You'll most likely be exploring the coast by car, so the beach communities are covered in order from north to south. Keep in mind, however, that if you're traveling between Los Angeles and San Diego, Pacific Coast Highway (Calif. 1) is a breezy, scenic detour that adds less than an hour to the commute -- so pick out a couple of seaside destinations and take your time.
Seal Beach, on the border between Los Angeles and Orange counties, and a neighbor to Long Beach's Naples Harbor, is geographically isolated by both the adjacent U.S. Naval Weapons Station and the self-contained Leisure World retirement community. As a result, the beach town appears untouched by modern development -- it's Orange County's version of small-town America. Take a stroll down Main Street, culminating in the Seal Beach Pier. Although the clusters of sunbathing, squawking seals that gave the town its name aren't around any more, old-timers still fish, lovers still stroll, and families still cavort by the seaside, enjoying great food and retail shops or having a cold drink at Hennessey's tavern.
Huntington Beach -- or Surf City, as it's known -- is the largest Orange Coast city; it stretches quite a way inland and has seen the most urbanization. To some extent, this has changed the old boardwalk and pier to a modern outdoor mall where cliques of teens coexist with families and the surfers who continue to flock here, drawn by Huntington's legendary place in surf lore. Hawaiian-born George Freeth is credited with bringing the sport here in 1907, and some say the breaks around the pier and Bolsa Chica are the best in California. The world's top wave riders flock to Huntington every August for the rowdy but professional U.S. Open of Surfing. If you're around at Christmastime, try to see the gaily decorated marina homes and boats in Huntington Harbor by taking the Cruise of Lights, a 45-minute narrated sail through and around the harbor islands. The festivities generally last from mid-December until Christmas; call tel. 714/840-7542 or visit www.cruiseoflights.org for schedules and ticket information.
The name Newport Beach conjures comparisons to Rhode Island's Newport, where the well-to-do enjoy seaside living with all the creature comforts. That's the way it is here, too, but on a less grandiose scale. From the million-dollar Cape Cod-style cottages on sunny Balboa Island to elegant shopping complexes such as Fashion Island and South Coast Plaza (an übermall with valet parking, car detailing, limo service, and concierge), this is where fashionable socialites, right-wing celebrities, and business mavens shop. Alternatively, you could explore Balboa Peninsula's historic Pavilion and old-fashioned pier, or board a passenger ferry to Catalina Island.
Laguna Beach, whose breathtaking geography is marked by bold elevated headlands, coastal bluffs, pocket coves, and a very inviting beach, is known as an artists' enclave, but the truth is that Laguna has became so "in" (read: expensive) that it has driven most of the true bohemians out. Their legacy remains, with the annual Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters, as well as a proliferation of art galleries mingling with high-priced boutiques along the town's cozy streets. In warm weather, Laguna Beach has an overwhelming Mediterranean island ambience, which makes everyone feel beautifully, idly rich.
San Juan Capistrano, in the verdant headlands inland from Dana Point, is defined by Spanish missions and its loyal swallows. The mission architecture is authentic, and history abounds. Think of San Juan Capistrano as a compact, life-size diorama illustrating the evolution of a small Western town -- from Spanish-mission era to secular rancho period, statehood, and into the 21st century. Surprisingly, Mission San Juan Capistrano is once again the center of the community, just as the founding friars intended 200 years ago.
Dana Point, the last town south, has been called a "marina development in search of a soul." Overlooking the harbor stands a monument to 19th-century author Richard Henry Dana, who gave his name to the area and described it in Two Years Before the Mast. Activities generally center on yachting and Dana Point's beautiful harbor. Nautical themes are everywhere, particularly the streets named for old-fashioned shipboard lights -- a hodgepodge that includes Street of the Amber Lantern, Street of the Violet Lantern, Street of the Golden Lantern, and so on. Bordering the harbor is Doheny State Beach, one of the very best for its seaside park and camping facilities.