Your Coastal Concierge
September is a magical time for Irvine residents to visit our local coast. The crowds have dispersed, and the ocean – like the place – is the perfect temperature.
Proximity to the Pacific is part of the allure of Irvine, a master-planned community that is only minutes from miles of beaches, a five-star resort and Michelin-rated restaurants.
The following tips will help you discover and explore 10 particularly lovely spots on a coast that may be Southern California’s answer to the Riviera.
1. Find your fall style at Fashion Island
The weeks before the holiday rush offer a more relaxed occasion to reinvigorate your wardrobe with a trip to Fashion Island, Orange County’s alfresco seaside showcase for world-class style.
“What I am most excited about for the fall is all the vivid, bold colors,” says Sara Aplanalp, Fashion Island’s personal shopper and lead stylist. “This season will keep building on a post-pandemic mindset of mood-boosting behaviors, including wearing bright-colored clothing. You’re going to see pinks of every shade, greens, oranges and yellows – even with traditional fall layering.”
The highlight event of the season is Orange County’s premier fashion and beauty event, StyleWeek OC, at Fashion Island from September 14 to 18. The event features a runway show, in-store parties and free fitness classes.
This year’s panelists include models-turned-entrepreneurs Jasmine Tookes and Josephine Skriver, co-founders of the athleisure brand Joja. They and other style thought leaders will help shoppers navigate our ever-shifting dress codes.
You can indulge your StyleWeek inspiration at Fashion Island’s 150 carefully curated stores, featuring premier brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, St. John, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus and new emerging brands like Vuori, Alo Yoga and TravisMathew Experience.
The coastal views and refreshing breeze mean you can feel as good as you look.
2. Kayak one of California’s largest estuaries
Upper Newport Bay, which locals call “the Back Bay,” is a natural wonder, with 15 million-year-old bluffs overlooking one of California’s largest and wildest estuaries. But it’s most famous for the birds – and fall is the best time to see them.
The Back Bay is renowned as one of the finest bird-watching sites in North America, a “hot spot” for a rich diversity of species. During winter migration, which starts in September and peaks in October and November, more than 30,000 birds at a time may fill the skies over the bay on their way south from their Arctic breeding grounds.
“My favorite way to see them is on a kayak, because it’s like you’re in a zoo with no walls separating you from the wildlife,” says Heather Cieslak, operations director for the Newport Bay Conservancy.
The conservancy offers two-hour guided kayaking tours through the heart of the bay’s ecological reserve every weekend morning year-round for $25.
But nature-lovers can also explore the reserve on foot or bike along the 10.5-mile Back Bay Loop Trail, with scenic stops at Newport Dunes, Upper Castaways Park, Back Bay Lookout and Big Canyon Inlet. The most ambitious cyclists can travel all the way from Irvine on the 22-mile-long Mountains to Sea Trail.
Parking is available at the Peter & Mary Muth Interpretive Center, a 10,000-square-foot educational facility built into the side of one of the bluffs, and a great place to learn more about the bay.
3. Splendid seclusion at the Resort at Pelican Hill
For a romantic getaway at summer’s end, the Resort at Pelican Hill offers five-star accommodations in a Mediterranean village perched on 504 acres with panoramic ocean views.
“You get the stunning visuals you’d expect in Tuscany,” says a recent review in Conde Nast Traveler.
Private, sea-view bungalows set the scene for your escape. Residential-scaled streets invite couples to stroll the spacious, village-like grounds, with paths offering sweeping views from the bluffs.
“Fall is my favorite time at the resort,” says Gerard Widder, the resort’s managing director. “It feels like more of a haven than ever. And the sunsets are spectacular.”
Spend a perfect afternoon at the centerpiece of the resort: the circular Coliseum Pool, bedecked with more than a million hand‑cut mosaic tiles and flanked by Palladian columns. You might follow your swim with an aromatherapy massage or facial at the resort’s acclaimed spa.
No getaway is complete without a long walk along the unspoiled sandy beach at Crystal Cove. But if you prefer manicured greens, Pelican Hill features two world-class golf courses designed by Tom Fazio.
For those who want to share the joy and bring the family or friends, two-, three- and four-bedroom villas can accommodate larger groups and offer the rich details of a private home in a relaxed resort-like setting.
4. Communing with nature in Crystal Cove
In September from the shoreline at Crystal Cove State Park, you may catch sight of a migrating gray whale. Or wander through the tide pools at low tide along the 3.2-mile-long beach to see starfish, periwinkle snails and sea urchins. The tide pools are the park’s star attraction, says Winter Bonnin, a state park naturalist.
“Lots of Orange County residents have never even seen one before,” Bonnin explains. “When they show up for one of our two low tides a day and gaze into those natural pools, they’re amazed at the sea life happening just inches away.”
You can explore the shoreline on foot or wade or swim among the bright orange garibaldi in the park’s protected kelp forest. Or follow some of the 18 miles of wilderness trails leading through the adjacent backcountry wilderness in the 2,791-acre park.
