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Orange County Exploring Metro Cities of Orange County Costa Mesa Podcast
Costa Mesa, a retail, cultural and business center, adjoins Irvine and Santa Ana, the county seat.

Costa Mesa, Santa Ana and Irvine can be thought of as the heart of Orange County. Suburban sprawl mixes easily with sleek, stainless-steel-and-glass high-rises. Where lima bean fields once flourished now proliferate high-powered corporate concerns, unparalleled shopping experiences and the county’s premier performing-arts destinations.

The cultural heart of Orange County can be found in Costa Mesa’s Town Center, specifically in a theater-and-arts district that includes the Orange County Performing Arts Center and Folino Theatre Center, home of South Coast Repertory.

Orange County TheaterThe Orange County Performing Arts Center two years ago added the 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the 500-seat Samueli Theater and an outdoor arts plaza. The concert hall, designed by acclaimed architect Cesar Pelli, is now home to the Pacific Symphony, the Pacific Chorale and touring orchestras presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. The Patina Group’s Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge made its debut, too.

The original Segerstrom Hall remains the venue for musicals, opera and dance. Richard Lippold’s striking tricolor aluminum-and-steel sculpture Fire Bird, integrated into the interior lobby spaces and exterior Grand Portal area, symbolizes the eternally soaring spirit of the arts. Intimate Founders Hall is home to the center’s chamber music series. Free tours of the center are offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10:30 a.m.

Orange County restuarantNationally acclaimed South Coast Repertory performs on three stages at Folino Theatre Center. Nearby, interspersed among Town Center’s professional buildings, is one of the nation’s premier collections of outdoor art, ideal for a walking tour. Start at the 1.6-acre California Scenario (near Anton Boulevard) by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Elsewhere are works by blue-chip sculptors including Joan Miró and Henry Moore.

The county’s retail heart is South Coast Plaza, which has the nation’s highest concentration of marquee retailers and is a state-designated tourist attraction. Retailers range from upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Macy’s for Men to designer boutiques including Cavalli, Chanel and Valentino. Recent additions include Chloé and the first Rolex boutique in the country. Other attractions include a carousel and the Orange County Museum of Art’s Orange Lounge, a digital and video art space. The Bridge of Gardens connects two sides of the center.

South Coast Plaza Village and Metro Pointe are a crosswalk away. All three centers are easily accessible from North or South County hotels and beyond, thanks to dedicated taxi and motor coach service. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner delivers visitors from San Diego and Los Angeles to the Santa Ana train station, a 10-minute drive away.

Dining is diverse. There are fast food as well as award-winning restaurants for those with the most discriminating tastes: Among the best are Marché Moderne at South Coast Plaza, Antonello’s at South Coast Plaza Village, Pinot Provence at the Westin South Coast Plaza and adjacent Scott’s for seafood. All are popular pre-theater destinations.

Orange County galleryJust south of South Coast Plaza is SoBeCa—South on Bristol Entertainment, Culture and Arts—two sides of one hip block offering distinctive retailers and restaurants.

The Lab is an alternative retail center with shops you’d more likely find on L.A.’s trendy Melrose Avenue. Among them are Habit (totally cool, and pricey, clothes) and Urban Outfitters. Enjoy nuevo Latino fare and sangria at Habana, sushi at Zipangu.

Just opposite the Lab is The Camp, an outdoors-themed center that mixes woods, aluminum and piped-in sounds of burbling brooks and chirping crickets. Whatever your outdoor sport, from scuba to climbing, there’s a store to outfit you. Rooms at Bikram Yoga Studio are heated to 110 degrees. Dining options include Native Foods vegetarian cafe, Old Vine Café and hip new nightspot Mesa.

Farther south is a trilevel destination known as Triangle Square, which takes its name from the triangular block at the terminus of Harbor Boulevard. Draws include the Yard House and the Closet boutique.

Santa Ana
Visitors may not know, and residents often forget, that it was a mere century and a half ago that Mexico ceded one-third of its terri-tory, including California, to the United States. In Santa Ana, the county seat, Hispanic culture is everywhere; bargains abound at commercial districts such as Fiesta Marketplace (4th Street east of Main Street), where far more Spanish than English is spoken.

The city is closely aligned with the arts.

The Bowers Museum focuses on art of indigenous peoples from the Americas (pre-Columbian and Native American), the Pacific Rim and Africa and hosts some of the county’s most popular exhibitions. The new $15 million Dorothy and Donald Kennedy Wing doubles the Bowers’ exhibition space with an auditorium and two galleries. The 1930s Mission Revival–style building also includes Tangata, an eatery from Joachim Splichal (of L.A.’s Patina), and a museum store. Down the street, Bowers Kidseum offers hands-on activities for children.

Revitalizing downtown are Artists Village, a collection of studios and galleries at the Santora Arts Complex, Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center and the OC Pavilion live-performance venue. Memphis at the Santora is a spinoff of a winning eatery next to The Lab.

Near the 5 Freeway are Westfield MainPlace, Santa Ana Zoo and Discovery Science Center.

Westfield MainPlace houses Macy’s and Nordstrom, 200 specialty shops and a California Welcome Center.

The Discovery Science Center offers 100 hands-on exhibits, live demonstrations, a 3-D Laser Theatre and Dino Quest, an interactive exhibit featuring life-size models and a fossil dig. Look for the 10-story tilted cube next to the freeway. Santa Ana Zoo, in Prentice Park, is home to 250 species and features a special primate exhibit, an African aviary and children’s zoo.

Irvine was the nation’s largest master-planned community when it incorporated in 1971. Its stylistic homogeneity is a boon for some, a trade-off to others who nevertheless value the city as a safe haven—a relatively problem-free world carved out of the Irvine Co.’s immense land holdings. Among other pluses, John Wayne Airport is vastly superior to LAX in terms of ease of departure and arrival, pleasant surroundings and all-around convenience.

The Irvine Barclay Theatre, at UC Irvine, presents one of the county’s most impressive rosters of music, dance and dramatic events. There’s not a bad seat in the house.

Off campus but nearby is the UCI Arboretum (Jamboree Road and Campus
Drive, 949.824.5833), which offers exotic and endangered flora, neatly arranged by continent, and special shows. San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (Michelson Drive between Jamboree Road and Culver Drive, 949.261.7963) offers outdoors enthusiasts 10 miles of trails through coastal fresh water marshlands.

The Irvine Museum, on the 17th floor of an office building, houses the California Impressionism collection of Joan Irvine Smith, from whose family the city takes its name.

The restored blacksmith shop and general store of Old Town Irvine (Sand Canyon Avenue and Burt Road, 949.660.9112), near the 5 Freeway, now house a hotel and restaurants including Tia Juana’s.

Irvine Spectrum Center, at the confluence of the 5, 405 and 133 freeways, is home to the nation’s most visited movie theater complex and numerous fine restaurants and entertainment-related retailers. You can see the Giant Wheel from the freeways. There’s a whole new wing of shopping and dining anchored by Nordstrom.

The very big news is the Great Park. The city is transforming the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a 1,347-acre recreation destination including picnic areas, a wildlife corridor, museums and botanical gardens.

Tustin combines old-town charm and sprawling shopping. The District at Tustin Legacy, which just opened with more than 1 million square feet, offers an outdoor setting with fireplaces, a stage for bands and giant video walls—not to mention large specialty stores, boutiques, restaurants and a cineplex.

Click HERE for a detailed map of these neighborhoods.

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