The Real O.C.

Tired of being the 90 pound weakling to the big beach bullies elsewhere along the California coast, tourism suppliers in Orange County’s (O.C.) beach communities are throwing a little sand of

Tired of being the 90-pound weakling to the big beach bullies elsewhere along the California coast, tourism suppliers in Orange County’s (O.C.) beach communities are throwing a little sand of their own.

The OCeanfront — an alliance of resorts, shopping centers, golf clubs and visitor and convention bureaus in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Dana Point — is mounting a big push to raise Orange County’s profile as a world-class destination for sun and surf seekers. The thrust of the campaign is that the county’s 42 miles of uninterrupted coast can equal or outdo higher-profile destinations like Malibu and Santa Monica when it comes to cliff-top retreats and crashing surf, not to mention proximity to a certain, big-headed rodent named Mickey.

The OCeanfront recently hosted TravelAge West on a tour of its member properties, giving us a top-to-bottom look at the O.C., starting in the north at Surf City (aka Huntington Beach) and ending in Dana Point on the southern edge of Orange County.

Be sure to check out the OCeanfront’s newly relaunched Web site ( It’s a one stop shop for coastal Orange County tourism and offers access to the alliance’s new consumer magazine, The OCeanfront. 

Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, Huntington Beach

Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort // (c) 2008 
Hilton Waterfront

One of the best values on the beach (rack rates start at around $200), the Hilton Waterfront is directly across busy Pacific Coast Highway from Huntington Beach’s splendid eight-mile beach. The 290, newly renovated guestrooms feature a cool, high-tech touch: motion-sensor lights that automatically turn on so you won’t stumble to bathroom in the middle of the night. Guests may choose between Sunrise and Sunset rooms. The latter offer views of a setting sun behind historic Huntington Pier. (A word of advice: The Pacific City development, under construction just north of the hotel, may detract from views, so advise clients to inquire at check-in.) One of the clever features of this hotel is that management puts leisure and convention guests in separate areas.

The hotel offers a front-row seat to the town’s famous Fourth of July parade and the annual U.S. surfing championship. Getting to downtown involves an easy walk or bike ride along a beachfront path. Or, just for fun, clients can also rent a safari cart. After sunset, guests can enjoy a drink by the pool-view fire pit or wander across the street and build their own fire at a public pit on the beach. Vendors sell wood on the beach, but the hotel offers cookout packages containing hot dogs, fixings for s’mores, wood and more.

Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Spa & Resort

Fire pit at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach // (c) 2008 
Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach

This 517-room property, located across the Pacific Coast Highway from Huntington Beach’s eight miles of white sand, is ideal for clients who want everything close at hand. There are three restaurants, plus an intimate, private dining room that specializes in food and wine pairings for up to 12 guests. An outdoor retail space has a surf shop and grocery store. (Advise clients to grab a s’mores kit here and take it to a beach fire pit.) The hotel’s own arched bridge over the Pacific Coast Highway makes it easy to get to the beach. The large pool is curvy and lagoon-style. Winding paths throughout the property lead guests to cozy, Spanish-tiled nooks with fireplaces and comfy sofas. Rooms feature Andalusia- and Hawaii-inspired decor.

The 100,000 square feet of meeting place (including a 20,000-square foot ballroom) are so close to the beach that conventioneers can pop over to get their feet wet during a 20-minute conference break.

Balboa Bay Club & Resort, Newport Beach

Balboa Beach Club Resort // (c) 2008 
Balboa Bay Club & Resort

Perched along a channel in the heart of Newport Beach boating country, this Mediterranean-style resort, with 160 guestrooms and 10 suites, started life in 1948 as a private yacht club and soon became a mecca for Hollywood glamourati seeking relief from the summer heat in Los Angeles.

Completely redone five years ago and now open to all, the Balboa Bay Club — named one of Travel & Leisure’s top 500 hotels in the world in 2008 — will appeal to clients looking for intimacy and sophistication. The chandelier in the lobby drips with sparkling crystal, the library is furnished primarily in leather and the blue-and-white nautical motif repeats throughout.

Alfresco dining at the First Cabin Restaurant offers a front-row seat to the zaniness of the summertime sailboat competitions known as beer can races. Or, guests can take to the water themselves in a Duffy boat, electric kayak or Chris Craft. After sunset, Duke’s Club, which pays homage to yachtsman and former neighbor John Wayne, offers dancing and live entertainment.

