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Great Drives and Destinations: Irvine, Calif.


Irvine is roughly at the halfway point between Los Angeles and San Diego, and convenient to nearby Disneyland. Its many museums are also a haven for California's rich history.

Photography by the authors.

Irvine is roughly at the halfway point between Los Angeles and San Diego, on the merge of the highway Interstate 405 that follows the coast south, and Interstate 5 -- a more inland freeway that comes down from the north.

Over the years, Irvine had evolved from an expanse of farmers’ fields to become a sophisticated, safe and clean alternative to living in Los Angeles. It has its own John Wayne airport with nonstop flights to major cities in North America, and many direct flights to other cities by signature airlines.

All this has happened in the last 50 years, but this city’s history -- like so much in Southern California -- goes back to the days of the Spanish Missions. The Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1776 and, as it became more powerful, it created numerous ranchos in what is now Orange County. The Spanish land grants were enormous: Two of those land parcels were later purchased by one James Irvine I who had arrived in California in 1846 as a miner, but who later found selling the goods to miners far more profitable.

Says Gail Daniels, our guide at the Irvine Historical Society: “Every time James Irvine had a few extra dollars, he would buy land.” Later when he obtained his first 42,000 acres at 37 cents an acre, he hastened to buy another 80,000. Irvine called his acquisition “the Irvine Ranch,” bought out his partners in 1876 and built the ranch up to be the world’s largest producer of lima beans.

In 1887, a railroad fare war erupted and rails offered deeply discounted fares from the East Coast to California. That hastened the journey of settlers heading West and ultimately made Irvine’s land more valuable.

The Irvine Historical Society is located in a modest frame house built in 1877; it’s the oldest structure on the ranch and the former ranch manager’s bunkhouse. The museum shows those times when agriculture dominated the land. Farm equipment is scattered throughout the two rooms, where a life-size cowboy figure stares across at visitors playing with his branding irons. A figure of a young woman inspects some of the day’s lima bean crop.

Our next stop is a visit to the First American offices in Irvine. The company that began in 1889 has grown like Orange County to become a global provider of title insurance. Its exhibits are varied, from its Remington Standard No. 7 Typewriter in constant use in 1904 to the first bank safe in Orange County.

It sometimes seems Irvine is simply a collection of museums. The Irvine Museum itself has some appealing paintings of landscapes involving water, its mission being Saving California’s Vanishing Treasures. We walk past Purple Mountains by Paul Grimm (1892-1974) that complements In the High Sierras by Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1949), Off Mission Point, Point Lobos by Guy Rose (1867-1925), and Untitled — Moonlight Marsh Scene by Granville Redmond (1871-1935).

Framed quotations about nature by famous names give visitors room for thought in this rather small but special museum. “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” -- Frank Lloyd Wright. “Nature will bear the closest inspection.” -- Henry David Thoreau. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” -- John Muir. And a Native American proverb, “We will be known by the tracks we leave.”

A stay in Irvine can also make life easy for family vacationers, because this business-centric city is known to be a ghost town on weekends. Rooms in its gorgeous urban hotels often go for as little as $89 a night at weekends, and hotels vary from the always-affordable Embassy Suites to Doubletree, and upscale hotels such as the Hyatt Regency. Best of all, vacationers can catch a free hotel shuttle to the South Coast Plaza, where they can get a shuttle three times a day to the Disneyland hotels area for just $14.

Indeed, Irvine believes it is in keeping with the master plan of James Irvine’s vision: “Minutes from everywhere. Close to perfection.”

More "Great Drives and Destinations" on the California coast:

  • Redonodo Beach
  • Huntington Beach

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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