In my dreams I’m a fearless traveler, stylish carry on in hand, passport in the other and I’m ready to take on any adventure life whispers to my heart. In reality though, I’ve got a bag-load of responsibilities, schedules to coordinate and I’m still a little choosy about which way the wind blows me; sometimes I even huff and puff to get it to blow me in the direction that I want. But a little while ago I was offered an adventure that I couldn’t resist-a tour of Orange County with a group of other writers to see what lovely things my readers might want to know about in the area. The only caveat that made me a little bit nervous: I would be driving solo! I had to rent a car on my own for the first time and I would be in charge of getting myself to all the places on my itinerary. I’ve never done this before but it ended up being the most freeing and wonderful thing for a mom of twins who lately feels like more of a taxi driver than a woman with a whole road of endless possibilities and adventures ahead. If you’re looking for a 4 or 5 day itinerary in the area my trip might also give you an idea of how much you can see in Orange County even for just a few days.
Driving Solo. Have you done this on a trip?
Landing in SNA for the first time I found it quite easy to get to Budget Rent a Car where I was given a row of cars that I could choose. I picked a Toyota Corolla because I’ve driven many Toyotas with ease, and I wanted something I could drive comfortably. Anytime we’ve rented cars my husband goes around the car and takes pictures of anything that looks a little iffy. I had good insurance but I wanted to make sure there would be no trouble so I did the same thing. This rental agency was friendly and it got my trip off to a good start.
A comfortable place to stay in Irvine for both solo travelers and families
My homebase for this trip was the Embassy Suites by Hilton Irvine Orange County and I am such a fan of Embassy Suites hotels for comfortable travel. This one was awesome because it was only about 15 minutes to the airport. There is ample easy parking and a Starbucks in the lobby and the hotel feels fresh, modern and clean. My room had a little fridge and the most delightful welcome amenity when I got there. I also really appreciated that there were many places in the room to charge all my devices-so many hotels I’ve been to don’t have enough accessible electrical outlets. My family could have easily stayed here too-it is such a family-friendly hotel. (And I talked with a few families in the elevator using this as their homebase for Disneyland!) I was overwhelmed by breakfast choices when I ate breakfast here one morning with the abundance of fruit, yogurts, oatmeal, pancakes and homemade omelets- I wish I could have checked out one of their evening happy hours but we were out and about during these times. The iconic airy open atrium in the middle of the hotel that is the same in all the Embassy Suites I’ve ever visited makes it feel like the outdoors is inside-I remember how awe-inspiring the glass-sided elevators looking out at the open lobby felt even when I stayed in Embassy Suites hotels as a kid.
South Coast Plaza and The OC Mix
I lived a year in California ages ago and South Coast Plaza is my dream mall and driving here on my own was no problem. I thought maybe I would have a tough time with parking on this trip, but after living in Seattle where there is no place to put cars, parking in the OC seemed a dream. I met with the group and ate a beautiful meal at the Quattro Cafe in South Coast Plaza and checked out a VIP lounge that you can get tickets to from some hotels in the area. (A friend and I are hoping to head back to this area next month and found a deal at Avenue of the Arts called their Indulge in Style Package that includes access to the VIP lounge.) I was also really intrigued by a secret garden I saw on South Coast Plaza’s Instagram and I wanted to see the Noguchi Garden in person and I’m so glad I got to see it on this trip too. We also stopped by the OC Mix. I would love to come back here to see their farmers market, but I really enjoyed my coffee from Portola and a wine-tasting at LCA Wines. I’m always clueless about wines so I liked that they have classes that teach their consumers about wine and I learned about a really awesome wine that was delicious and only $10.
