Doing The O.C. In The Real Orange County - My Family Travels

Taking the kids to the real Newport Beach, California to live like the rich teen stars of Fox TV's legendary hit show, The O.C.

Whether real or fictitious, “Peyton Place” or “90210,” “The Blue Lagoon” or “8 Mile,” the geography of popular culture has long appealed to travelers. Does seeing the real Middle Earth, the West Wing or The O.C. excite your otherwise slacker teens? If so, their interest may be enough to put New Zealand, Washington DC or, in our case, southern California, on the short list for the next family expedition.

If you didn’t know that The O.C. was Fox Broadcasting’s wildly popular youth-oriented soap opera set in Orange County, either

1) you still think O.C. stands for “Orange Curtain,” the political line drawn around this bastion of Republicanism or

2) you are sooooo not with it.

What was America’s youth watching each Thursday at 8 pm? Imagine boyish Peter Gallagher from “Sex, Lies and Videotape” playing Sandy Cohen, an environmental lawyer/mensch raising his smart only teen, Seth (Adam Brody) with his blonde, maybe Botoxed lawyer wife, Kirsten Nichols (Kelly Rowan). She’s the wealthy WASP daughter of a real estate tycoon who dates all her divorced girlfriends. The Cohen’s ocean-view mansion opens its gates to a juvenile offender from LA, the eager-to-please Ryan Atwood (played by Benjamin McKenzie) who responds to their generosity and the immense change in lifestyle by dating the troubled beauty next door, Marissa (Mischa Barton). From fender benders in their Range Rovers to tussles at the high school dance, shoplifting at the mall and spending New Year’s at the Four Seasons, these teens are, as Fitzergerald so famously said, “different from you and me.”

The O.C.‘s episodes which followed the sarcastic 16-year-old Seth Cohen and his confused passions for Magic Cards, sailing and the buxom Summer (Rachel Bilson) were the stuff of breakfast conversation in households across North America.

The Reel Deal

Unfortunately, after some of the major stars suffered one too many screen dramas, the show went off the air. And even worse for The O.C., the producer took over the popular New York-based “Gossip Girls” book franchise and now produces a teen drama in New York City. But it doesn’t mean that The O.C. has lost its magical allure for young travelers.  So, where to start?

The real Orange County comprises 34 cities in 782 heavily developed square-miles between the Santa Ana Mountains and the Pacific, and between Los Angeles and San Diego. From the opening credits–a sweeping aerial view over the Pacific Ocean to cliff-topping mansions and gold sand beaches–we learned the Cohens live in Newport Beach. According to Fox TV, it is “an idyllic paradise: a wealthy, harbor front community where everything and everyone appears to be perfect.” Never mind that most of the filming is done within a 30-mile radius of Los Angeles, the unions’ “Report To Zone” where producers avoid paying travel time, or that the cast’s movie star good looks and designer fashions are totally over-the-top compared to what really surrounds John Wayne Airport–that’s what made watching The O.C. so much fun.

Don’t believe us?  Turn on the “Housewives of Orange County” instead! First time visitors will find Newport Beach’s identity as a vacation destination is much more apparent than its appeal as a movie location.  But we did uncover some secrets and lies–read on.

Hanging at The Mall

Show afficionados will remember when Marissa took Ryan Christmas shopping and shoplifted that beautiful watch for him? You can see jewelry galore at Fashion Island, the region’s premier “lifestyle” shopping mall. All roads lead to this island of commerce whose over 200 stores are encircled by Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus, with the Newport Bayview office towers and expensive town homes on the outer perimeter. The The Island Hotel & Resort (888/247-2180), where Marissa’s substance-abusing, mega-rich pal Oliver lives, is also located here.

