach. Follow the advice here, and this coastline might lull you with surfers on swells, startle you with circus tricks (look for the guy by the Huntington Beach Pier with the hammer, nail and much-abused nose), charm you with old shacks on priceless real estate, seduce or offend you with shiny new buildings on equally priceless real estate, tempt you with $2.69 corn dogs or $600-a-night hotel rooms. If you're lucky, at the end of the day, you'll wind up standing on a pier, surfers bobbing below and the faint funk of old bait hanging in the air, and these very coastal waters will swallow the sun. It's a nice trick, no hammer or nail necessary.
These 12 micro-itineraries are designed to get you started along the O.C. coast whether you're coming from near or far. This is the fifth installment in our monthly Southern California Close-Ups series.
FOR THE RECORD:
Southern California Close-ups: A May 29 Travel story on the Orange County coast incorrectly reported that George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence. Washington was not one of the signers. It also incorrectly described the Pelican Hill and St. Regis Monarch Beach golf courses as private. The courses are privately owned, but nonmembers can pay to play on them. —
1. Your ticket to 1955Beachcomber Motel (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Just about all of Southern California's sleepy little beach towns have been built up, priced up and, by many measures, messed up. But San Clemente's pier, beaches and red-tile roofs endure, and they're worth a look. The waves here offer some of North America's best surfing, including the spot known as Trestles (just south of town within San Onofre State Beach), which some people call "the Yosemite of surfing." San Clemente also has an Amtrak stop right by the pier — which raises the tempting idea of a carless beach weekend — and don't forget the beachside pedestrian path that leads north from the pier to a great playground at Linda Lane Park.
Don't bother looking for Richard Nixon's old Western White House; he sold it in 1980, and it's a private home now. The town is tucked in among hills and canyons — no tidy street grid here — and on the main drag, El Camino Real, many locals like Sonny's (an old favorite for pizza at 429 N. El Camino Real) and the Riders Club Cafe (a new favorite for burgers and other "slow fast food" at 1701 N. El Camino Real). But you're starting with the pier.
At the Fisherman's Restaurant on the pier, the waves crash just below and the sunset washes over everyone on the patio. And you're bound to notice the Beachcomber Motel a block south. With its pseudo-Spanish cottage style, its 12 rooms (all with kitchens) and its perch on a grassy knoll right by the train tracks and beach, the Beachcomber is what you'd dream about if you fell asleep reading a 1955 issue of Sunset magazine. Priceless views. Alas, the interiors are as tired as the exterior is classic, and the prices hit a hefty $375 on summer weekends.
So, on those nights, you might consider the nearby Casa Tropicana, where your $350 or so will get you more space and some jazzy furniture. Ah, but in the off-season, you can get into the Beachcomber for as little as $125 a night. Take that deal, kick back on the porch and start pretending Nixon is still vice president, surfboards are still 7 feet long, and your state government is still solvent.
2. Fickle birds and fresh brunchMission San Juan Capistrano (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Mission San Juan Capistrano, which went up about the time George Washington and company were signing the Declaration of Independence, is famous for the swallows that return every spring. Unfortunately, most of those swallows have ditched the mission in favor of a country club in San Bernardino County. Bummer. But you'll want to stop in SJC all the same, because the mission grounds are still atmospheric (and less spattered), and Los Rios Street, which runs alongside the tracks near the town's Amtrak/Metrolink station, might be the oldest surviving residential street in the state, with adobes and Victorians, a nursery and a teahouse.
Come on a weekend and line up for the $35 brunch on the patio at the Ramos House Café, which was built as a private home in 1881. Expect the chef's cat to brush past. Then wander over to the nearby Zoomars Petting Zoo, where you can commune with ponies, llamas, pigs, goats and chickens.
3. Ahoy, historyPlacid Dana Cove (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
Now, we're a bit north of San Clemente, in Dana Point, with a little flashback: In 1834, a rich kid from New England decided to look for a little adventure before starting law school at Harvard. His name was Richard Henry Dana Jr., and he signed on as a merchant seaman on a tall ship working the cattle-hide trade along the coast of Alta California.
For two years, his brigantine plied the coast, calling at San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara and the port of San Juan, now known as Dana Point Harbor. These adventures gave Dana all the material he needed for his memoir "Two Years Before the Mast." Take in the broad coastal view from Lantern Bay Park near the headlands, then head down Dana Point Harbor Drive to the marina, past the kayak rental place, the ferry collecting tourists for the trip to Catalina, the toddler-friendly waters of well-protected Dana Cove. See an old-fashioned ship with the word "Pilgrim" on its side? It's a 98-foot-long replica of Dana's brigantine, and it's used for marine education programs by the nonprofit Ocean Institute, whose handsome modern offices neighbor the docks.
On most Saturdays and Sundays, the institute's headquarters is open for educational tours. And from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. most Sundays, you can step aboard the Pilgrim for a tour and enjoy the sight of a docent pacing the decks and hollering sailor jargon and sporting a puffy shirt straight from the closet of a certain 18-year-old "Seinfeld" episode. But don't pity him, because he's busy pitying you. If you're a seasoned sailor, Dana once wrote, "there is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor's life."
4. On the beach and over the topMontage Laguna Beach (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The O.C. coastline is no place for penny-pinchers, especially when it comes to hotels, especially around Laguna and Newport beaches. Among golfers, two of the most popular lodging splurges are the Resort at Pelican Hill (Newport Beach) and the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort (Dana Point), both of which stand beside private courses. Shoppers might book the Island Hotel or the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach near Fashion Island mall in Newport Beach.