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
Readers' Choice: Catalina Island
Best Weekend Getaway
Crystal Cove Beach Cottages
35 Crystal Cove, Newport Coast
Admittedly, Crystal Cove isn't the best spontaneous getaway—you might have to reserve up to seven months in advance, and be on the ball at 8 a.m. on the first of the month in order to do so. But there's a reason for the insane popularity these beach houses have attained over the years. Beaches don't get much more unspoiled than the shoreline of a state park, and as beach cottages go, the average rental price of $165 per night is a better deal than you'll get at most of the fancy-schmancy corporate chains at more commercial beaches. Some of the cottages date back to the 1920s, but the amenities are all modern—including microwave ovens in the event that you tire of dining in the nearby Beachcomber restaurant, which specializes in seafood and Greek/Mediterranean cuisine (ever had nachos topped with hummus?).
Best Free Family Activity
Centennial Farms Tour
88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa
The Orange County Fair doesn't operate year-round, but the adjacent Centennial Farm fills the gap when the larger agricultural expo isn't around. Four acres and fully functional, Centennial is primarily a venue for school tours, but families can just show up, too, for self-guided tours (the official website doesn't mention this, but you can just stop by on a whim or book a tour, even if you're not affiliated with a school). See the cows get milked! Pet the baby chicks! Check out how crops are grown! Best of all, it's totally free, and your kids might learn something, to boot (they may also demand a new pet afterward—be prepared!). Just don't leave it until too late in the day: Farms operate on an early schedule, and things close up at 4 p.m.
Best Leisure Activity Other Than Reading or Watching a Movie
Robert E. Badham Marine Life Refuge (Little Corona)
Irvine Coast Marine Life Refuge (Crystal Cove State Park)
Laguna Marine Life Refuge
South Laguna Marine Life Refuge
Niguel Marine Life Refuge
Dana Point Marine Life Refuge
Doheny State Beach
While shark attacks in Orange County waters are rare, it's hard not to worry about some great leviathan rearing its head and swallowing you whole while you wait for the next wave. On days when you're feeling too unlucky to surf, it's good to know the county's coastline is peppered with tidepools, those fertile rocky refuges for some of the sea's smaller creatures, where you can get your dose of ocean recreation without feeling overwhelmed by Mother Nature's top predators. Should you start to feel too intimidated by the grand scheme of things, find a sea anemone and run your finger along one of its wavy tentacles. Feel that stickiness? That's the anemone's attempt to paralyze and eat you. But you're too big and strong to be bested by that puny little animal. The knowledge that your finger is being bombarded with a dose of poison that would incapacitate a smaller organism is pretty empowering. Makes you feel good about being human . . . for once.
Aquarium of the Pacific
100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach
Top three cutest animals ever? Cats, sea otters and ducks. In that order. (No arguing.) Luckily for us, while you once had to journey a few hundred miles north to Monterey Bay to otter-watch, we've got our very own aquarium not too far away in Long Beach. Opened in 1998, the nonprofit Aquarium of the Pacific boasts a more-than-humble collection of 12,500 animals, all focusing on creatures that call the Pacific Ocean home. While the aquarium is still fairly young, it's actually flourishing quite well, with just more than 1.3 million visitors each year, helping to make Long Beach a family tourist destination. One of the most popular exhibits at the aquarium features Charlie, Brooke and Summer: Rescued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the three sea otters dip, dive, eat and snooze their way through the days, with the full knowledge that there's a room full of men, women and children cooing at their every move. Even if they're doing absolutely nothing at all. And to top it all off, the aquarium unveiled plans for an upgrade to their habitat in late June, including even more interactive and educational kiosks, flat screens, an improved water-quality system, and—most curiously—some type of water-jet system so that guests can join in on otter mealtimes.
Best place to Hang Out With a Feral Pig That Isn't Your Brother
Santa Ana Zoo
1801 E. Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana
Feral pigs, giant turkeys and lemurs, oh my! Santa Ana Zoo is a virtual haven for people who love staring at animals in cages. And for those of you out there who really like to pet these creatures of the wilderness, The Crean Family Farm is on the premises, complete with petting zoo and fun animal facts. You can feed the sheep and the goats. But whatever you do, don't feed the ducks!