Lido Marina Village
Credit: Lido Marina Village

If there were an Orange County phrasebook for travellers, it might start with "Do you validate?" 

As a transit riding Vancouverite, “valeting” is a new verb in my travel lexicon but after two days in Orange County, I’m just about fluent in the practice. Even more satisfying? Scoring sweet, free, parking validation.

The O.C. is new to me, but thanks to pop culture, not wholly unfamiliar. Gwen Stefani was “Just a Girl” here, the County launched The Real Housewives of… franchise, and what is Anaheim without Disney? As an understudy of Orange County cool, I base myself in Newport Beach, setting of the fictional teen drama The O.C


Newport Beach

Lido Marina VillageLido Marina Village

Lido Marina VillageLido Marina Village

My first master class takes place at the epicentre of Newport style: Lido Marina Village. Its white-washed village walls evoke a starched nautical crispness. Local boutiques curate niche goods, from baubles to hand-mixed perfumes to bespoke monogram stationary. As I peruse greeting cards in Sugar Paper I overhear a woman giggle, "I have to come back when I haven't had two glasses of Champagne." No one can blame her for tipping her glass to Saturday afternoon in the O.C.


It's in Lido Marina that I pick up on another new term: “Duffy”. Duffy, noun,  quintessential Newport Beach electric boat that drives as easily as a golf cart. They're the best way to put-put the marina, Champagne in hand, and an even better way to peep Balboa Island’s lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous mansions. Don't forget your oversize sunglasses, gawking is so gauche.

Lido Marina VillageLido Marina Village

Once you've worked up a sun-kissed appetite, take a page from the Newport Beach playbook and dock n' dine: park the Duffy, totter ashore and pull up a chair at a dockside eatery.

Dining options in Newport have been affectionately described to me by locals as "high tide/low tide", a nautical play on highbrow/lowbrow. (Another phrase for the lexicon!) "You can be sitting in a dive bar next to a guy in an untucked Hawaiian shirt drinking a $3 beer and not know he owns one of the $16-million mansions on Balboa," laughs Sara Gorgon from Visit Newport Beach. 

Lido Bottleworks Newport BeachNiyaz Pirani, Knife & Spork Public Relations

I'm not dressed to "be seen" this evening, so I skip high tide Nobu. Instead, I shore up at Lido Bottleworks, an inviting eatery serving plates made with hyperlocal ingredients, craft brews, California wines and draft kombucha. The warmth of the interior timber accents, hand-painted tiles, and Mexican frazada textiles make it a place I want to loiter. The menu is small and all of the bites compete for my attention.

Lido Bottleworks Newport BeachNiyaz Pirani, Knife & Spork Public Relations

Lido Bottleworks Newport BeachNiyaz Pirani, Knife & Spork Public Relations

Paralyzed by indecision I order Iberico "secreto" pork, cauliflower, burrata, and short rib croquettes. I rule out the tuna tartare and rockfish ceviche only on the basis of being pregnant. Dessert is a chocolate mousse with sea salt and olive oil, a surprisingly well-paired flavour profile. 

Huntington Beach

huntington beach surfer sunset Eric Saunders | Unsplash

The next day, I head up the coast to Huntington Beach.

It's easy to see what makes Huntington Beach Orange County cool. A 16-kilometre beach is skirted by frothy white swells; girls with sea salt hair ride by me on cruiser bicycles; a crowd of surfers sit atop their boards, reading the waves. It’s Sunday mid-morning and boardshort and hoodie-wearing locals are fishing from the pier. Others are observing brunch, worshipping their eggs Benny and Blood Marys at restaurants casually named Duke’s, Ruby’s, and Jack’s.

huntington beach pier Renato Sanchez Lozada | Unsplash

Huntington Beach Pier Orange County CaliforniaDerek Liang | Unsplash

It’s easy to fall into rhythm in Huntington Beach, or, “Surf City USA”, but I need to look the part. From afar, Pacific City screams "mall". Instead, this open-air shopping plaza features a local vendor’s dining hall and racks of boho-inspired threads. One flowy maxi dress later, I head over to the International Surf Museum - Philz Coffee in-hand – to bone up on SoCal surf history.

Counted among the surf memorabilia is the camera Bruce Brown used to film Endless Summer, a film I watched as one of my first primers to Orange County cool. Before I leave, I add a few more words to my ever-expanding O.C. vocabulary: “grom”, “quiver” and “sick”.


Laguna Beach

Montage Laguna Beach Orange CountyDerek Liang | Unsplash

For my final lesson I travel to Laguna Beach, where the County’s wide-brim beaches give way to dramatic bluffs, canyons and craggy coves.

I valet at Montage, an ultra-luxe hotel overlooking the Pacific. I’m feeling a bit out of place among the Housewives and $850 USD-per-night guests, but no one pays me much mind. I snap a photo from the balcony before beelining it outdoors.

MontageJennifer Hubbert

The view from Treasure Island Beach is as pretty as a picture - and there are plenty of pictures to prove it. Since 1999, the city has hosted the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational. Lucky for me, my visit happens to coincide with day one of the 2017 festival. I trace the paved walk along the ocean bluff where 35 artists are interpreting the windswept ­­­­scene before them.

Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting InvitationalJennifer Hubbert

It’s here that I meet Deborah Copeland, a plein air art fan from New York who has travelled to the Laguna Invitational nine times over 10 years. I ask her if she has any connection to the O.C. outside of plein air painting. She shakes her head no before offering up an explanation that perfectly captures the essence of Orange County cool. “I fell in love with plein air painting. [At the Laguna Invitational] you get to talk to the artists and that’s very different from the culture in New York. In New York, sometimes you walk into a gallery and it’s very haughty. Are you good enough to patronize my gallery? You don’t get to meet the artists.”

Put otherwise, Orange County cool is breezy ease, class without the sass, millionaires without the haughty airs. This whole time, I thought O.C. cool was an attitude. But I find no attitude here – just an Orange County state of mind.


Need a hand planning your getaway?
Let the official visitor bureaus lend a hand: | 
Visit Newport Beach 
Surf City USA | Visit Laguna Beach

Have you played it cool in Orange County? 

Show us: tag us on Instagram

More Orange County on Canadian Traveller: