When you’re sending your child to college in California — in one of America’s most-populated counties — it brings a Southern mama some comfort to leave her youngest in a college town that’s reminiscent of the South.
Orange, CA, is about 30 miles south of Los Angeles and located smack in the middle of The OC, which is, after all, Orange County. Orange is the home of Chapman University (go, Panthers!), and was, until the mid-1900s, the center of the citrus industry in California. But post-World War II, an outbreak of disease decimated the orange crops, developers were snatching up orchards to house a booming population in Southern California and, today, there’s no longer a local packing house in Orange. The historic Sunkist Orange County Fruit Exchange Building where oranges and other citrus were sorted and packed is now an art gallery.
Orange is a delightful town to explore with more than 60 antique stores, a smattering of boutiques and upscale shopping, two Starbucks that sit catty-corner from each other on the plaza (both occupying historic buildings) and the Chapman campus, which features an excellent art museum and world-class performing arts center. Think of it as a Southern California version of Athens or Oxford — with palm trees.
Old Towne Orange (OTO, as some locals call it) is surrounded by all the hubbub of a major metropolitan area and is just 15 minutes from Disneyland and about 25 minutes from the beach. But drive into the scenic downtown area and you’re instantly transported to another world with all the familiarity of a Southern town square.
In the case of Old Towne Orange, the square includes a traffic circle and, instead of a courthouse and magnolia trees, you find orange trees and a beautiful fountain surrounded by walkways and benches filled with residents and college students. Like most of the towns that our SEC schools call home, Chapman students can easily walk the few blocks from campus right into the Old Towne district.
Head any direction from the plaza and it’s easy to get lost in the pleasure of simply browsing through one of the dozens of antiques stores or venturing into the smaller businesses like Cristana Home, a home decor and gift shop that’s tucked into an old packing house on Alley Plaza or, more specifically, 143 1/2 Olive St.
Dining around the plaza is also delightful – and local – just like you’d find in a Southern college town, although the flavors tend to (obviously) be less grits and okra and more quinoa and avocado. While Starbucks and a few other small chains can be found nearby, there’s all manner of upscale casual dining, including Francoli Gourmet, which specializes in Northern Italian cuisine and features a huge and excellent wine list and a cozy outdoor patio. There’s also Watson’s Soda Fountain & Cafe, which incorporates the vintage charm of a true soda fountain and pharmacy into a festive restaurant setting. The Filling Station Cafe, which literally was the filling station in Downtown Orange, is a cafe and coffee house that’s popular any time of day but particularly known for its huge breakfasts. Alas, there are no grits to be found but a Southern girl can comfort herself like a local with a black bean breakfast quesadilla.
The Chapman University campus is just a few blocks down Glassell and, technically, outside the Old Towne district. The pretty campus is surrounded by a residential area that’s heavy on California and hip roof bungalows and Craftsman cottages, some of which have been turned into offices and housing owned by the university. The campus is filled with water features and lush green spaces and the beautiful Fish Interfaith Center offers a full calendar of programming for students and visitors, alike. And yes, there is indeed football but despite a small yet gorgeous stadium and a team, the students don’t quite embrace pigskin like we do between the hedges or in The Grove.
The Hilbert Museum of California Art opened on the Chapman campus in early 2016 and showcases a private collection of 20th century California scene art. The collection, says Dr. Lindsay Shen, the director of arts collections at Chapman, is a treasure trove of the works of both lesser-known and well-known artists. “Both the focus of the genre of California scene painting and the time period distinguishes it” from other university art museums, says Dr. Shen. Artists represented in the collection include Phil Dike, a water colorist who also was an art instructor for Disney; abstract painter and art professor Keith Crown and Millard Sheets, a painter and mosaic artist perhaps best known for the “touchdown Jesus” mural — actually named The Word of Life — on the Hesburgh Library on the University of Notre Dame campus.
Any visit to The OC has its list of musts, from Disneyland to time at the beach. For those looking for a bit more of a laid-back California vibe – and dare we say a little Southern spirit? – should include Orange on their itinerary.
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