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(This arti­cle may or may not con­tain affil­i­ate links. What does that mean?)

Until recent­ly, Irvine, Cal­i­for­nia has only exist­ed as a blip on our fam­i­ly road-trip map — between the free­way dri­ve from Los Ange­les to San Diego. We’d see high-rise build­ings, malls and hotels whiz by. Noth­ing to draw us in. Noth­ing to moti­vate us to stop. Recent­ly how­ev­er, we decid­ed to put a lit­tle time into inves­ti­gat­ing the area when the Hotel Irvine chal­lenged us to stay in Irvine for a cou­ple days, as their guests, so we could dis­cov­er those fam­i­ly-friend­ly activ­i­ties that prove trans­for­ma­tive for fam­i­lies look­ing to unplug and con­nect with the more exot­ic aspects of a city.

Soc­cer called my first-born away, so we had a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend time alone with our nine-year-old son Knox. What this real­ly means is: it was going to be a much qui­eter trip.

The hotel: Hotel Irvine

Hotel Irvine has a lot of space. It boasts the largest num­ber of guest rooms in Irvine, 536 — and 16 of those are suites. It has 50,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meet­ing space so when we arrived in the lob­by on a Fri­day after­noon, there was a throng of excit­ed, fledg­ling real-estate spec­u­la­tors wait­ing to learn how to score their for­tune from a TV show host teach­ing them at his con­fer­ence. Posters, good­ie bags and crowds of peo­ple lined the vivid lob­by. Orange chairs and match­ing sofas, wavy car­pet designs and cir­cu­lar, stel­lar light­ing gave off a hip­ster vibe. It all felt new and shiny in a retro sort of way.

Hotel Irvine

This relaxed scene was not the one that met us on the day we arrived.

Our room on the 14th floor offered views of the city sky­line rem­i­nis­cent of the East Coast but with bun­dles of bush­es and trees offer­ing a patch­work car­pet of green. Clean, cream col­ored lines defined the work­space desk and chair, extend­ing from the con­sole hold­ing the flat-screen TV. It was the wall of win­dows, though, that cre­at­ed the wow factor.

Hotel Irvine view

Our bal­cony view

Just below us, on the 12th floor, Club 12 is a pri­vate perk for those who like a lit­tle more TLC than the aver­age trav­el­er. For an addi­tion­al fee, guests have access to a 2,000 square foot pri­vate area with com­pli­men­ta­ry break­fast and a wel­come home happy-hour.

Hotel Irvine Club 12

A Club 12 concierge is avail­able to answer ques­tions, book events and make your stay even more com­fort­able. A bal­cony wraps itself around the club with plen­ty of cozy seat­ing to gaze over the high-tech city.

Hotel Irvine Club 12

West Coast break­fast with an East Coast view

There are com­put­er work-areas and two 60-inch flat-screen TVs to catch the game in style with your bud­dies after the day-long meet­ings. Or, for your nine-year-old son to watch YouTube real­i­ty TV videos of oth­er fam­i­lies. Every­one was easy going and no one seemed to mind. After 8pm, they put out a plate of dessert. Of course, Knox insist­ed we sam­ple them so we could accu­rate­ly report our find­ings. He’s so thor­ough. The night we went, it was a choco­late cake and that seemed to do the trick.

The Eats

We ate din­ner, the night we arrived, in the hotel restau­rant, apt­ly called EATS. A laid-back, retro vibe that remind­ed me of an old-fash­ioned din­er. I was impressed with the paper straws. It’s nice when the place you’re eat­ing is think­ing about the envi­ron­ment. We start­ed with the Grilled Cas­tro­ville Arti­choke and I have to say, it was one of the best, if not the best (who real­ly remem­bers these things?) arti­chokes I’ve ever eat­en. Grilled just enough to make the leaves crisp at the edges but per­fect­ly moist and meaty on the inside.

Hotel Irvine EATS

I could have munched on this dish all night but my hus­band and I also also ordered the Anti-Burg­er, a house-made veg­an pat­ty which we loved so much, after we told our wait­er, he brought out Chef Jeff Moore so we could tell him ourselves.

Hotel Irvine EATS

HIS

Hotel Irvine EATS

HERS

Chef Moore thanked us for the com­pli­ment and then came back after we had our dessert sam­ple plat­ters (yes, we each ordered one so we could tell you that you must try the bread pud­ding, OMG, but it’s sea­son­al so you might have to beg but it’s worth it!) with the recipe for the veg­an patty.

