By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Best Sports Mascot
Peter the Anteater
Enter "black star canyon" into Google, and the first hit that comes up is a site called ghosts.org, which tells a first-person story of rabbits that won't die—even when shot at close range—and shadowy figures who may be the specters of Spanish conquistadors believed to have slaughtered the indigenous inhabitants back in 1832 (it used to be called Cañada de los Indios). Others tell tales of seeing UFOs and KKK meetings; the canyon is listed on the Shadowlands national index of haunted places (theshadowlands.net/places/california1.htm).
But the dangers aren't merely supernatural: Some less-than-benevolent local residents often aggressively dispute the idea that the canyon road is public property. It is, and you're entitled to go through, should you so desire; explain this calmly if confronted.
Best Flamenco Dance Classes
Claudia de la Cruz Flamenco Institute
Grand Central Art Center, lower level
125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana
At Tierrita Flamenca, a flamenco-dance company populated by little girls with slick black hair, long colorful skirts and hand fans, the girls are encouraged to have attitude. The baby troupe is the brainchild of Claudia de la Cruz, who runs the Claudia de la Cruz Flamenco Institute at her "underground," lower-level studio at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center in downtown Santa Ana. She created the dance company in 2004 after she noticed that some of the students in her kids' classes were harboring dreams of becoming professional flamenco dancers. The institute offers classes in the form, which evolved from Moorish, Sephardic and Gitano musical traditions in southern Spain, to children as well as adults at all levels. Students can learn everything from traditional Sevillanasto castanet and palma(palm) techniques. Those who become addicted to what de la Cruz calls the "flamenco lifestyle" can audition for her adult dance company, Tierra Flamenca, after one year. After several years, she says, students may be invited to join her professional dance company, which tours nationally.
"If I don't dance, I die," says de la Cruz, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, with family roots in Jerez, Spain. De la Cruz's institute gets our hearty olé: If we didn't have the mighty little piece of Andalucía that she brings to OC, surely we would die.
Best Samba School
210 Promenade N., Long Beach
Few places invite people in to learn the art of Afro-Brazilian percussion and dance the way SambaLá does. Their weekly classes, plus their once-a-month Saturday Samba night at Blue Cafe, are nearly enough to transport you to the stomping, euphoric street throb that is Brazil's yearly Carnaval. SambaLá's Thursday-evening bateria (percussion) class teaches the caixa, pandeiro, surdo, tam-tam and a string of other instruments. Samba-dance classes are offered Tuesday nights (beginning/intermediate) and Wednesday nights (advanced and by invitation only) at the Blue Cafe. All classes cost just $15.
Best Lunchtime Yoga
The noontime crowd at Yoga Works in Costa Mesa, as with its other OC locations, is a mixed hungry bag. What this group gets is an hour of vigorous asanasguaranteed to change the course of the rest of their day. You'll be surprised by how much happens—and how good you feel—in one hour.
Best Nature Trail
Trabuco Canyon Trail
Cleveland National Forest, Trabuco Ranger District
You'll be handsomely rewarded, after driving through the unsightly OC suburban sprawl that clutters what were once acres of rolling hills, the moment you hit the tip of Cleveland National Forest. Once there, head toward our favorite trail, Trabuco Canyon, for one of the county's most serene hikes. Getting there is a little tricky, but worth it once you get past the bumpy Holy Jim trail entrance (not recommended for fragile cars). Only the beginning and end of the trail is shaded, but once you're well along the 2.6 mile jaunt, you'll be blissfully absorbed by wildflowers, huge sycamores, oaks and even an old gold mine filled with scurrying salamanders.
Orange Coast College
2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa
If you're not ready to sign a virtually unbreakable three-year contract with the nearest chain gym, which is probably an unsanitary sweat pool brimming with strippers and trolling dudes on 'roids, try going back to school. Enroll in a physical-education class at Orange Coast College, and you'll get access to one of the nicest, most recently remodeled gyms in the county. Also on-site are a full-sized track, swimming pool, and outdoor basketball and handball courts. There are rolling deadlines for enrollment on 16-, 12- and eight-week programs, all of which include open access to the facilities and admission to daytime workout classes. Plus, the people you'll be pumping iron with have more than endless staring into the mirror planned for the future. The best part is the cut-rate tuition at California community colleges, the lowest in the nation: The cost per credit hour is $20; another $29 in fees will get you through the semester.
Readers' Choice: 24 Hour Fitness
Best Day Trip
Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Ecological Reserve
2301 University Dr., Newport Beach
It may technically be Newport Beach, but a day spent at the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve won't feel like it. Tucked behind Highway 73, the 1,000-acre preserve includes rolling bluffs that surround 752 acres of wetlands—which are home to 200 species of birds. Pack a lunch; bird-watch (best in the winter), hike or kayak; and forget you're as close to home as you are.