Hollywood producers, enchanted by the setting, have set more than a dozen movies here, including “A Few Good Men” and “Beaches.” If you’re savvy enough to sign up really early, you can reserve one of the 46 rustic beach cottages that were used as secret vacation spots by Hollywood stars in the 1930s.
5. Choose your hiking adventure at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
Make sure to start out in the cool of the morning for a hike in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, a 7,000-acre preserve overlooking Laguna Beach.
The park, which lies within some of Southern California’s last remaining coastal canyons, offers a varied landscape of woodlands, grasslands and coastal ridges, with some special attractions in September. The coastal goldenbush is covered with tiny yellow blossoms, and bright red fuchsias are in bloom near the Nix Nature Center, where visitors can also find information about local history and wildlife as well as trail maps and guided hikes.
“On foggy days you can smell the sagebrush in the morning air,” says Laura Cohen, a resource specialist for Orange County who has worked at the park for the past 15 years. “It makes you realize why people throughout California’s history have shared a love for these pungent plants – and the hills and canyons where they grow.”
The parking lots open at 8 a.m., but Cohen says hikers can arrive as early as 7 a.m. – if they park on the street – but preferably no earlier, so as to give the wildlife a break. Bobcats, mule deer and red-tailed hawks are just some of the creatures that frequent the park.
Forty miles of trails provide paths suitable for a variety of hikers, from beginners to backcountry connoisseurs. Several challenging loops include climbs to spectacular views of the canyons and ocean. But for those who prefer less height and more shade, the Barbara’s Lake Trail has the added attraction of leading to the only natural lake in Orange County.
“You never know what you’ll see in the park in the fall,” Cohen says. “A flock of quail, a mule deer, a toad, a tiny lizard peering into the nature center. This adventure and diversity of life is what I most love about the park … and what draws many of our park visitors.”
6. Drop into Buck Gully for a walk under shade trees
Hike down this 1,200-acre coastal canyon, and life gets quiet. All you hear are the sounds of birds and running water from a year-round creek. The rest of Orange County disappears. The trail meanders through shady groves of trees and shrubs and over four bridges, which serve as viewing platforms to watch for wildlife around the creek.
Buck Gully opened to the public in 2012 and has since become one of the most popular hiking destinations in Newport Beach. It is open daily from dawn to dusk for self-guided access and scheduled programs through the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. For more information, visit letsgooutside.org/activities.
Coastal dining favorites
7. Catch the Gulfstream
This classic Newport Beach establishment is a place to see and be seen. Sophisticated yet accessible, there’s nothing pretentious about it. The stone entrance is dramatic, while the shaded, sand-floored patio with glowing fire pit is soothing. Out of the expansive, open kitchen comes True Dover Sole, shipped direct from the Strait of Dover, and North Pacific oysters, shucked to order and served on the half shell. The barbecued shrimp evoke New Orleans, and the crispy grouper sandwich evokes the Gulf Coast. As Bon Appetit says, the cuisine at this Corona del Mar Plaza restaurant is “approachable, reliable and nostalgic but forward-thinking.”
8. Enjoy ‘the best French bistro in California’
With its Provençal-style stone walls, walnut-beamed ceiling and Pacific views, the Michelin-recognized Marché Moderne is a stunner. Chef Florent Marneau captures the soul of French gastronomy, from cassoulet to caviar, while pastry chef Amelia Marneau’s desserts stir the soul. Standouts include the “barely sauteed,” brown-butter scallop starter with stuffed black-winter truffle, ordered by the piece, and the crispy duck confit. “What’s not to love about being across from the ocean surrounded by coastal breezes?” chef Marneau says of their setting at Crystal Cove Shopping Center. It’s no wonder Marché Moderne has been hailed as “the best French bistro in California.”
9. Dine among 7 acres of botanical gardens
Step through a grape arbor and down a wooden walkway and you’re transported to the unparalleled beauty of Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens – named one of America’s 100 Best Outdoor Dining Restaurants for 2022 by OpenTable. Set among 7 acres of botanical gardens that resemble wine country, you’ve arrived at the pinnacle of alfresco dining in Corona del Mar. The field-to-fork menu ranges from satsumaimo sweet potatoes to pastrami-cured salmon to grilled ginger, garlic-rubbed pork tenderloin. “Our location sets us apart from other restaurants,” says chef-owner Rich Mead. “It’s a magical place.”
10. Eat seasonally at this true garden-to-table restaurant
Slip into this quiet hideaway, stroll 2 acres of botanical gardens and sit for a true garden-to-table lunch at 608 Dahlia located within Sherman Gardens and Library. Enjoy fresh vegetables, edible blooms and herbs picked on-site and at local farms. Whether you try the salmon, quiche or salad, be sure to start with chef Jessica Roy’s small-batch buttermilk chive and gruyere biscuits. And expect the menu to change with the growing season. “I love seasonality and celebrating the time of year for maximum flavor,” Roy says. Diners sit under the shade of awnings overlooking a colorful garden and surrounded by over 100 species of palms.