A Native’s Take on OC Beaches

ALAN LE/New University

It’s February in Southern California, and you know what that means: it’s time to hit the beach! Just kidding, mostly. Still, we ought to take advantage of our perpetual sun. As the only UC in the OC, we have quite the selection of fine beaches to visit all around us. Sure, we aren’t located directly on the oceanfront like our cousins down at UCSB, but a short drive, bus ride or bicycle trip allows us much more variety.

I grew up in Huntington Beach and spent the better part of my formative years exploring Seal Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, and can certainly give you a taste of what each is like. Hopefully my little guide will help you determine which beach is best for whatever pre-season adventures you’re looking for.

Closest to campus is Irvine’s neighbor Newport Beach, and it provides a little bit of everything. For just $1 a ride, UCI offers the Newport Shuttle on weekdays, which goes directly from its stop in front of Crawford Hall to a number of locations along Pacific Coast Highway. Its route ends ultimately on the Balboa Peninsula, home of famous surfing spot “The Wedge.”

The Balboa Peninsula provides easy access to Balboa Island, where every kid at heart can enjoy the Balboa Fun Zone arcade and mini amusement park and a number of fantastic chocolate-dipped banana stands. For those looking for more grown-up fun though, the Peninsula is home to a number of historic bars, perfect for an evening pub-crawl. The 97-year-old oceanfront District Lounge boasts the longest bar in Orange County, reaching 100 feet across. There is also Sharky’s Sports Bar for you sports fans and Blue Beet’s jazz bar with nightly live entertainment for those interested in something more unique.

If it’s a taste of nature and some tide pool viewing you’re after, look no further than Corona del Mar. This little beach’s rocky shore catches waters at low tide, making it a fun place to experience the habitats of sea stars, anemones and urchins. Part of the city of Newport Beach, this beach is not too far from UCI, has free street parking and is perfectly picturesque.

It’s a great place to take romantic walks and experience nature against a backdrop of possibly the most beautiful sunsets in SoCal, but be warned: the more commercial amusements, like fine dining and entertainment, aren’t so close here. Even access to the beach and caves along it requires a trek down steep and windy hillside paths.

Travel farther north and you’ll hit Bolsa Chica State Beach. It is similarly great for the outdoorsy nature seekers. Just north of the nearly 100-year-old Huntington Pier is the three-mile long state beach. It’s great for fishing (by hand and with a permit) and is a popular surfing spot, home to nationwide competitions. There is also a bike path that stretches all the way from the Huntington Pier to the Back Bay, a great area for bird watching.

This state beach runs through Sunset Beach, where I have spent almost every Sunday afternoon with my big Italian family since I was young. For those not interested in fish or bird watching, the beach provides ample opportunity to collect shells and wide open shorelines to enjoy tanning. Coming this May is the beach town’s annual Mother’s Day art festival, which fills its streets with vendors and ends with an art exhibit in the small Fire Station at its end. Be warned though, street-side parking here is free but sparse, and your sea-side dining and shopping needs will be met better down PCH in the more contemporary shopping center across from the Huntington Beach Pier. Parking is no problem there.

Even though Huntington and Sunset beaches were the playgrounds of my childhood, my best memories are of Seal Beach, where my mother grew up. The closely packed shops along the boardwalk have an old-timey feel to them, and many carry traditional beach paraphernalia such as decorated shells and sea glass. My favorite stop was always the mom-and-pop ice cream shop at the end, just steps from the sand.

If, however, you are in search of high civilization, Laguna is the beach for you. The shoreline is not the easiest of all to access, but it features a number of high-end shops and fancy restaurants and is certainly special for those who are looking to spend a romantic night out or afternoon antiquing. Parking here, though, is neither free nor easy. My sister and I once spent half an hour just looking for the lots.

Whether you need an escape from suburban Irvine or picturesque and high-style dining experience, Orange County has the beach to serve that need, and all well within an hour’s drive or bus ride away.