What makes Fashion Island a destination “entertainment center”? Visitors will be struck by the laid back SoCal atmosphere and sun-drenched pathways dripping with bougainvillea. There are architecturally distinctive boutiques such as Nike Women, benches for couples to sip Starbucks, a score of high-end beauty parlors, and pushcarts where bodybuilding vendors sell timeshares, Von Dutch ball caps and Oakley sunglasses. Bevies of blond twin toddlers scamper past with new Build-A-Bears in hand, racing for the multiplex or the electric train ride. Most stores will be familiar to families with shopping teens, but Pac Sun is the type of O.C. store that felt authentic, featuring jams, logo Ts, stretchy tops that end way above the waist, wicker cowboy hats, Quiksilver shorts and other paraphernalia of the beach-loving under-20s.

Ironically, Fashion Island takes its role in O.C. social life quite seriously. One local told us earnestly, “It’s the closest thing we have to a downtown.” One Christmas season, the 111-foot-tall spruce installed on the mall’s main plaza claimed to have been harvested using sound environmental principles; the Jaguar at its base was being raffled off for a local charity. This upscale mall also boasts some of the area’s most popular dining venues. “There’s been a 30 to 45-minute wait at P.F. Chang‘s (949/759-9007) every day for the last three years,” said a ‘Ryan wannabe’ waiter as we slipped onto barstools at the busy pan-Asian eatery. “California Pizza Kitchen (949/759-5543) is even worse.”

They Shop But Never Drop

If Fashion Island accurately embodies the former show’s lifestyle, when the going gets tough at “Harbor High School,” The O.C. posse goes elsewhere to shop. Now we know where Marissa and her conniving mom Julie (Melinda Clarke) bought those Chanels.

Omigod, you don’t believe me? South Coast Plaza of Costa Mesa has St. John, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani and many other haute couture icons arranged in gentle arcs around an atrium. It was selected by Visa as one of the “Top Nine Shopping and Lifestyle Destinations” in the US, and claims over $1 billion in gross sales, the country’s highest. More often than the landmark Mission of San Juan Capistrano, tourist maps point out the mall’s Garden in the Sky walkway, a contemporary neon-lit bridge that ushers shoppers from the ultra luxe to the side housing Sport Chalet, Talbots (where Kirsten’s dreaded sweater set came from) and other more sea-level establishments.

Southcoast Plaza boasts a surrounding village with acres of town homes, expensive gourmet eateries like Darya Fine Persian Cuisine (714/557-6600) and Antonello’s (714/751-7153)– where celebs dine on linguini pescadera, two carousels, a performing arts center and a day Spa in addition to its amazing options for retail therapy. Don’t stay too long; after awhile South Coast Plaza will remind your teens why Marissa’s stepfather Caleb went bankrupt. And if they’re into the skater garb the kids at Newport Union wear, well, that is so not SCP’s style.

Keeping Up with the Cohens

Where the line between fantasy and reality blurs, we began to find the real O.C. We rented an S-type Jaguar from Hertz ($80/D) to keep up with the Cohens, but found we could have called Driven Image for a Hummer H2 ($399/D) or a Ferrari 360 Spyder ($1999/D) if we hadn’t brought so much luggage. One of our favorite mornings was spent at Newport Auto Sports, not unlike the car showroom where Luke (Chris Carmack) and Ryan discovered Luke’s father’s secret. A frequent advertiser in The Dupont Registry according to our son, Newport Auto Sports has classic ‘Vettes, Porsche Turbos, Mustangs, Thunderbirds, Ferraris and other gleaming specimens from $95,000 and up.

We drove up to Spyglass Hill, where gated communities envelop the five million dollar homes of NBA stars, and saw three- and four-car garages but no lawns. We found clusters of Mediterranean-style villas clinging to the cliffs below Ocean Avenue, and agreed we could all live secret lives in Corona del Mar–just for the view. After buying salt water taffy on Balboa Island, we stopped at the windows of a real estate office advertising tumble-down beach shacks for two million six.

At The Crab Cooker (949/673-0100), a ramshackle fish place draped in rods, reels and stuffed marlin that was rebuilt as “The Crab Shack” so Ryan could wait tables in season one, the SRO crowd was multi-generational families–no babes. We headed out to the region’s legendary surfing spot, The Wedge, so we could see just where Luke might use the four surfboards decorating his room on the show. Some babes.

