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3-HOUR TOUR

Science Served With a Side of Lunch at Plaza de la Paz

August 26, 1993|ANNE MICHAUD | Anne Michaud is a staff writer for The Times Orange County Edition.

The reconstructed jaw of an ancient shark, about five feet tall, sits in a glass case. It is a startling sight--especially because it is planted on a sidewalk at the pedestrian Plaza de la Paz shopping center in Laguna Niguel.

The toothy shark remnant is evidence of a natural history museum nearby. The museum sits among jewelry stores and shoe shops and looks like any other retailer, so it's a good thing the shark jaw is there to get our attention.

1 to 1:45: The Orange County Natural History Museum found its third home--at last, in February--in the Plaza de la Paz. The site is fitting for this bedroom community--convenient for a trip to shop for school clothes, pick up a little local culture and rent a video.

The museum is not very big, but it has a grand idea: to map the habitats in the county from sea level at Newport's Back Bay to the highest point, the 5,687-foot Santiago Peak. This is accomplished by a 4-by-108-foot wall mural by Los Angeles painter Rebecca Jo Morales. The mural rings the room just above eye level.

Lower, at about kid's-eye level, the museum has placed glass cases and terrariums. There is a display of shells and starfish, and one of butterflies and moths. There are stuffed owls and a large collection of stuffed birds. Everything in the museum was, or can be, found in Orange County, according to museum officials. The terrariums contain live snakes, toads and lizards.

Admission is $1 for adults and 50 cents for children.

1:45 to 2:30: The Mangia Bene restaurant, next door to the museum, is a very good Italian restaurant. But it is closed midafternoon, between lunch and dinner, so you might want to wander over to the Amsterdam Coffeehouse, depending on the time.

The coffeehouse, which pipes in soft clarinet music, will not serve you at your table. Stop by the counter, however, and you can order several light dishes: a frittata (Italian quiche), chicken salad on a baguette or a plate of fruit and cheese. Prices are $4 to $6. Dessert at the coffeehouse is perhaps the most tempting course. A glass case of fruit tarts, pastries, scones and cakes greets you at the door.

The coffeehouse has a few outdoor tables, if you don't mind sitting next to the plaza parking lot, and customers are invited to browse through a collection of magazines and newspapers.

2:30 to 4: Laguna Niguel Regional Park is one of the prettiest in Orange County. It is hilly and tree-filled and has a reservoir you can walk or bike around.

The park is well-used. I saw several large gatherings--family or company picnics, mostly, with paper-plate markers saying who was who.

There are all the accompaniments to a picnic: barbecue grills and trash cans and restrooms. There is a concession stand and an ice cream truck, too, in case you forgot chips or dessert. For walkers, a trip around the reservoir path--which also accommodates strollers and dogs on leashes--is about a 20-minute walk, or a little more than a mile.

As the sun was setting on a recent evening, I saw several people headed that way with dogs and kids, wandering in through a side entry. If you're on foot (or paw), entry is free. Cars are required to pay a $2 fee at the gate.

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