Destination: John Wayne Airport
North Orange County, California welcomes tourists through a busy airport that sits tucked in between freeway cloverleaves. Officially named Santa Ana Airport, it is better known as John Wayne airport because Big John lived in nearby Newport Beach.
If you are not afraid of freeway traffic, John Wayne is an easy in-easy out airport. Architecturally simple, it has clean arced lines, and all boarding gates face the street. Boarding and arriving passengers are less than fifty feet from the curb. There is ample short-term parking on site, and rental cars are one or two levels down below a lot across the street.
Tip: If you are guest at one of the local resort hotels, you do not need a rental. Prestigious Newport Beach resorts, including the Hyatt Regency, the Balboa Bay Club and Resort, the Marriott’s Hotel and Spa and their Bayview Resort, all provide convenient shuttles.
All the usual mid-priced hotels are located nearby or in adjacent towns of Costa Mesa, Tustin, and Santa Ana. Traffic permitting, you can be at the beach in 20 minutes or Disneyland in 25.
Tip: Even Walt Disney did not have the foresight to buy up more land around what would be “The Happiest Place on Earth” (a mistake he would not repeat in Orlando’s Disneyworld). Disneyland is now densely surrounded by businesses and residences. However, over the last 10 years – since Disney opened California Adventure adjacent to Disneyland, Disney has partnered with the City of Anaheim to broaden and beautify the streets, moving traffic more smoothly and extending the park’s ambiance out into the neighboring areas.
Most of the major hotel resorts at Disneyland also have shuttles to and from the airport. If visiting Disneyland for vacation or a convention, you will not be going anywhere else, so skip the rental. Free trolleys will take you around the Anaheim resort area including Downtown Disneyland with its shops, restaurants, and entertainment.
If your budget allows for family time at yet another theme park, the John Wayne airport is only 25-30 minutes from Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. Still in North Orange County, this amusement park predates the Disney parks, has a more old-fashioned feel to it, and has rides geared to older children and teens. Within walking distance of Knott’s Berry Farm are attractions, such as Medieval Times and Pirates Dinner Adventure. (If your hotel is in the Disneyland resort area, you are still only 10 minutes from Buena Park.)
Tip: Sports fans visiting North Orange County during the right season can see the California Angels play at a great baseball venue or the Anaheim Ducks at The Honda Pond.
The Pacific Ocean awaits you if you go in the opposite direction. Within 15-20 minutes from the John Wayne Airport, you can surf, swim, and sunbathe on some of the west coast’s most beautiful beaches.
· Corona del Mar: Just parallel to John Wayne Airport and less than 10 minutes by car is the wealthy, sleepy town of Corona del Mar. Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), lined with exclusive shops and restaurants, severs the town, pushing the ocean to the bottom of a high cliff. To secure parking, you must arrive before 11 a.m. and drive down a steep slope to the paid parking. The beach is crescent shaped with cliffs and rocks to the south and a jetty holding back Newport Bay Inlet. The beach is protected by attentive lifeguards, and features restrooms, changing rooms, showers, snack bars, and volley ball courts. Because of the jetty’s protection is the surf is never high, but waves support body surfing.
Tip: A little known feature of this beach is Mother’s Beach, a small beach north of the jetty and facing the inlet. For generations, mothers have climbed the rocks to let their toddlers splash in the bay’s gentle waters with lifeguard watching, too.
· Balboa Peninsula: Just north of the Newport Bay Inlet is The Wedge, one of the California’s highest rated surf beaches, with thunderous waves shaped by the inlet’s rock jetty. The Peninsula is only a block wide and hosts some modest but well placed hotels. Only one, The Balboa Inn faces the ocean, but it also overlooks the very active and noisy strand and pier. The Peninsula has a number of restaurants and a modest amusement area, called “The Fun Zone.”
Tip: The Fun Zone is the entrance to boat tours of the harbor with its luxury homes and even more expensive yachts. It also has a ferry to the picturesque Balboa Island with its walking paths, shops, and restaurants.
· Huntington Beach: North of Newport Beach is the enormous stretch of Huntington Beach. Long and wide, the beach is spotless and sports volley ball courts, basketball courts, biking, and skating paths along with showers, restrooms, and snack bars. Facing this stretch of beach are the Hyatt and Hilton waterfront resorts. The beach has large parking areas with easy access that sit at the end of Orange County’s main streets.
At the center of the town is a long pier that has become the heart of the city. As it joins PCH, there is a concert venue sculpted into the side of the hill. The beach south of the pier hosts the annual US Open Surf Championships and other extreme sports events throughout the year.
Stretching for four blocks directly inland from the pier, Main Street is lined by shops and outdoor restaurants. Recent modernization and street improvements have yuppyfied what had been a funky beach town that is still considered the “capital of American surfing,” but check out the Surf Museum behind the Starbucks.
Tip: If you are staying just a few hours, park in the lots along Main Street; parking is cheaper than the beach parking.
· Seal Beach: About three miles north of Huntington Beach, passing through the less accessible Bolsa Chica Beach, is Sunset Beach, a very clean quiet strip of beach with relatively low cost rentals. But, just north of Sunset Beach is Seal Beach, reminiscent of a New England beach town, red brick cottages and Victorian gingerbread, bed & breakfasts, and lots of shops along quiet streets.
Day trip, weekend, weeklong, look at all you can do within 30 minutes of easy drive from Santa Ana Airport. Of course, this trip did not include visits south to Irvine, Laguna, Dana Point, or San Juan Capistrano or San Clemente. That’s another 30 minutes for another time.