With many people yearning to travel again, now is the perfect time to reunite with various friends and family by traveling together. Our lists are full of people with whom we want to reconnect, and taking a mini-vacation or a two-day getaway is a great way to strengthen those relationships.  I was lucky to spend a couple of days with my fellow travel-writer friends in Orange County hosted by Visit Newport Beach and Travel Costa Mesa.

9982458287?profile=originalNewport Harbor Tour

Our first adventure in “the O.C.” was a tour of Newport Harbor on an electric Duffy boat sponsored by Balboa Boat Rentals.  Check-in was easy, the staff was friendly, and parking was convenient. Our Duffy boat had a capacity of eight people with a covered seating area containing a long table to accommodate food and beverages.  Alcohol is permitted so we had some wine along with a lovely lunch ordered from Champagnes Bistro & Deli, a family-owned restaurant which has been serving the area for over 25 years.  The Duffy boats are easy to maneuver and have a speed of five knots – just under 6 miles per hour. The genial husband of one of our travel writers was our skipper, and we all enjoyed cruising by the beautiful homes and impressive yachts along the harbor.

Shopping/Dining in Open-Air Courtyards

For a different shopping experience, we checked out three malls in Costa Mesa.  The LAB  is an acronym for “Little American Business” and touts itself as an anti-mall that supports unique and unconventional small retail outlets and cafes.  From shopping (crystals, gently-used clothing, records) to eating (donuts, vegan cuisine, Cuban fare), and from appreciating art (gallery, installation compositions) to drinking (coffee, beer, cocktails) The LAB is a fun place to experience.  I was charmed by the al fresco setting of the restaurant Habana, and by its creative menu of Cuban and pan-Latin food.  Pan Latin cuisine encompasses all types of food served in Latin countries ("pan" is a Greek root that means “all” or “every.”)

9300235876?profile=originalMore Shopping & Dining, Eco-Consciously

Our next visit was to The CAMP, an environmentally conscientious “campus” that supports the local community with retail shops and restaurants focused on sustainability and a healthy lifestyle.  Many of the businesses are women-owned.  There is a diverse selection of boutiques offering candles, wellness oils, jewelry, and plants, a second-hand clothing shop, and a ceramic studio that offers pottery classes. My first stop was at the Blackmarket Bakery, a woman-owned bakery specializing in baked goods along with sandwiches and breakfast fare.  I headed for the baked goods and purchased a delicious fresh berry pastry.  “Thoughtfully Curated Wine” is the befitting motto of The Wine Lab. Their intention is to introduce high quality wine by offering tastings, flights, and events.  With a wine inventory of 400 plus bottles, you will definitely find a wine to suit your taste and your mood.  For my wine flight I selected a Chardonnay from Monterey, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Tempranillo also from Monterey, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles. Delightful wines, all.  The Wine LAB has an array of cheese and charcuterie boards, and an especially fun feature — you can order and pick up sommelier curated wine flights that include information about the wines to enjoy at home.

With an impressive collection of interior design, culinary,9982460253?profile=original
and retail establishments, SOCO and the OC Mix  (South Coast Collection) also includes an indoor complex along with its open-air courtyard and adjacent retail stores.  I was drawn to the The Cheese Shop with a wide assortment of imported and domestic cheeses and well-versed cheesemongers who will help guide you in your quest.  I selected my daughter’s favorite cheese, Brillat-Savarin, which is a French soft ripened cow’s milk triple cream that contains 75 percent butterfat and has a pungent, edible white rind.  This amazing cheese was named after the 18th-century French lawyer and epicurean Jean Brillat-Savarin, who was known for his statement, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” If you are a fan of the craft cocktail trend, you will love The Mixing Glass which sells alcohol spirits and every cocktail item you can think of, including antique cocktail glasses, small batch bitters, make-at-home cocktail kits, cocktail books, and mixology classes.  With over 70 stores, design showrooms, and restaurants, there is a lot to appreciate about SOCO and the OC Mix.

9982460852?profile=originalArrangements were made for the travel writers to stay at the The Westin South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. Conveniently located within walking distance of South Coast Plaza, two blocks from the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and only ten minutes away from John Wayne Airport, this hotel has much to offer. The rooms are spacious and the views of surrounding Orange County are fantastic.  The grounds are most appealing with a cascading waterfall and fountain heads designed to pay homage to the Roman god of the sea  Neptune.  Within view and soothing listening range, is the Lobby Lounge, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with cocktails in a casual environment.  Workout rooms, business center, event space, and a Grab-N-Go outlet complete the package of this pet-friendly hotel.  The accommodating staff is led by Dario Gomez, and I was impressed when I learned that most employees have been working here many years, an indication that the hotel appreciates its guests and its employees.

A Stimulating Art Walk9996928886?profile=original

The Costa Mesa Art Walk is also within walking distance of the Westin.  Consisting of over 20 pieces, most of the artwork was commissioned by the Henry Segerstrom family. You can listen to an audio tour that describes the art’s design and the artist’s vision. Sculptures include a California landscape scene, granite rocks formed together that resemble lima beans, a couple of birds — one of which is sculpted by Joan Miró — chandelier crystals, elliptical columns, and my favorite, The Ram, an intensely bright yellow, 20-foot-high steel sculpture resembling a ram’s horn.

Tasty Costa Mesa Dining 9982463283?profile=original

I knew we were in for a treat when we entered the elegantly appointed AnQi Bistro with its harmonious tones of blue lighting, wealth of flowers, and an artistically dramatic back-lit bar. Chef and founder Helene An has a formidable background. She and her family fled to the U.S. after Saigon fell in 1975, and soon after began working at her mother-in-law’s San Francisco Vietnamese restaurant.  She started developing “secret” recipes, creating a fusion of flavors by incorporating her native Vietnamese cuisine with European and auxiliary Asian fare. The House of An now owns and operates several restaurants in Southern California and two more in San Francisco. I began my AnQi dining experience by ordering one of their signature cocktails, an Oh-Mai Lychee Martini made with Haku, a Japanese craft vodka, Soho Lychee liqueur, and fresh lemon. We ordered our food family-style and shared the following scrumptious dishes: Hamachi and albacore truffle Sashimi with tobiko (flying fish roe), lobster dumplings, filet mignon potstickers, An’s famous roasted garlic noodles, kimchi fried rice, and shrimp and lobster wonton soup.  For dessert we watched a showstopping liquid nitrogen ice cream dessert prepared tableside.

Lunch the following day was at Café Jardin, situated in the 9982464687?profile=original
lovely setting of The Sherman Library and Gardens  Chef Pascal Olhats prepared a delectable quiche lorraine. We were there to bid him farewell as he will be leaving to focus on his culinary talents of teaching and catering. Born in Normandy, he worked with the legendary chef Paul Bocuse in Lyon. Since arriving in the States more than 30 years ago, he has brought his innovative approach to food to his restaurants and he has gone on to inspire other great chefs in the Southern California area.  He will be passing the toque on to executive chef Jessica Roy. She will continue the emphasis on a creative menu highlighting fresh local food and will be selecting edible blooms and herbs grown in the Sherman Gardens.  Along with a new chef, the restaurant, which opened July 21st, has a new name — Cultivar, and lunch is served Wednesday through Saturday, plus brunch on Sunday.