Initially envisioned as a suburb, or 'bedroom community' to the Greater Los Angeles area, Orange County has blossomed into an independent community in its own right, equalling and sometimes superseding LA itself. Situated in a 798 square-mile area directly south of Los Angeles County, stretching from the coast to roughly 42 miles inland, to the Santa Ana Mountains, it covers a broad range of cultures and people in perhaps a microcosm of America.
Orange County is probably best-known for some of the world's best beaches, namely in 'Surf City' (Huntington Beach). This city is host to numerous surf competitions, and one of the world's most notable beaches that has not been mentioned in a Beach Boys song.
A bit further to the south is Newport Beach, the Mercedes-Benz capital of the world. There are more Mercedes-Benzes here per person than any place on the planet. The city is also home to the world's largest Mercedes-Benz dealership. This may lead one to assume that this may well be the cosmetic-surgery capital of the world. A quick look around while here may lead some credence to this supposition. If you like to look at the ridiculously wealthy at play, or you are, in fact, ridiculously wealthy, this is the place to be.
Still further south along the coast is the self-styled 'artist's enclave' of Laguna Beach. A quaint beachfront downtown and a prominent gay community differentiate this town from the rest of the (in)famously Republican Orange County. Difficult to reach because only two roads (Laguna Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway) allow access, this, along with the city's opposition to large corporations taking root, make Laguna Beach a decidedly different place, with many independently- and locally-owned businesses. If offers the only true 'village' mentality in an increasingly corporatised, sprawling metroplex.
Almost directly inland from Laguna Beach, the city of Irvine is virtually diametrically opposite. 'Master-planned' in the 1970s, it is a clinically laid-out city, with commercial and residential areas exactly where they were designed to be, observing respectful distances from one another. Irvine is also home to the county's only major college: University of California, Irvine. Irvine is also home to many high-tech businesses (many major international companies, such as Nissan, Hyundai, and Ford's Lincoln-Mercury division call Irvine home) and the mammoth Irvine Spectrum entertainment complex. The Spectrum, as is colloquially known, is the site of the world's largest theatre complex, with 21 screens (and ten more planned), along with a 3-D IMAX screen, the West Coast's first. It also holds 5 bars, 6 restaurants, 2 coffee shops, numerous retail outlets of every size and shape, a gargantuan bookstore, and Sega City, a giant video game arcade, and about one-third of the necessary parking spaces for all of it, although it is the world's largest parking lot. It is a nice place to visit on occasion, but it turns into a madhouse on Friday and Saturday nights.
About 15 miles up the road lies the city of Anaheim. As far as amusement per square mile, you'd be hard-pressed to find a city more geared towards entertainment. Anaheim is the home of Disneyland, the world's most famous theme park. It's worth a visit, but it is horribly expensive. As of January 2002, adult admission for one day is approximately US$40, and children's admission is roughly US$28. The best time to go is in October or January, when the weather is not quite cold yet, but cold enough to keep the usual throngs of crowds out. Lines are surprisingly short, with a wait of 15 minutes on average for all but the newest, most popular rides. In summer, however, a two to three-hour wait is normal for the newer rides.
Just a few miles from Disneyland is Edison International Field of Anaheim, where the Disney-owned Anaheim Angels of Major League Baseball take the field. Visiting here is also recommended, as it is a great deal cheaper than Disneyland. A ticket to a ballgame here will cost roughly US$12-20 for a reasonably good seat. This stadium used to host the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, but they have since moved, so the stadium has been converted to a baseball-only facility, and the results are breathtaking. If you visit the stadium for a baseball game and you have absolutely no idea what is going on, don't worry - Disney has gone to great lengths to ensure that there are many, many things going on at all times other than the game itself. It really has to be seen to be believed.
Right across the freeway, within sight of the baseball stadium, lies the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, where the Disney-owned (see a pattern?) Anaheim Mighty Ducks of the National Hockey League play. This arena also hosts a great variety of concerts and special events, as well as the occasional basketball game.
