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Orange County Crush

Say "Orange County" and most people think of a boring place where every third house looks alike and there's an unending succession of strip malls, where only Disneyland breaks the monotony. That's not all wrong: much of the county is cookie-cutter suburbia, millions of tract houses jammed between Los Angeles and San Diego. "It's a nice place to live," people say, "but you wouldn't want to visit there."

That's where they're wrong. Along the coast, you can still find the laid-back charm that attracted the tanned, blissed-out residents in the first place: towns with palm-lined main streets; delightful inns; wide, clean beaches; restaurants where you can watch sailboats breeze past. So stop by and slow down: after all, what some label boring, others call peaceful.

Orange County's half-dozen beach towns may look the same, but each has a distinct personality-- and lodgings to match.

Seal Beach
Northernmost and least known, Seal Beach has retained a lot of the character that the rest of Orange County has paved over: an old wooden pier; bait shops and fish shacks; a Main Street devoid of chain stores and souvenir stands. The Seal Beach Inn & Gardens (212 Fifth St.; 800/443-3292 or 562/493-2416, fax 562/799-0483; doubles from $125) holds court a few blocks off the beach. Built in 1923, it is stylishly eccentric: antiques fill every cranny.

Huntington Beach
Next comes Huntington Beach, home of the annual U.S. Open of Surfing (you can often spot surfers bobbing near the pier). By the eighties, downtown had become seedy-- by local standards, anyway-- but instead of fixing it up, the city replaced Main Street with a strip mall. The upshot?People now go there. The redevelopment also brought the Waterfront Hilton (21100 Pacific Coast Hwy.; 800/445-8667 or 714/960-7873, fax 714/960-3791; doubles $115- $225). It's shiny and new, if not actually on the water.

Newport Beach
The county diva, Newport wears its wallet on its sleeve-- BMW and Mercedes dealerships sit tellingly on this stretch of Pacific Coast Highway. It's blessed with a gorgeous harbor and back bay, and several top-notch inns. Doryman's Inn (2102 W. Ocean Front; 800/635-3303 or 714/675-7300; doubles from $160) and Portofino Beach Hotel (2306 W. Ocean Front; 800/571-8749 or 714/ 673-7030, fax 714/723-4370; doubles from $150) are dressed in chintz and marble; if you close the curtains you may think you're in Vermont-- whether that's good is up to you. Or overnight on one of Worldwide Boat & Breakfast's yachts (3400 Via Oporto, Suite 103; 800/262-8233 or 714/723-5552, fax 714/723-4626; from $200). Lounge on deck and pretend you're the owner (too bad you have to pay at least $125 an hour to take it for a spin).

Laguna Beach
For all its galleries, Laguna is not the raffish artists' colony it once was; people there nowadays seem more interested in the art of good living. Since this is the county's big resort town, there are countless places to stay along the coast. Two perennials are the esteemed Surf & Sand (1555 S. Pacific Coast Hwy.; 800/524-8621 or 714/497-4477, fax 714/497-1092; doubles from $235) and the less grand-- and less expensive-- Eiler's Inn (741 S. Pacific Coast Hwy.; 714/494-3004, fax 714/497-2215; doubles from $100).

Dana Point
Under the impression that no one would go to Dana Point, Ritz-Carlton named the resort it built there in 1984 the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel (1 Ritz-Carlton Dr.; 800/241-3333 or 714/240-2000, fax 714/240-0829; doubles from $295). But then people rediscovered the stunning marina, and Dana gained cachet. The Ritz-Carlton, all pomp and luxury, is right at home.

San Clemente
Perhaps best known as the site of Nixon's "Western White House," San Clemente has a simple slice of beach that sits under rugged bluffs, with railroad tracks running along it. Casa Tropicana (610 Avda. Victoria; 800/492-1245 or 714/492-1234, fax 714/492-1245; doubles from $85) is a whitewashed Spanish Colonial town house with bizarrely themed rooms: Jungle Paradise awaits you Tarzan types.

"The only romantic spot in California" was how writer Richard Henry Dana described Dana Point Harbor in 1840 (presumably before it was named after him). He was exaggerating-- San Francisco, anyone?-- but you can understand the hyperbole. High bluffs look down on a tree-lined cove that shelters 2,500 yachts. During the day, you can rent a sailboat or enroll in a sailing class, deep-sea fish, take a whalewatching cruise (December to March only), or hang out under the statue of Dana-- author of Two Years Before the Mast-- and watch the boats make their way around the long jetty.

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