We could­n’t have felt more wel­come. As we lin­gered over desserts and tea, we could see a cir­cle of wine-drinkers sit­ting around a cozy firepit just out­side the glass wall of the restau­rant. I learned the hotel offers var­i­ous activ­i­ties through­out the week and on this Fri­day night it was a Fire­side Wine Chat with a som­me­li­er talk­ing about var­i­ous vari­eties as atten­tive stu­dents sipped away.

Hotel Irvine EATS

THAT looks like a fun party

Out­side the Hotel Irvine, is a very diverse cul­tur­al pop­u­la­tion with half of peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing as non-Cau­casian and most­ly of Asian ori­gins, so if you like vari­ety and authen­tic cui­sine the Dia­mond Jam­boree is a great place to explore. We walked around and tried to find some­thing two hyper-vig­i­lent, self-described 90% health-freaks and a nine-year-old boy would agree upon. We all set­tled on Tokyo Table so Knox could get Cal­i­for­nia Rolls and we could get some­thing a bit more exot­ic that also grows out of the ground. Tokyo Table has tables and booths divid­ed by pony walls around a large room.

The vibe is as elec­tric as the neon sign bear­ing its name over the ser­vice area win­dow where din­ers could see into the kitchen. Knox got his rolls and even some teriya­ki chick­en and apple­sauce so he was happy.

Tokyo Table Irvine

Howard ordered the Stone Bowl which was pre­pared at our table (video below) and I got the ramen soup.

Tokyo Table

It was all very sat­is­fy­ing and rea­son­ably priced. Every dish we ordered aver­aged $10. Out­side, a large line of most­ly Asian hip­sters snaked its way out of 85ºC Bak­ery. We were mod­er­ate­ly inter­est­ed but it was late and we had a nine-year-old who gets cranky when he has­n’t had enough sleep.

The best place we ate was def­i­nite­ly Andrei’s Con­scious Cui­sine and Cock­tails — which is part gourmet restau­rant and part char­i­ty. The wine list is exten­sive. The cock­tails have a refresh­ing, cre­ative edge and the food is organ­ic and local­ly sourced. The sto­ry behind the estab­lish­ment is a sad one. The restau­rant is named after Andrei Oleni­coff, a young man who, when diag­nosed with a reti­nal eye dis­ease in his 20s, respond­ed by embrac­ing the health­i­est lifestyle pos­si­ble in order to extend the time he’d have with full eye­sight only to lose his life in a trag­ic car acci­dent. The full sto­ry is also includ­ed in the video below. The Oleni­coff fam­i­ly opened the restau­rant in Andrei’s hon­or and donate 100% of the pro­ceeds to var­i­ous char­i­ties. Take that in for a sec­ond. All of the mon­ey they earn is donat­ed. Wow. And let me tell you, the peo­ple work­ing there seemed super upbeat and hap­py. Like jump­ing up and down on a fluffy cloud kind of hap­py.  I ordered the Mediter­ranean Plat­ter which includ­ed humus. The bal­ance between sesame seed and tahi­ni was per­fect and there must have been oth­er secret ingre­di­ents but I did­n’t ask. Howard is half Per­sian (I swear) and I spent part of my child­hood liv­ing in Israel, so when I say they had the best hum­mus we’ve ever eat­en, it is a bells ring­ing over­heard and stream­ers float­ing through the air kind of state­ment. Up until this point, we were try­ing out the veg­an thing to improve our health. Or just stay healthy. But when con­front­ed with that slice of feta cheese among the dolmeh, I decid­ed not to resist.

Howard ordered Andre’s Cheese­burg­er because it had wagyu beef and he had heard good things about this Japan­ese breed of cat­tle and opt­ed to put his veg­an­hood on hold too for the after­noon. I had the fish tacos and it was flakey and sauced just with enough of a kick. Every­thing was extra­or­di­nary. Tru­ly. It made me wish we lived clos­er so I come more often.

Every­thing about this restau­rant made us feel good about eat­ing and drink­ing here. The food, the cock­tails and the ded­i­ca­tion of the fam­i­ly to car­ry on such a worth­while lega­cy and make Andrei’s sense­less death have meaning.

