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Orange County Crush

Why not sit for a while on one of the little swatches of beach?Though most of the docks are private, the beaches are not, even if they look that way.

Once you've worked up an appetite again, have dinner at Basilic (217 Marine Ave.; 714/673-0570; dinner for two $80). Several restaurants have tried to make it in this space over the last few years, but this one looks like a keeper. It's homey, intimate (just nine tables), wood-paneled, and rather Alpine. Chef Bernard Althaus, who worked at Pascal-- considered the county's best restaurant-- opened Basilic in February. Evidently he felt the county wasn't getting enough Swiss-French food; his steamed sea bass with light tarragon juice on a bed of fennel rectifies the matter.

Now hit Balboa's streets for another walk; after all you've eaten, you'd better. It's probably a beautiful night and, if you're lucky, people will have left their curtains open. You spent all day looking at the outsides of the houses; it's only fair you should get to see the insides, too.

15 minutes of flight

"This harness came from Mexico," said Mike, one of the two guys taking my life into their hands as I prepared to parasail off Corona del Mar. "I had to wash it for hours to remove the bloodstains."

He'd obviously trotted out this canned joke many times before. Still, I became even more anxious than I had been during the short boat ride out of Newport Harbor. As I stepped into the harness, all I could think was, Why on earth would anyone want to do this?

Firmly strapped into the harness, I hobbled to the back of the boat. "It's easy," Mike said. "All you have to do is sit on the harness like on a swing, and relax." With that, Mike and his partner Steve let out the rainbow-colored parachute, which was hooked to a winch bolted to the boat. It caught a breeze and unfolded against the sky. I could feel the parachute pulling me into the air.

"Why on earth would anyone want to do this?" I asked myself again-- out loud this time-- as I soared higher. It was strangely unexhilarating, like riding an escalator. Before I knew it, I was 350 feet up, watching my feet dangle below. I looked around: to my right was the coastline; to my left, nothing but sea, sky, a few sailboats. I began to understand the appeal. It was utterly calming, this floating between one blue and another-- that is, until I noticed a splotch on the water and realized it was my shadow. Was that little cord really holding me to the boat?It wasn't much thicker than a ski rope. . . .

Before I knew it, I had dropped to within 25 feet of the ocean. They were just slowing down to give me a little scare; I was actually safer the nearer I was to the water. (In the summer, I learned on the return ride, they dip your toes. Since you land in the boat, that's as wet as you'll get, unless something goes horribly wrong.) Thankfully, they sped up, and I floated back to where I belonged.

We circled around a cove, and I noticed a group of people standing on the beach. I started waving at them, suddenly feeling brave and worth watching. When they didn't wave back, I got annoyed that my valor was going unappreciated. I looked closer: one of them was wearing a long white dress. It was a wedding. I wonder how many of their pictures are going to have me floating behind them with my rainbow parachute?That'll teach them not to wave.

Balboa Para-Sail 700 E. Edgewater Place, Newport Beach; 714/ 673-1693; $45 for 15 minutes of air time.

There's fun to be had beyond Disneyland and the beach. . . .

Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center 20612 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach; 714/ 494-3050. A medical facility for seals and sea lions; you can watch the pinnipeds get treated, fed, and cleaned, as well as learn about the creatures' habits. But don't talk to the animals: the workers don't want them to think all humans are friendly.

Tide pools Check the newspaper for low-tide times or pick up a schedule at the lifeguard station on the Newport Pier, and go climbing over the rocks in Corona del Mar (a ritzy enclave within Newport Beach) or Laguna Beach. Who knows what you'll find there-- the sea's the limit.

Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum 411 Olive Ave.; 714/960-3483; $2. The curating is sporadic-- those in charge are probably hanging ten somewhere-- but there's a fun display of surf-music record labels, profiles of hall-of-famers, and, in a temporary exhibit, a wall showing skateboard styles through the years. Buy your own gear around the corner at the huge Jack's Surfboards (101 Main St.; 714/536-4516).

Balboa Fun Zone 600 E. Bay Ave.; 714/673-0408. The county's only old-time amusement park-- with bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, even a fun house-- is a refreshing counterpoint to the glamorous parks inland. Across the promenade, you can rent water bikes and pedal around the harbor.

Newport Harbor Nautical Museum 151 E. Coast Hwy.; 714/673-3377. Housed in the riverboat that used to be the Robert E. Lee restaurant, this new museum helps create a sense of history in an area not exactly obsessed with the past. Kids will dig the ship models and the film footage of boats struggling against a 1939 hurricane. harbor highlights

One part of the Orange County coast hasn't been gussied up. To see what the county looked like 50 years ago, head to Crystal Cove State Park (8471 N. Pacific Coast Hwy.; 714/494-3539), three miles of heaven wedged between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach.

North of the highway, there's great hiking; south of it, you can walk, bike, or skate on the paths above the bluffs. Wild animals are rare in these parts, but you may spot a rabbit or two. A beautiful, uncrowded beach lies below. Hidden in the cove, right on the sand, are several houses; their owners might just be the luckiest people in the world.

Rumors are constantly floating around that developers are going to get their hands on the area (and, indeed, a huge spread of houses was recently built in the nearby hills), but most of the county's inhabitants seem to know that this last stretch of untarnished coastline must stay undisturbed.

If you're not in the mood to spend the $6 to get into the park but still want to enjoy the view, stop at the Shake Shack (7408 N. Pacific Coast Hwy.; 714/497-9666), a snack bar just past the cove. A local institution since opening in 1949, it's famous for its milk shakes made with dates, which may or may not hit the spot, depending on your tolerance for nutmeg.

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