I vividly remember sitting in a tow truck one August night and winding up in conversation with the driver, a seventy-something who spent the entire trip explaining to me why he “kept coming back to Southern California.” Let me share the top five highlights of my summer in SoCal, and you might also begin to understand why this place becomes so endearing to so many.
1. Disneyland, Anaheim
I’ve only ever visited the Hong Kong Disneyland, so coming to the mother of Disneylands (circa July 17, 1955) was a treat. Only a 20 minute drive from Santa Ana John Wayne Airport, I bought the $150 “Park Hopper” pass which let us see Disneyland AND California Adventures, the former for childhood throwbacks and the latter for legit rides. This will sound cheesy but my highlight of the day was the fireworks at night. It caught me off guard because I was dragged onto Main Street out of a store by my roommate (God bless) as I had no idea when the show would start. Burst after burst of glitter and light met my disoriented eyes to the rousing crescendo of “When You Wish Upon A Star”- in that moment, I let myself succumb to the day’s worth of magic, nostalgia, and marketing; I made a wish to these gunpowder stars.
2. Balboa Island and the Peninsula, Newport Beach
Newport Beach is unlike any city I have lived in, and definitely possesses a nautical, laid back character unique from other SoCal communities.
There’s actually an interesting story on how the city got its name. You see, by geography, Newport Beach comprises a bunch of canyons and one main estuary carved by prehistoric streams and sand deposits. They are the Upper Bay and the Balboa Peninsula- also known as “the Peninsula,” this is where all the nightlife happens. In the 1800s, the fact that a steamer defied warning and steered its way safely into the bay astounded landowner James Irvine. He rushed down from San Francisco and founded the new port with his brother Robert Irvine and friend James McFadden- they agreed on the name “Newport Beach.” *curtains fall*
Anyway, Newport Beach now houses one of the largest recreational harbors on the West Coast. We took advantage of that and did a weekend of standup paddle-boarding around Balboa Island- it was so much fun! There was a undeniable portion of stalking involved where we tried to identify Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods’ real estate. We also bumped/ paddled into little kids no older than 7, casually loading themselves onto their boards and expertly overtaking us on the narrow waterways between houses. Breezy beach life aside, you don’t get as vibrant a yacht and aquatic sport scene as you do here in Newport.
3. Beverly Hills, Hollywood Boulevard, and Torrance, Los Angeles
This is my third trip to Greater Los Angeles and it never disappoints. We had a lovely friend who took us around town to high five Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen, and Britney Spears (hand prints) at the Avenue of Stars, wrestle with a full-grown anaconda in Hollywood (I’m so strong), and have dinner at a first class restaurant by Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, followed by my first exposure to the crazy cupcake-ice-cream concoction that is Sprinkles. Not to mention, we enjoyed some fun nightlife and a super family-friendly (I mean that as homey and delicious) brunch in Torrance the next morning. It was a fabulous weekend and I hope it’ll happen again!
4. La Jolla, Chula Visa, and Point Loma, San Diego
At ~40,000, La Jolla’s population is half of Newport Beach’s but this San Diego neighborhood is hardly lacking in its seaside splendor. It’s one of those places that has me bouncing out of the car and leaping to any cliff closest to the water for the sole purpose of basking in the 360 degree view. Besides, or I should say, due to, these stunning shores, La Jolla is also known for having the highest home prices in the U.S. in post-crisis 2009. In fact, the average 4 bedroom home was reported as US $2 million- nice! Students at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UC San Diego are so lucky to have this nearby.
We spent the night in Chula Vista, possibly the closest city to the Mexican border in the State of California, and I had the best tacos of my life outside of Mexico- go to Tacos al Gordo, friends. It’s run by a family from Tijuana and one of the finest decisions a foodie can make in her life. We ramped up our appetite by chilling on the beach at Coronado and burying our consenting friends in sand, and arguing about when it would become appropriate to bring one’s girlfriend to the standards of Hotel Coronado (Guys argued for later. Please, you stingy boys.)
We drove back north to Sunset Cliffs at Point Loma the next morning since it sits between La Jolla and Chula Vista. It’s far less inhabited than the former two, which I liked, and, as we observed on the day, a hot coast for pro surfers. This is where the first European settlers set foot in California in 1542. What a profound moment it must have been with this rich view at your feet.
5. Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach, Orange County
Again, two more beach cities to check out, each with its distinctive flair. In my mind, Huntington Beach “Surf City USA” is home to 3 things: the epic annual U.S. Surfing Open, the longest stretch of beach (all 10 miles of it) I ever did visit all summer, and a deliciously authentic Thai restaurant called Thai Gulf- trust me, its 1,000 Yelp reviewers, and my friendly referrer Andy! Fun fact: biggest employers here are Boeing and Quiksilver.
Laguna Beach also has a sweet little Thai restaurant worth trying called Thai Bros. Population equals the undergraduate population at UC Berkeley at approximately 25,000 people. Laguna has a strong surf, art, and environmental stewardship culture. Just beware of kelp season- flies abound when this smelly stuff washes up in swarms onto the beach. Lastly, what may have already popped into your head is the MTV show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Yup, that’s filmed here.
Outlets of Orange (Orange), South Coast Plaza (Costa Mesa), Fashion Island (Newport Beach). Ladies and gentlemen, shop ’til you drop. Enough said.
I am missing SoCal and the freedom to drive everywhere as I wrap this up. NorCal, show me more of what you got.