Just up the road from the stadiums, in the City of Orange, there is another recently-opened entertainment mini-metropolis, The Block of Orange. The Block rivals the Irvine Spectrum in size and ostentation, housing its own 20-theatre complex (Orange County has triple the national ratio, per capita, of movie theatres), and such 'only in California' institutions such as skateboard parks. Really.
Stretching as it does from coast to foothills, and edging into bona-fide deserts, the climate of Orange County varies wildly. The best weather, year-round, is to be found on the coast. Near-constant sun all year and gentle ocean breezes make for ridiculously good weather any time you care to visit.
Temperatures rarely rise above 85°F (30°C) or fall lower than 50°F (10°C). The year-round median temperature is around 72°F (22°C) on the coast, with temperatures rising higher inland. Rain is not uncommon, but can be sparse in certain years and seemingly nonstop in others.
Before you rush to see this phenomenon, be warned that constant sunlight seems to have some sort of stupefying effect on the inhabitants. As with all things, moderation is the key.
As has been alluded to elsewhere, Orange County is a retail-lover's dream. The sprawl of houses and business districts is regularly broken up by vast shopping centres, sometimes offering, quite literally, square miles of parking to go with dozens or hundreds of stores of every size and description. Most of these centres are anchored by the near-invincible triumvirate of movie theatre, bookstore, and coffee shop. Continuing with the 'bigger is better' theme, it would seem the going standard is, at the very least, ten movie screens (usually and increasingly, 20 is bare minimum), a 'coffee shop' that seats a hundred people, and a 5000-square-foot-plus, two-storey bookstore1. These centres generally also include from one to all of the following: two restaurants, a supermarket, one fast-food place, a video store, a hair/nail salon, a furniture store, a clothing store or three and, mysteriously, an auto-parts store. On the one hand, it would make sense to make one immense retail complex as opposed to three or four simply large ones, provided you've got the real estate, but when looked at from a different perspective, people simply do not pop down for a cup of coffee, the latest movie, a sofa, lunch, a quick haircut and manicure, milk, a loaf of bread, ice cream, a new outfit, and a set of new brake pads for the car. At least not in one trip.
Another point worthy of noting: these centres can be so immense that, although you are in one giant parking lot, it's often quicker to hop in the car and drive from store to store than actually walk between them.
Other than the megalithic outdoor shopping centres, there are megalithic indoor malls as well. Each one is carefully tailored to its nearest community and/or target demographic, leaving one feeling slightly out of place if you are not carefully bedecked in the local fashion police's latest sartorial mandate, such as that anyone who is anyone wear lime-green socks, or whatever the latest trend may be. They are shopping centres, yes, but they are a great place for people-watching, as Southern California, as a rule, has more interestingly-attired/cosmetically2-enhanced/artificially-coloured/creatively-pierced people than virtually anywhere else on the planet. This is a place where people with blue hair, liberally coated in tattoos, wearing immense green sunglasses with what looks like paperclips jutting from their lower lip hardly raise an eyebrow.
Virtually anything you could ever want (and a great many things that you don't) is available if you know who to ask. This is not to say, however, that illegal activities, as you may suppose, are prevalent. The law-enforcement community is, shall we say, the tiniest bit overzealous in enforcing the very letter of the law in many cases. The reason for this attention to detail is unknown, but it has been supposed that life here is generally placid. The local agencies tend to get a bit bored, the supposition continues, and will enforce to a greater deal than is absolutely necessary. The simplest analogy is that of the hunter, bored from waiting for a deer to wander into sight, looses a shot into the underbrush and manages to kill a squirrel. It's not a trophy animal, but it can make an otherwise dull hunting expedition a bit more exciting for the duration.
To give an idea of the overall level of placidity, think about this fact: people in this area will call the police and register noise complaints if their neighbour's wind chimes are too loud. To extend the hunter metaphor well past all reason, if the squirrels are coming down and complaining that your (the hunter's, in this case) shoes are simply awful and clash with your orange hunting vest dreadfully, you'd probably think about taking some potshots at the little buggers just to relieve the monotony.
It's a weird place to live, but it's an interesting place to visit.