Hyatt Regency Newport Beach Resort & Spa

Located just inland from the beach on a delta known as the Back Bay, this 403-room property is an economical alternative to beachfront hotels yet offers lots of family-friendly activities in a close-to-nature setting. The grounds are sprawling. There are three pools, a 24-hour fitness gym, par-three golf, and walking/bicycling trails. Close by is the Newport Aquatic Center, which offers kayaking, rowing and more. The chic eating and shopping scene on Balboa Island is a short walk away. Also near by is the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Ecological Reserve, popular with birders and hikers.

Jazz-lovers will want to book here for the Hyatt Regency’s annual Smooth Jazz Festival, which draws top talent each summer to the hotel’s own amphitheater. (A room with a balcony is a terrific skybox.)

The Island Hotel Newport Beach

Geared toward the executive business traveler, this 20-story hotel (formerly a Four Seasons and now managed by the Irvine Company Resort Proerties) is located in an upscale business district across the street from Fashion Island shopping mall. It won’t put you directly on the beach but an oceanview room will give you fabulous views of Catalina and Balboa islands in a setting that puts a premium on attentive service.

Rooms (295 guestrooms, 64 executive suites and 19 luxury suites) were recently renovated with European-style furnishings. The “small bites” menu at the signature restaurant, Palm Terrace, is a great way to sample chef Bill Bracken’s playful approach to American-style cuisine.

Marriott Newport Beach Hotel & Spa

There’s nothing like a good cardio workout before a 9 a.m. meeting. This 532-room property can kick up a ho-hum convention schedule with fun, team-building exercise activities, such as sunrise yoga, Pilates, full-body workouts or a bike ride to nearby Balboa Island.

Located across the street from famous Fashion Island mall and a few minutes from the beach, the hotel recently emerged from a $75 million renovation, which saw the addition of the Pure Blu Spa and five penthouse suites with fabulous ocean views. Two of the penthouses are 1,500-square-foot presidential suites, the ideal setting to clink champagne glasses for the hotels’ complementary 5:55 p.m. “toast to the coast” cocktail, offered Monday through Friday.

The Resort at Pelican Hill, Newport Beach

Set to open in late November, this newest addition to the O.C. coastal resort scene will appeal to deep-pocketed clients looking for ultra everything. The setting overlooking a serene stretch of coast is awesome. The 128 bungalows and 204 villas, each with a private terrace and unobstructed ocean view, are luxuriously appointed. Developer Irvine Company Resort Properties promises a level of service that is hyper attentive to the smallest detail. (Have a hankering for something at 3 a.m.? Just ring your butler.)

The goal of the layout is for guests to feel like they’ve rented a very private, luxury home rather than a hotel suite. Bungalows and villas are spread out among 504 acres and are spacious (875 square feet to nearly 2,500 square feet, including terraces) and low profile (nothing is higher than two stories). The arched porticos and columns lend a Palladian feel to the architecture that is enhanced by abundant olive trees. The ballroom is exquisite at sunset, when light streams in through wall-sized windows.

The showstopper and center of activity on a hot summer day will be the pool: perfectly circular at 136 feet in diameter and lined with a million, handmade iridescent tiles.                                                                                                             

Surf & Sand Resort, Laguna Beach

A Travel and Leisure Top 500 hotel for 2008, this quintessential, SoCal on-the-beach property, which celebrated its 60th birthday in 2008, lives up to its name. Hop out of bed in the morning, step outside and you’re on Bluebird Beach, popular with boogie boarders and castle makers.

As romantic dining venues go, the patio at Splashes Restaurant is off the charts, especially if you happen to be there when the ocean glows neon blue with bioluminescence. (Tip: Try to snag a table against a glass screen for an unobstructed view.) The165 guestrooms and 13 suites all offer ocean views and were recently remodeled with light wood, striped fabrics and beds positioned at a diagonal. Glass doors open to private balconies.

Word to the wise: The Pacific Ocean is one of Mother Nature’s more enthusiastic noisemakers, so ear plugs are not a bad idea. Unless you want to be awakened by a web-footed friend, be sure to close the sliding glass doors at night.

Once you hand the valet your car keys, you won’t need your wheels again. Downtown art galleries, shops and restaurants are just an easy walk away, and are accessible along the beach at low tide.

