San Juan Capistrano

San Juan Capistrano may not be the oldest city in Orange County—that honor goes to Anaheim, which was incorporated by German settlers in 1863—but it sure seems that way. In fact, "city" isn't even a fair description of San Juan Capistrano; nobody there calls it anything but a "town."

It's just about the only place in Orange County where you can see actual cowboys sauntering through the streets in bolo ties and cowboy hats, or actual actors portraying pirates re-creating French buccaneer Hippolyte Bouchard's 1828 sacking of Mission San Juan Capistrano. And then he stashed the booty in Laguna Beach. Heh-heh, booty.

Speaking of the mission—the city's biggest tourist draw—it was founded in 1776, making it the county's oldest still-standing structure if you don't count Disneyland's Goofy Kitchen. Unfortunately, the Indians who built the mission and its ancient, gorgeous chapel are long gone—their population declined from roughly 300,000 to somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 during the so-called Mission period. Just about all that's left of them are a few scattered bands of Juaneno Indians whose efforts to cash in on Indian gaming with a downtown casino have gone nowhere. Residents hate the idea because it would tarnish the historical quality of the mission the Juanenos built, Texas Hold 'Em having been invented in Los Feliz by Ben Affleck.

Besides Pirates Day and Swallows Day—celebrated since the '30s on March 19, the day the birds supposedly come back to roost in the mission—not much happens in San Juan Capistrano. Until recently, the biggest local controversy there was the establishment of the city's first high school—the private J Serra school, which had to scratch its plans for a massive swimming pool over concerns that it would pave over sacred Indian burial grounds. But all bucolic splendor must come to an end—and that end has a name: Rancho Mission Viejo.

Slated for construction on open land between Camp Pendleton, the Cleveland National Forest and Mission Viejo, it is 14,000 new homes—a project that won't just wipe out some of the last remaining wilderness in Orange County, but will also turn surface streets in South County into a massive parking lot. Since one of the major entrances to the new development will go through San Juan Capistrano, Rancho Mission Viejo will accomplish what the Indian gaming could never do—trample the town's tranquil, idyllic lifestyle with cars, cars and more cars.

Photo by Jack Gould

Best Place to See Ghosts The Mission. As a Catholic-school kid, I was haunted by the knowledge—not the mere suspicion, but the actual certainty—that ghosts walked the grounds of the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Thousands are buried within a few blocks of the place, and not all of those dead went happily. On Dec. 8, 1812, an earthquake undid in seconds what took Father Junipero Serra and his band of merry conquistadors and craftsmen 36 years to build. Among those killed was a young Indian woman named Magdalena, killed while performing penance for the sin of adultery. I saw her once, in 1973, while crossing the mission grounds on an errand for the nuns who ran the place. She was walking toward me—a short, thin girl only slightly older than I was, black hair, dark eyes, as solid and real as a rock in your hand—but absolutely silent. And when I smiled at her—I thought she was probably some goofily dressed European tourist—she seemed to begin to cry. And then she disappeared—not like smoke dissipating in a room, but like a TV turned off. When I told the head nun, she told me to forget about it; I've tried, but here I am. Elsewhere in the city, there's the ghost of Modesto Avila, the San Juan resident who took on the railroads—actually tried to block a train's passage through the city in 1889—and lost. She ended up dying in San Quentin, but some say you can see her in the city's Los Rios district. Then there's Matilda. One of the mission's custodians once told me she rings the bells at odd hours. And a friend told me Chola Martinez takes the form of a fire-breathing dog. The place is crawling with spirits too many to name, every one of them reminding us, I guess, that there's no rush because we're likely to be around for some time. Ortega Highway and El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano.

Best Bar Swallow's Inn. If you like country music, Marines, ex-felons and hard-drinking company, this is your best bet for a rootin'-tootin', nose-breakin' good time. 31786 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 493-3188.

Best Golf Course San Juan Hills Golf Club. A county best-kept secret, this Harry and David Rainville-designed course has had millions of dollars in improvements while holding the greens fees steady as they go. Cheap is good: $32 to walk during the week ($47 to ride), and $63 to ride on weekends. 31210 San Juan Creek Rd., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 493-1167.

Best Breakfast Ramos House Cafe. After Burrell's and a couple of Santa Ana Mexican taquerias, Ramos House is probably the only restaurant left in Orange County that operates in a living, noisy neighborhood. Its southern-fried breakfasts—fried green tomatoes topped with goat cheese is the most imaginative spin—are a Capistrano Valley institution, and the bitter Bloody Mary Orange the county's best. But it's the comforting cinnamon beignets that make the long Saturday-morning drive and the one-hour wait all worth it. 31752 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano, (949) 443-1342.

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