At Balboa Island’s Fun Zone amusement park next to the ferry pier, at the mix-it-all-in Cold Stone Creamery ice cream parlor, among the surf rats on 6th Street in Huntington Beach, outside Ruby’s Diner on the Newport Pier, at the Niketown in Triangle Square, our son saw dozens of hotties in Juicy sweaters and jeans that took J-Lo down a notch.

One very cool thing that we haven’t seen on The O.C. is electric boats. There may be lots of different brands, but the only place to sip your cappuccino and read The L.A. Times in full view of your neighbors is aboard a Duffy. Watts on the Harbor (949/291-1953) does catered electric boat tours, but there are so many rental shops, so many choices of awning colors and even the clueless can pilot them–see for yourself.

Living la Vida

The best kept O.C. secret is the Balboa Bay Club and Resort (888/445-7153), where our tastefully plush room and large balcony built for room service overlooked pricey Lido Island and dozens of multimillion dollar yachts. As the bellman swept open the damask curtains to reveal the view, our son gasped, “That’s where they had the fund raiser where Marissa outed her mom and Caleb Nichols!”

The Balboa Bay Club’s idea of luxury is so subtle that it seems bold. Facilities are lush but unpretentious, service is low-key but impeccable. People were actually exercising at the grand spa and the friendly restaurant staff served fine food at reasonable prices. (We were particularly impressed when they offered black linen napkins to those in dark color slacks and white ones to everyone else.) The ultimate O.C. test: just like on the show, the BBC’s valet parkers were right on it, whether you had a Beetle or a Bentley.

The 160-room hotel is adjacent to the private Balboa Bay Club that has ruled Newport society since 1948. On each page in the glossy BBC members’ magazine, The Bay Window, we saw the faces and good intentions of the real O.C. society, their charity balls, tributes, arts events and family festivities. Tell the kids a BBC membership costs $15,000 on initiation plus $250 per month dues, and that members’ condos are available by the month. Your glamorous hotel room with two pillow-top queen beds, a daily bowlful of apples and a sleep-in marble bathroom, including that harbor view, breakfast and an hour of Duffy-boating, will cost only $545/N for a family of four. In Newport, it’s a good value.

This area boasts many other accommodations, expensive ones and cheaper ones away from the beach. There’s the well priced Marriott Newport Coast Villas (949/464-6000) where two-bedroom-plus-kitchen units start at $280/N. The small Best Western Bay Shores Inn (707/268-8005), just off the boardwalk between the Newport and Balboa Piers, starts at $240/N for a family suite. The Hyatt Regency Newport Beach Hotel (949/729-1234) overlooks the Back Bay and Newport’s Estuary— a point of contention for Cohen family lawyers but a very popular place to go biking. This Hyatt has 16 tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and four villas with private pools; deluxe double rooms are reasonably priced from $185/N. We also toured “The Ritz Carlton of RV Parks” a.k.a. Newport Dunes RV Park (949/ 729-3863) where there are frequent potluck events, a supervised kids camp in summer, room service for the enormous well-traveled motorhomes and some overpriced concrete lean-tos meant to sleep families.

The Secret?

It’s no secret that in Orange County, visiting families will find plenty of sunny weather, fine dining, upscale shopping and interesting sights, if little of The O.C.‘s flamboyant style. Order your copy online of the fun, family-oriented Anaheim/Orange County Visitors & Convention Bureau’s “Anaheim/Orange County Official Visitor Guide” to learn about dozens of activities, festivals (always a good opportunity for a The O.C. cast sighting), museums and historic sites beyond the justly celebrated Disneyland Resort.

And when you arrive, keep this in mind:

On The O.C., the McMansions, the luxury cars, the designer clothes and the incredibly handsome kids look really rich. In the real O.C. they don’t look rich, they just spend a lot to maintain their unassuming, laid-back lifestyles. Try explaining that to your kids.

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