Montage Laguna Beach

Montage Laguna Beach // (c) 2008  
Montage Laguna Beach

This hotel definitely epitomizes the luxe life and is not recommended for clients who gasp at checkout. Set on a bluff overlooking the ocean, the Montage deftly combines the vintage feel of craftsman architecture with the contemporary trappings of an ultra-luxury resort. The arts-and-crafts-inspired decor is repeated throughout, from the pitched-ceiling lobby to the 190 guestrooms and 60 suites, which feature custom-wood furnishings, muted colors, Early California artwork, and private balconies or patios. Museum-quality fine art hangs throughout. The Studio is a dreamy, bluff-top restaurant where you can watch sailboats and dolphins in the distance.

The beautifully landscaped garden has winding walking paths. The beach, full of tide pools, is an easy walk down a pretty path. (If you’re not waterlogged after the pool and beach, there’s always the sink-in tub in your bathroom.)

Downtown Laguna Beach is a healthy walk away but reachable via hotel shuttle. Before checking out, take a last look at the starburst mosaic on the bottom of the pool. It will leave an indelible picture in your mind.

St. Regis Monarch Beach, Dana Point

St. Regis Monarch Beach // (c) 2008 
St. Regis Monarch Beach

One of the newer additions to the O.C. luxury line-up, this 400-room resort above the Pacific is like a movie star decked out in Valentino and dripping with diamonds on Oscar night — glitzy, glamorous and truly something to behold. The setting on 172 acres is breathtaking. The red-roofed, Tuscan-inspired architecture, with lots of columns, arches and stone balustrades, wraps around the largest of three pools, with a dramatic fountain that evokes a Florentine villa. Beyond are the gentle undulations of a Trent Jones-designed 18-hole golf course and, farther out, the blue Pacific. Rooms feature contemporary, tropical-flavored stylings, with shutters, potted palms and aubergine walls. If you want to check out the contemporary art collection, rent the 5,000-square-foot presidential suite, where a Picasso and Miro reside.

Guests have access to a gated, members-only beach just down the hill at the Monarch Bay Club, where a beach butler will fetch you a bottle of sunscreen or adjust your umbrella. The downside is that this private beach is accessible only by hotel tram. A public beach is a long, but pleasant, walk.

A member of the Starwood Hotels family, the St. Regis Monarch Beach is the only Mobil Five-Star, AAA Five-Diamond resort in California and is a popular choice among corporate meeting planners.

Laguna Cliffs Resort & Spa, Dana Point

This 376-room resort will appeal to clients looking for a lower-priced alternative to a five-star resort and car-free access to a fun array of marine activities. Located on a cliff overlooking Dana Point Harbor, the hotel is a Marriott but you’d never know it. The architecture evokes a Cape Cod cottage for its gray exterior and the Hotel del Coronado for its sloping, cupola-topped, red roof. A 118-step stairway or hotel shuttle takes guests to the busy harbor, where they’ll find shops, restaurants, boating, dolphin- and whale-watching excursions, a one-hour boat to Catalina Island, and the nationally known Ocean Institute, which offers fun marine science and history for kids. Also within walking distance is the white-sand Doheny State Beach; a hotel shuttle is also available. Guests looking to take it easy can take advantage of a full-service spa, two pools and 40 acres of lush landscaping, studded with pine trees.

Guestrooms have been recently redesigned in a nautical motif, with blue and gold colors that celebrate the surf and sun. Most guestrooms are ocean view, with bay windows and balconies. There are also 15 luxury suites, three parlor suites and a presidential suite.

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, Dana Point

Some destination resorts shout their presence. This one announces itself discretely. Set on a bluff 150 feet above the ocean, the 393-room Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel is remarkable for its low, Spanish-Mediterranean profile that blends in nicely with this rugged bit of California coast. Opened in 1984, the hotel recently completed a $40 million renovation that uses a palette of cream and muted blue to create an open, airy, sand-and-sea feel.

Standout features include the two-level fitness center, a big, stand-alone ballroom (popular with Hollywood studios for pre-release screenings), and the splendid Restaurant 162’. All three offer killer ocean views. Set aside an afternoon for a wine/cheese/chocolate tasting at ENO.

For beachcombers, a big plus is easy, foot access to beach. Just follow the paved, handicapped-accessible path down to Salt Creek Beach, which offers two miles of sandy beach and some of the best surfing in Southern California.