California’s Orange County, though adjacent to Los Angeles County, might as well be another world. Though the orange groves of its namesake have retreated in the advance of the Southern California megalopolis—when Walt Disney bought farmland in Anaheim to build his theme park, many deemed him mad—Orange County has advanced right along with its population.
Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the hospitality sector, with arts-centric Costa Mesa and oceanfront Laguna Beach offering luxurious properties for the traveler not only willing to go the extra mile for comfort, but interested in an enveloping experience that begins and ends at ritzy destination hotels.
In four nights spread out in these two locations, I experienced the best that Orange County has to offer, from its thriving food scene to the annual fair and even an arts showcase where paintings somehow, incredibly, come alive.
From John Wayne Airport I was picked up by the shuttle for the short drive to the Avenue of the Arts, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel located in the heart of Costa Mesa’s arts district.
Entering the lobby, a feeling of calm permeated that, from wherever you may have come, you were now home. Front-desk service was tops, with smiles and a welcome. My room featured a deluxe bed with extremely soft and comfortable bedding and pillows. A generous desk and bar area provided a place to write, and it faced a couch fold-out bed combo and coffee table. Nearly everything was white, which was somehow calming to the eyes and the spirit, and the feeling of comfort was further heightened by room-length windows that peered onto a courtyard shared by adjacent properties. A wedding party was arrayed along steps that raise up over a concrete waterway, the perfect spot from which to being a lifetime journey.
I set out on foot for the South Coast Plaza, a shopping-and-entertainment megalith famous for being a place to not only seek out high-end merchandise but also to celebrity-spot. The Plaza claims to have the highest concentration of retail space under one roof on the West Coast, but it really is far beyond what comes to mind when conjuring “mall.”
This was the first time I’d ever been in a mall—though, again, I’m hesitant to even use that term—with a VIP area, but I learned that given the famous clientele known for shopping here, having a place to drop off bags—or children—or to catch a break from eager selfie-seekers can be a needed respite. You have to become a member to hang out here, but that extra level of service and attention is what makes South Coast Plaza a “destination” rather than mere shopping center.
For lunch I went to the ground level of South Coast to AnQi, where chef “Mama” Helene An applies Eastern philosophies of yin and yang in her food. It was very California—elegant yet casual, classy but not stuffy—and I couldn’t help but smile being seated at a table next to a fashion runway. My server Cliff told me that AnQi often hosts actual fashion shows here—sometimes while you eat.
I couldn’t help but think of Bruce Willis’s New York cop John McClane shaking his head: “California.”
For starters the chef sent out an amuse bouche of hamachi tartare, an absolute wow. The tombo tuna taco appetizer plate was likewise divine, with the fish perfectly complemented with hass avocado and yuzu koshu. I was told the street noodles are not to be missed, and it was indeed tasty, if not wonderful, and just that side of not too spicy.
Somehow there was room for dessert—as there should always be—and the chocolate hazelnut dream dessert with fruit was a culinary fantasia.
After a lovely afternoon nap at Avenue of the Arts, I walked to Vaca, an eatery opened in 2015 thanks to “Top Chef” alum Amar Santana. Tapas and wine and cheese are staples of Vaca, which was rather busy on this Friday evening. Seated at the bar, I enjoyed an appetizer course of pulpo a la gallega, a Spanish-style prepped octopus exquisitely seasoned.
As I sipped on an Albarino Mar de Frades, a kindly couple seated next to me, unprompted, asked where I was from, what I was doing in town and how I was enjoying Orange County. This was the California warmth I recalled from many years living in the Golden State, and I thanked them for not being too provincial to this former resident of nearby L.A. County. We toasted before they headed off to catch a show. I then dived into my smoked chicken catteloni, which boasted a bit of a sweet flavor that complemented the Albarino beautifully. To cap the meal, I asked for the cheese course of Mahon semi-soft and 12-month aged manchego.
After grooving to a bit of Friday Night Jazz on the Argyros Plaza outside the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, I retired back to hotel to enjoy the outdoor hot tub.
Saturday morning at Avenue of the Arts meant breakfast at the Silver Trumpet, where I enjoyed California crab benedict omelette and iced tea with my friend Dave, who lives nearby. We caught up on a typically sunny SoCal morning, seated next to the artificial pond shared by the hotel and adjoining apartments.
Despite a decade-and-a-half in L.A., when I moved away in 2011, some items remained unchecked, one being the Orange County Fair, and it was time for that to change. It’s come quite a long way from its humble beginnings as a livestock show to now encompassing some 150 acres of carnival rides, live shows, exhibits galore and even a wine-and-food pairing courtesy of the Orange County Wine Society.
OC Wine Society President Fran Gitsham met me in the Courtyard by the Culinary Building, and seated me for pairing local vinos from Orange Coast Winery with farm-to-table offerings cultivated mere miles from where I sat. It’s a great reminder to try to get your food as locally as possible, both to support the farmers and be ecologically sound.
(Note: For 2018, the OC Fair broke its all-time attendance record, with 1.4 million visitors.)
My met a friend, Philip, back at Avenue of the Arts, and we headed to Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge, a Patina Restaurant Group site masterminded by founder Joachim Splichal and executive chef Greg Stillman.
My old fashioned was wondrous, though it could have used a few more ice cubes to push it to that next level. However, the service was so spot-on and the fresh bread served piping hot made me forget any such quibbles. Philip enjoyed the veggie soup while I made short work of the Scottish salmon served with artichoke barigoule, potato-lemon espuma, charred tomato, herb oil and leek ash. Together, we also had a crisp bottle of Nicolas Sauvignon Blanc from the Côtes de Gascogne region of France.
