Seal Beach, 36 miles S of Los Angeles; Newport Beach, 49 miles; Dana Point, 65 miles

Whatever you do, don't say "Orange County" here. The mere name evokes images of smoggy industrial parks, cookie-cutter housing developments, and the staunch Republicanism that prevails behind the so-called "orange curtain." We're talking instead about the Orange Coast, one of Southern California's best-kept secrets -- a string of seaside jewels that have been compared with the French Riviera or the Costa del Sol. Forty-two miles of beaches offer pristine stretches of sand, tide pools teeming with marine life, ecological preserves, secluded coves, picturesque pleasure-boat harbors, and legendary surf breaks. One option is to do it as a day trip from L.A. -- hit the road early for a scenic cruise down Pacific Coast Highway starting at Seal Beach, stop for lunch at Laguna Beach (the prettiest of all the SoCal beach towns), continue south to Dana Point (where the really expensive resorts reside), and then take the freeway back to L.A. (I-5 to I-405). My advice, if you have the time, is to take a full day or two to really relax and enjoy the distinct culture of this area. Who wants to spend a pleasant day at the beach only to spend two hours in traffic on the way back?