OC Lifestyle

A Worthy Mission

By OCinSite At-Large | October 10, 2011 10:58 AM


A Worthy Mission

Photo Courtesy of Mission San Juan Capistrano

By Beth Fhaner

For an authentic slice of early California life, visitors must not skip the Los Rios Historic District in San Juan Capistrano.

“San Juan Capistrano and the Los Rios District are our piece of history close by,” says Gundula Reile, chef concierge at The St. Regis Monarch Beach. “Los Rios is located close to the train station and invites visitors into the quaint little cottages to either shop or enjoy a meal.”

Any way you like
Photo by Jody Tiongco

Established in 1794, the Los Rios Historic District, which includes 31 historic structures featuring various architectural styles spanning two centuries, was the neighborhood that served as home for the mission builders and mission ranch workers during the late 1700s and early 1800s. It was during this long period of construction on the original Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Great Stone Church when the Spanish and Acjachemen Indians were beginning to merge their cultures. A second wave of homes—utilizing board and batten construction—would later be built by European immigrants to the area in the late 1800s. Of the original adobe structures built on Los Rios Street, The Montanez, the Rios and the Silvas are the only three that remain.

The Los Rios Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 4, 1983. With its many historic buildings, including a mix of private residences and several structures that have been converted into shops and restaurants,  it is one of California’s oldest neighborhoods and is well worth exploring for an afternoon.

Unique Shops

With the sounds of mission bells ringing and trains rumbling by, visitors can take a relaxing stroll down Los Rios Street with its numerous willow and palm trees shading the path, along with gorgeous wildflowers, bougainvillea and cacti. Make sure to browse through some of the cute stores that line the area, such as Cottage Home and Garden. Located in a home built in 1888, this adorable shop features cottage chic, plus women’s accessories, baby gifts, soaps and candles. In addition, free classes are offered on weekends, including succulent wreath classes, as well as fairy garden workshops, where guests can create a miniature garden in a container, complete with tiny, whimsical accessories, such as birds, benches, fountains and, of course, fairies.

Across the street at Nest, shoppers will find a lovely selection of women’s clothing, scarves, handmade vintage jewelry, purses, rugs, candles and gifts. Also, be sure to check out the charming backyard area, where more retail treasures await.

The Tangled Vine is a unique business housed in a cottage built in the 1890s. Specializing in flowers, photography, arts and antiques, this one-of-a-kind shop also offers wedding and event planning services.

Area Attractions

Wander through the beautiful Los Rios Park, which was recently redeveloped with all native California plants, walkways, benches and a kids’ area. With its abundant plant life, including wildflowers and cacti, Los Rios Park is a peaceful place to sit and take a respite from life’s hectic pace. Another interesting aspect to the park is the photographic plaques depicting the area’s history that were placed along the Historic Depiction Program wall in 2009.

Lush outdoor gardens
Photo by Jody Tiongco

Built in 1880, the Garcia/Pryor House now serves as the O’Neill Museum, which is home to the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. The Victorian house was one of the town’s first wooden buildings, and it was moved to its current site from its original location across the train tracks and a block south. Open to the public, the museum provides visitors with a glimpse into what life was like 100 years ago around San Juan Capistrano.

For those with little ones, a stop at the Zoomars Petting Zoo & Bird Park is a must. Established in 1900 and formerly known as the Jones Family Farm, the completely restored two-acre petting zoo now includes hundreds of animals, plus pony rides and a miniature train ride. The century-old Olivares House, listed on the National Registry, is located at the front of the property.

Good Eats

Take a break from shopping at one of the charming cafes tucked into the area, including the acclaimed Ramos House Café, which is located in a house built in 1881. As in earlier times, chef and owner John Q. Humphreys lives and works at the house, where everything is made from scratch and the menu changes daily.

The Tea House on Los Rios is also highly recommended. “Are you up for a spectacular high tea ceremony?” Reile asks. “The Tea House serves a typical English high tea with assorted finger sandwiches, fresh fruit accompanied by cream and brown sugar, and, of course, home-baked scones.”

Other Los Rios district establishments offering delicious fare include the Hummingbird House Café and Hidden House Coffee, both of which have pleasant outdoor seating areas. Across the train tracks, Sarducci’s Capistrano Depot is also a favorite spot to grab breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The Jewel of the California Missions

No trip to San Juan Capistrano is complete without a visit to the renowned Mission San Juan Capistrano, a historic landmark that is also home to a museum, art gallery and gardens. Founded Nov. 1, 1776 by Junipero Serra as the seventh of 21 missions established by Spain, Mission San Juan Capistrano is the only mission in Orange County and is affectionately referred to as the “Jewel of the Missions.”
A short walk from the train station, the mission’s site also includes original buildings constructed by Native Americans in the 18th century, including the Serra Chapel, the ruins of the Great Stone Church (which fell in an earthquake in 1812), and the original padre’s quarters of the south wing.

An award-winning digital audio tour for adults, docent-led tours, a dine-and-tour package and a special audio tour for children are available. On the first Tuesday of each month, guests can also experience executive director tours, which are small group tours guided by the mission’s executive director to learn about all the behind-the-scenes information.

“In addition to Mission San Juan Capistrano’s highly successful summer concert series, and its weekday children’s programming, a short-term exhibit of rare artifacts from our archives has been on display called ‘The Treasures of the Mission: Historical Collection Revealed’ exhibit,” explains Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence-Adams of the recent offerings at the mission. “Through the selected items on display, it provides a stunning perspective of the past and the mission’s survival over 230 years.”

Among the many year-round special events, including concerts, exhibits, lectures, dance performances and festivals, the mission hosts the annual world-famous “Return of the Swallows Celebration” on Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19).

There is much to discover in the Los Rios Historic District and San Juan Capistrano. Whether you have a few hours or a weekend to explore, be sure to visit this enchanting, picturesque area for a look into California’s early years.

Walk this way
Photo by Jody Tiongco

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