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.

Mariner's Village can't really compare with the cove itself, but this cluster of shops and restaurants is worth a stroll. Stop at one of the cafés (make sure you choose one with an outdoor patio) and have a latte-- the air off the marina tends to be a little chilly, so you'll probably want some warming up.

Down on the water floats the Pilgrim, a ship modeled after the brig on which Dana first arrived. It's run by the Orange County Marine Institute (24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr.; 714/496-2274)-- a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching about life below the ocean's surface.

As the sun sets over the water, the dock lights sparkle and everything takes on an otherworldly glow. Stop for a beer at Turk's (26789 Golden Lantern Way; 714/496-9028), a bar with what might just be the world's last free jukebox.

The best view is from the Blue Lantern Inn (34343 Street of the Blue Lantern; 800/950-1236 or 714/661-1304, fax 714/496-1483; doubles from $140), up on the cliffs. At first glance, the lobby's teddy bears-- you can "adopt" one-- may send off your twee alarm. Fear not: the rooms are cool and calm, and some have terraces or balconies. The romance is up to you.

These may not be the area's top restaurants (those tend to be serious, stuffy, and stuck near business parks), but they're the local favorites.

Café Zoolu 860 Glenneyre, Laguna Beach; 714/494-6825; dinner for two $50. On a recent visit, at 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday, there was just one table available-- even the counter seats had been reserved. Forget atmosphere (the salt and pepper shakers are Trader Vic's cast-offs) and focus on the food. The famous swordfish special-- mesquite-grilled, served with a lemon caper sauce, and on the menu 99 percent of the time-- is so big it threatens to put swordfish on the endangered-species list.

Bistro 201 3333 W. Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach; 714/631-1551; dinner for two $60. The façade is unpromising (the sign below the restaurant's says dentistry), as is the location, on a stretch of P.C.H. littered with surf-and-turf joints advertising "Hawaiian seafood." But the ambitious fare, such as salmon rolled in crisp potato crust with vegetable ragošt and basil sauce, is good enough to distract you from the harbor lights.

Ruby's Lunch for two $15. You can hardly throw a beach ball around here without hitting a Ruby's; these forties-style diners (sure, the retro diner is a cliché-- so what?) sit at the end of almost every pier. The burgers are juicy, the salads big, the onion rings irresistible. The branch on the Balboa Pier has rooftop seating that is exquisitely simple: blue sky, white walls, blue sea. It's like a Greek villa that serves chili fries.

Taco Loco 640 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach; 714/497-1635; lunch for two $12. El Burrito Jr. 909 Ocean Ave., Seal Beach; 310/431-8483, lunch for two $12; no credit cards. The battle for best tacos ends in a tie: Taco Loco wins for its hippy-dippy atmosphere (it claims to be the country's first solar-powered restaurant) and its array of yuppiefied fillings, from calamari to lobster to blackened mushroom. But who wants to eat a taco while listening to cars roar by?El Burrito Jr. delivers the real thing: tasty cheek-tingling carne asada tacos.

The best time to go to Balboa Island, a taste of Nantucket in Newport Harbor, is lunchtime. There are three reasons to take the ferry (as opposed to the bridge): it's just a five-minute ride; there are precious few ferries left in southern California; and it costs only 35 cents. As soon as you get off, you'll see a nothing of a building that houses Island Grill (500 S. Bay Front; 714/ 673-1186). Step up to the take-out window and order a $3.95 Balboa burger-- a beach burger par excellence, with bacon, cheese, grilled onions, and avocado (this is California, after all).

A stroll around the island-- actually, the islands, for wedged up against Balboa proper is Little Balboa-- takes about an hour. Pretend you're in the market for a summer house. Would you prefer a Cape Cod bungalow or a sleek eighties temple?Take a look at the benches by the shore-- most have plaques dedicating them to locals ("For Buster Hammond who so loved the sea, his family, and friends, and was the best mud-ball thrower on Balboa Island"). And keep your eyes on the water. You may spot a seal sunbathing on a buoy-- or on some unlucky person's boat.

Marine Avenue, the commercial strip, runs through the island's interior. You'll find a lot of the usual vacation-town junk-- batiks, coral jewelry, T-shirts-- as well as Dad's (318 Marine Ave.; 714/673-8686), a doughnut shop and bakery. Try a Balboa bar (hard to believe, but not everything here is prefixed with the word Balboa), an ice cream bar dipped in chocolate, then rubbed in whatever topping you desire.

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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