Post-dinner, Philip and I, lifelong theater nerds, walked into the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the OC’s largest nonprofit arts organization, started thanks to the generosity of the Segerstrom family, whose Swedish immigrant forbears made good in Orange County farming before giving back to the community.
The evening’s show was “School of Rock,” starring Rob Coletti as the slacker-turned-rock-teacher Dewey, who turns his preteen wards into an upstart classic rock-playing powerhouse. There’s no bad seat in the house.
The next morning I made my final culinary stop at Taco Maria, voted best restaurant by both the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register in 2017, with Chef Carlos Salgado thrice nominated for the James Beard Award and named best Mexican chef in the country by “Food & Wine Magazine.”
With a mango ceylon iced tea in hand, I opted for the three-course tasting menu. First was yogurt and fruit—creamy goodness and not too hearty—earthy and preparing the runway for what was to follow. The buttermilk pancakes topped with butter and blueberries could be a full meal on their own, but were amazingly refreshing on a hot day. Thirdly was the chilaquiles, delightful and crispy, and served alongside potatoes, which, though lovingly prepared, proved too much for my tummy on top of everything else already therein.
Sadly, it was time to check out of Avenue of the Arts, but my OC adventure was only half over, with nearby Laguna Beach calling my name.
Laguna Beach is likely what many who have never been to California picture in their minds: lush beaches, coastal vistas and amazing restaurants in some of the most spectacular real estate in the country.
Laguna Beach is a wonderland. And staying at The Ranch, with its extreme proximity to the Pacific Ocean, offers a luxurious escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
My Uber turns off the Pacific Coast Highway and points into beachside canyons. Suddenly my cell service vanished as the car snaked its way up a labyrinthine driveway that finally revealed the front entrance of The Ranch, where a cheery young man opened my door and helped disgorge my luggage from the trunk.
The Ranch lobby harked back to Old California, with a motif befitting its name: painted scenes depicting the difficult life here long before the movies and their promise of fame ever arrived. The check-in staff was as gracious and welcoming as the curbside valets, and I got a primer on how best to get around the grounds, accessing WiFi given the canyon walls blocking out cell service and where to find the footpath to walk to the beach.
I walked to my room, which was situated in a grotto-type layout with adjacent rooms, and just a short walk from the pool and hot tub. My room featured a California king size bed, an outdoor patio facing the ocean, enormous bath and shower area and, for nap time, a switch to adjust the high ceiling shutters to keep out the light.
I took a brisk walk down to where The Ranch meets the PCH, where a path led from road level down to a tunnel beneath a bridge built decades ago—and the footpath emerged onto a delicious stretch of perfect California sand. I took a quick dip in refreshingly cool ocean water and turned to look back at the canyon wherein The Ranch nestled in between ridge walls.
I then headed to one of the most unique “live shows” in America, the Pageant of the Masters, a meld of theater and art wherein some of the greatest paintings from world history “come alive” thanks to actors, scene designers and artisans painstakingly recreating the most recognizable tableaux in the world.
2018 marked the 85th iteration of the nighttime Pageant, and I was told that but for a brief respite during the Second World War, when evening lights along the California coast were forbidden lest they give visual aid to Japanese bombers, the festival has continued on uninterrupted for nearly a century.
Before curtain, I wander the grounds of the art center to check out the works by local artists and also enjoy salmon and a house chardonnay at Terra, the appropriately named restaurant among the grounds outside the theater itself.
The 2018 theme was “Under the Sun,” with living paintings and sculptures making full use of the center and side stages in their simulacrums of the great works. One especially awe-inspiring scene “deconstructs” the process, showing stagehands moving a backdrop into place, actors in costume climbing upon stools and chairs to correctly place them in the setting, and then all going dark before the precise stage lights lit up to precisely replicate the painting itself.
It must be “scene” to be believed.
The next morning, I traveled to Zinc Cafe for a California-style breakfast burrito and an Arnold Palmer on their sunny patio before strolling to the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival, a funky enclave of local artisans showcasing their wares among a eucalyptus grove—and where you amble on top of a walkway of wood chips. There was something pleasantly bohemian about the affair, with smiles on both the patrons and creators as they chatted and did business.
On a hot day, nothing cools you off better than a beer, and so to Laguna Beach Beer Company for a sampler of locally produced beverages. I enjoyed the Second Reef Blonde Ale, which was amazingly refreshing, and the Hive Kolsch boasted a rather pleasant finish. For something out of the ordinary, the White Wash Brut IPA mixes a bubbly profile to complement its hoppy profile, and to cap it off I enjoyed the See You at the Palapa, with its citrusy taste.
After lunch at Another Kind Cafe, where I tried an extremely tasty bowl of stir fried minced pork sprinkled with cayenne pepper, garlic and basil, I headed back to The Ranch for another dip in the Pacific. I also read and enjoyed a drink and watched the sun dip toward the sea.
This made me want to chase the sun itself, and so for dinner to Mozambique, not only known as a great spot to hear local musicians do their thing, but also boasting a terrific rooftop terrace for dining. With a stellar view of the ocean, I enjoyed some Baja California oysters and a fine Kanonkop Pinotage red wine from South Africa. This paired absolutely wonderfully with the New Zealand rack of lamb, a house specialty, which warmed both my belly and my soul as the sun dipped into the Pacific.
After a local beer and live music in the cantina downstairs, I headed back to The Ranch for another dip in the hot tub with the stars and the silence of the canyon around me. Morning came too soon, and after breakfast of avocado crab toast at the resort’s Harvest restaurant, it was time to check out.
“Laguna” comes from a Spanish word meaning a body of water surrounded by sand, but after exploring The Ranch, it might as well translate into “treasure” as well.
Indeed, all of Orange County is a treasure trove of resorts and experiences.