Back in the OC’s Best Beach Cities

5 years ago, we packed up our Newport Beach apartment and made the move to Oxnard, California.

If you’re familiar with the two cities, then you know this was quite a contrast. But with Matt traveling more throughout the central coast of California, it only made sense that after I finished by studies at Cal State Fullerton that we’d move into a new place together farther north.

We had some of our best years living in Orange County. Sure, it was a big leap for a few young kids who were just learning about life in the real world, and we missed our families terribly. But we grew into adults in this crazy place. In some ways, the suburban nature of the OC felt a little like home (at least in comparison to LA). But in many other ways, the excess of wealth on full display often left us feeling like little kids in awe.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

Nonetheless, we found our place in Orange County. We’d spend our weekends window shopping at Fashion Island or going to one of the many beautiful beach cities. We couldn’t afford to live like kings, but when you’re a 19 year old kid from South Dakota, eating a burger on the Huntington Beach pier pretty much makes you feel like the luckiest kid on earth.

Last weekend, thanks to Matt’s company Christmas party, we were able to return to our favorite OC beach cities and relive some of our glory days. We drove up from Encinitas on a rather gloomy morning, which unfortunately lasted the whole day. At Dana Point we veered off the 5 for a drive up Pacific Coast Highway into Laguna Beach.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

I couldn’t tell if it was just my fuzzy and distorted memory, but Laguna Beach seemed to have gotten quite a face lift in recent years. We passed by a ton of new shops and restaurants as we walked down PCH towards the boardwalk.

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The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

I highly recommend stopping into YOLK. Inside was a cute mish-mash of home decor, baby items, and kids games and books.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

And is this the world’s smallest art gallery? Look how tiny!

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

On our walk back up PCH for some lunch, we stopped off at a not-so-hidden gem. The lookout deck just past Wyland Galleries offers a pretty view of the Laguna Beach coastline. The iron lettered signs had become noticably rustier since our last visit 5+ years ago.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

We made our way up the hill to La Casa del Camino, a hotel that also happens to have a nice rooftop bar open to the public. With the heaters running it stayed nice and warm up top, despite the 50 degree temperatures. We enjoyed some cocktails and appetizers (though they do serve brunch on the weekends, if you’re looking for something heartier!)

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

Beware of the seagulls! We almost lost our lunch on several occasions!

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

After a bite to eat, it was back up the coast to Newport Beach. We’d lived in the city for just a year, but it was my very favorite place we’d ever lived. I insisted we make a stop by our old apartment along the Back Bay (though I forgot to take a picture, d’oh!)

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

We stopped by Corona del Mar State Beach, our favorite of the OC beaches for views, tide pool watching and laying out in the sun. Between Narcissus and Orchid Avenue, you’ll find free parking on the street and a steep path that leads down to Inspiration Point.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

If you really want to feel envious, drive around Corona del Mar and peek at the ridiculously gorgeous houses. I’ll just take a little one…is that so much to ask?

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

Like really, who lives here?? Talk about location.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

Next we were off to Balboa Island, a little island between mainland Newport Beach and the Balboa Peninsula. It was one of our favorite spots to take visitors when we lived in the area. Don’t be fooled: while the island cottages may be packed in like sardines and not nearly as opulent, they’re still wildly unaffordable as well. The cute tiny ones are my favorite.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip
The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip
The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

The island is easy to get to, connected by bridge from Jamboree Road. Along Marine Avenue you’ll find island decor, restaurants, and souvenir shops. We’re always sure to stop into Balboa Candy for some salt water taffy, so this time was no exception.

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The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

For other sweet treats we love Too Sweet (they have the best cheesecake caramel apple!), or Dad’s Original for a frozen dipped banana or Balboa Bar.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

After eating our treats, we got back into the car for a trip on the Balboa Island Ferry. Of course, just our luck, we would get stuck behind a bunch of Santa-Con goers (this wasn’t our first run in with the likes of these!)

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

It was a bit too chilly to be hanging out at the Balboa Fun Zone, but it’s otherwise a fun stop for an old school boardwalk type of feel. Instead, we drove up to Huntington Beach for the next stop on our OC beach city tour.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

Wow, I was amazed by how much Huntington Beach has changed since we left! That Pacific City thing? Yeah, that didn’t exist.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

We headed up to Fred’s for a margherita and boy did I feel my age starting to show. Fred’s was pretty much the coolest place when I was 21. This time it left me wondering, “has this place always had zebra print carpet?” Nonetheless, it was a mighty fine cheap marg with a view.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland TripThe OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

Though we were freezing, we figured we’d might as well walk the pier a little bit. The sun was finally peeking out…just in time for it to set, and we didn’t make it far before turning back and popping into Huntington Surf & Sport to browse some beach gear.

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

It was crazy to see the beach so completely empty. During the summertime, it’s packed with people and buzzing with energy!

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The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

With the sun setting on us, we drove back down to Crystal Cove for a final stop at Javier’s. We were able to catch a table by the fire in the more casual bar area just before the dinner rush came in (thank goodness, since they don’t take reservations for 2!). The margheritas and amazing Mexican food are completely worth the trouble of gambling for an open table!

The OC's favorite beach cities: Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach // Family Vacation | California Travel | Disneyland Trip

After an early dinner, we old timers realized we don’t quite have the same energy we once did, and with a short drive back down to Encinitas we were happily in bed by 8. It would appear our travel routine has been permanently altered, with or without a kid in tow!

Read Next: A Perfect Weekend in Sausalito

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