The Activities

San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

The thing that made me real­ize Irvine was much more spe­cial than I had ever con­sid­ered was when we vis­it­ed the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary, one of South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­a’s largest coastal fresh­wa­ter marsh­es and only a five minute dri­ve from the Hotel Irvine. The San Joaquin Marsh is two-thirds the size of New York City’s Cen­tral Park, in fact, Irvine is adja­cent to more than 20,000 acres of per­ma­nent­ly pre­served open space and rare nat­ur­al habi­tats. There are net­works of trails around the marsh for hik­ers and bik­ers to explore with­in this city sanctuary.

San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

When we arrived at the gates of the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary, it felt as if we had dropped into a secret world. We could bare­ly see the tops of the sky­scrap­ers above the marsh grass and wild­flow­ers. The 300 acres of wet­land pro­vides a home to more than 200 species of birds and has 12 miles of trails to walk around the var­i­ous sized lakes. The area is more than just a beau­ti­ful face. It’s gor­geous on the inside too and helps bring beau­ty to the rest of the area. Main­tained by the Irvine Ranch Water Dis­trict, their web­site explains, “The wet­lands are a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of IRWD’s Nat­ur­al Treat­ment Sys­tem, as they nat­u­ral­ly clean urban runoff from San Diego Creek and help to pro­tect the envi­ron­men­tal­ly sen­si­tive Upper New­port Bay. After inter­act­ing with the bul­rush and oth­er plants for sev­en to ten days, up to 70 per­cent of the nitro­gen is removed. The clean­er water is returned to the creek to con­tin­ue its jour­ney to Upper New­port Bay and the ocean.”

San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

#1 favorite hik­ing activity

We had a won­der­ful time walk­ing and run­ning around the tree and bush-lined paths, lis­ten­ing to the strange look­ing bird calls, some resem­bling their ancient ptero­dactyl cousins, and just breathing.

San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

Some­times it’s real­ly the lit­tle things that make the biggest dif­fer­ence. Admis­sion is free and the park is open every­day from dusk to dawn.

We decid­ed to also explore Pre­tend City Chil­dren’s Muse­um, where kids can dress up and pre­tend to be work­ers in 17 inter­ac­tive exhibits by cir­cu­lat­ing through the var­i­ous rooms into real-life busi­ness­es. Upon enter­ing the “city,” the kids receive a time-card divid­ed into sec­tions rep­re­sent­ing the “jobs” they must com­plete. Staff mem­bers stamp their time-card every time they com­plete one of those “jobs.” Each “job” comes com­plete with cos­tumes kids can wear that they’ve seen adults wear exe­cut­ing the same tasks. Knox dressed up as a doc­tor for one and a Trad­er Joe’s cashier for anoth­er. He engaged in the marine biol­o­gy sta­tion, which was wet and wild with kids run­ning around dis­cov­er­ing the world beneath the ocean. After get­ting all the slots stamped on his time-card, a staff mem­ber instruct­ed him to go to the “bank” and col­lect his pay­check so he could go back to Trad­er Joe’s as a cus­tomer. The pos­si­ble skill sets to be learned from these activ­i­ties were bound­less. There’s also a sec­tion for free, unstruc­tured play with giant foam blocks and a stage to put on your own show. Kids under one are free and the rest are $13.75. Knox was prob­a­bly on the verge of being too old for this as most of the atten­dees that day were in the tod­dler playset.

A few min­utes away from Hotel Irvine is the Irvine Spec­trum Cen­ter. We had heard about this fer­ris wheel where rid­ers could see miles from the top and since I’d nev­er been, we decid­ed to stop and check it out. Our brief after­noon stop turned into a night time depar­ture as we kept dis­cov­er­ing place after place to keep us enter­tained. The fer­ris wheel was fun but it was a real treat at night with thou­sands of LED lights cre­at­ing hyp­no­tiz­ing patterns. 

Irvine Spectrum Center

I got to sneak into a cou­ple stores after the boys dis­cov­ered Dave and Buster’s, a Vegas style arcade, com­plete with a restau­rant and bar, that will imme­di­ate­ly put every­one in the fam­i­ly under its spell. It was fun­ny to see pop­u­lar arcade games from the 1980s also rep­re­sent­ed. The boys loaded up a game card and attacked as many games as they could while I tried on a cou­ple things next door. 

We fin­ished off our stay in Irvine at my kid’s favorite place — no mat­ter where we go — the swim­ming pool.

Hotel Irvine

It was­n’t a hot day but the large pool was heat­ed and the hot tub was bub­bly and warm. It was the first time we trav­eled with only one of our boys, instead of both, and it was def­i­nite­ly one of the more relax­ing and qui­et times we’ve spent. Anoth­er sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery like the city of Irvine.

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