Anaheim Packing House and a really adorable coffee shop
If you love food and beautiful things there is one place you need to visit in Anaheim other than Disney, and it is the Anaheim Packing House. From my hotel it was only about a thirty minute drive and I gave myself over an hour to get there because I was worried I would be late meeting the group. This gave me time to explore and I found the most adorable coffee shop nearby. Ink and Bean was the perfect prelude to the whole area because there are so many charming shops and places to explore. However, after sipping my delicious honey-cinnamon latte in the cafe dotted with books on the ceiling and typewriters on display and an Airstream packed with pages to borrow, I still was unprepared for how beautifully unreal the Packing House would be. It is a stunning feast for the eyes and any foodie’s heart and if you get there early enough on a weekday, it is not crowded. There is a bar with saddles for stools, tables dotted with lemons, succulents hanging from the ceiling and you’ll even find a garden swing inside where you can sip your MIni Monster tea and film insta-stories to your soul’s content. I’m amazed at the Food Hall scene in California and I hope this trend finds its way to Seattle. The Anaheim Packing House is about a 15 minute drive to Disneyland and we popped into Disneyland this day too, but you’ll definitely need more time if you want to see everything.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
How much would I love to be at the Mission San Juan Capistrano for the Return of the Swallows celebration in March? The Mission is historic and picturesque and it would be easy to spend a whole day in the area. There are cute cafes nearby in the Los Rios Historic district like Hidden House Coffee and Ramos House and it would be a treat to take the Amtrak here and go totally car-free. I have so many beautiful pictures from the Mission and visiting the area would add a historical element to any trip to Orange County.
Electric Biking in Irvine
Do you love to bike when you travel? Electric biking is so perfect in the Irvine/Newport Beach area because you can get to so many places quickly but still feel like you’re outdoors. I rode through the parks and mountains in the local area with Pedego Bikes and it was nice to get fresh air and I didn’t have to work too hard if I didn’t want to but I could still peddle enough that I could get a little workout. We stopped by Tanaka Farms where I visited later in the day and biking through neighborhoods I wouldn’t have normally seen made me feel more like a local than a tourist. I also worked up a good enough appetite that I could try a whole bunch of things at Diamond Jamboree, like Lollicup Bubble Tea, curry from CoCo Ichibanya and am ice cream donut from Afters Ice Cream.
An Evening at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts
One of our evenings was spent at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts where we watched Harry Potter performed with the symphony orchestra. I was a little skeptical at first but it was mesmerizing to see the movie on a big screen but hear the music played by real people. We ate at the Silver Trumpet Restaurant before the show and our drinks were served in gorgeous pineapple goblets. This would be such a fun girl’s night out idea and I noticed that “Love Never Dies“, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s sequel to Phantom of the Opera is playing here (did you know there is a sequel??) in the spring.
Jazz Cruising in Newport Beach
Newport Beach is one of my favorite California Beaches and it was such a treat to see this one by boat. We took a Hornblower Jazz Cruise on a glorious sunshine filled day and peeked out at fancy houses, seals sunning themselves on rocks and surfers splashing in the waves while we ate a delicious brunch. We even saw an engagement which made the day even more festive and fun.
Brunching and Spa-ing in Huntington Beach
The Watertable restaurant at Hyatt Huntington Beach Resort and Spa is delectable in every way, especially at brunch. I couldn’t stop snapping pictures of beautiful design elements all around the restaurant and the buffet was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I especially loved a simple dish of roast vegetables and a banana bread made with avocado but everything was exquisite. I did not want to leave the spa after I had my massage and I think this resort would be a perfect remedy for anyone needing sunshine in their soul. The daily fish feeding, amazing pool and nightly beach bonfires make me want to revisit with my kids. And the whole Huntington Beach area is fun to explore too. Strolling the kitschy souvenir lined pier with hundreds of sun-worshippers while surfers scope the waves below is the epitome of being in a California beach town and I joined the crowds and took it all in.
After four nights in Orange County I came home with so many pictures and so many stories. I felt like I had seen enough of each place in Orange County but I could have easily extended my time in any of these areas for way longer too and seen exponentially more. I traveled with strangers who became friends by the end of the trip and I’m always amazed on these writing trips at how much I learn from the people who I journey with. I think even as a family our trips are like that and maybe we travel to make the world feel smaller, more friendly and more full of love. If you are journeying to Orange County and need some tips, please feel free to message me about any of these and I’ll try to help. I love hearing about other people’s adventures!
(PS. As stated above I was invited on this trip by Visit Orange County and the opinions in this piece are my own. I am so grateful for this experience and that I learned that I could solo travel because of the group I went with and now that I know I can rent a car on my own, I’m excited to try this again.)