The picture today of Orange County is much different than its image from when the Beach Boys were big. The world famous beaches, bleached blonde locals, original Magic Kingdom, and entrenched conservatism still remain, but the years have brought gradual, beneficial change. The Democrats achieved unprecedented success in Orange County during the 2008 presidential election, while the social and cultural demographics are also much changed from Nixon's day with, for example, a strong Vietnamese presence now established in the City of Westminster.
While the Beach Boys (none of whom could actually surf) continue to be played every third song on a local radio station, K-Earth, a younger generation of locals are more likely to think of No Doubt as the representative OC-born band of recent years: inventive, exciting, and with a definite global appeal.
This substantial 948 square mile rectangle of California, with the Pacific Ocean along the west and the San Bernardino Forest in the east, contains 34 towns within its borders with the capabilities to cater to almost any taste. With shopping, restaurants, and plenty of outdoor activities, the main draw remains the unending coastline.
Stretching the full length of the county, from the OC's southernmost city of San Clemente (aka: the Spanish Village by the Sea) and the westernmost tip of Seal Beach (home to a National Wildlife Preserve), the beach is the focal point for much of life in the OC. Millionaire homesteads in Newport and Laguna Beach cap the semi-arid hills of the OC, battling for the best ocean views. Choice surf spots such as Huntington Beach, Salt Creek, and San Onofre are never without their attendant pods of wetsuit-wearing surfers, often in the water from as early as 6am to avoid the crowds and lay claim to the best waves.
Surfing being what it is in Orange County (Huntington Beach, proudly known as "Surf City USA" lays claim to the origins of the practice in the US), it's also possible to come across surfing competitions throughout the year at any of these prime surf spots. Two competitions particularly worth catching are the Huntington Beach-located US Open (mid-July), like a local festival with live music and a skateboarding arena included, and the Hurley Pro Trestles (mid-Sept), held at Lower Trestles near San Clemente.
If you're looking for more history than the ongoing surfing traditions (although Huntington does have an International Surfing Museum), there are some historical pockets of interest around the OC. Mission San Juan Capistrano is always a popular choice, famous for its classic Spanish Colonial architecture and the Return of the Swallows celebration which marks the annual migration of the swallows from Argentina to the OC. Nearby Dana Point also holds it's own historical "hidden secret"- a replica of the brig Pilgrim (the boat upon which Richard Henry Dana rode in on to eventually write "Two Years Before the Mast", and who Dana Point is named after).
If you are a presidential history buff, be sure to stop by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, situated on the land where Nixon family lived until 1922. You can't miss the building - it has an actual Army One helicopter outside (and yes, you are able to step aboard).
History can also be uncovered in unexpected places, such as along the hiking trails (or dirt bike tracks, depending on your perspective) that wind throughout the beautiful canyons that you can find just a few miles inland from the coast. The Dripping Cave (found in Aliso and Wood Canyons Park), a prime example of the wind-carved sandstone caves that litter the region, was the hideout for stagecoach bandits, reminding you of wilder times in this now most settled of regions.
Nowhere is more settled than the most popular areas of the region: Laguna Beach and Newport Beach (the latter incorporating Balboa Island and the Balboa Peninsula). These two towns, on the surface, are distillates of old school Orange County, with millionaire residents and, in the case of Newport's Balboa Island, gleaming powerboats docked at the end of private piers. But look closer, and you see what the super-rich are buying here is the cozy, local feel that sets these towns apart from their in-county cousins. Laguna, home to a stretch of stunning beaches backed by sea-cliffs (1,000 Steps Beach is a perennial local favorite), is also Orange County's local artist epicenter, with a small gallery almost every second shop (for a closer look, attend the annual Sawdust Festival when local artists open their studios to the public or their weekly Art Walk during the summer). Walking around Newport's Balboa Island feels like stepping backwards into a more innocent time - at the Fun Zone there's a big wheel, a 50's style diner on the pier, and stands at which to buy the local specialty of frozen bananas.
If that all sounds a little too nostalgic, South Coast Plaza, the great commercial heart of Orange County, awaits just off the I-5 for all those keen to indulge in some serious mall-time. For the wandering gourmand, increasing ethnic diversity coupled with OC resident Michelin-starred chefs ensure a galaxy of choice (for all budgets) when it comes to deciding where to eat. Oenophiles, unsure whether to go straight to Napa, can find local wineries in Orange County (Laguna Canyon for one), and are also within easy striking distance of the many vineyards found in the Temecula Valley.
The thing about Orange County is that it's full of surprises. Yes, there's Disneyland (now expanded to include the rides of sister-park, California Adventure, and the music of the House of Blues), coastline to die for, and the laid-back surfer vibe. But there are also intense chilli cook-offs, bizarre traditions like the Laguna Niguel annual mooning of the Amtrak train service, and America's richest two-day rodeo. Remember that when deciding your itinerary, leave a couple of days free to explore and find out what you can uncover.
27174 Ortega Hwy
18001 Yorba Linda Boulevard
800 East Whittier Boulevard
3520 East Coast Highway