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At Home in the Great Outdoors

Rancho Santa Margarita's Residents Enjoy 12 Parks, a Lake--and Breathtaking Views


Rancho Santa Margarita is home to 12 parks, including one with a 13-acre lake and swim lagoon. But the prettiest spot in town might be an open field left to its own devices.

Just north of the appropriately named Avenida de las Flores, springtime splays a carpet of golden wildflowers that seems to stretch clear up to the Santa Ana Mountains.

"When it's crystal clear and the hills are bright green, the view across that field of flowers can take my breath away," said Dore Redfern, a five-year resident of Rancho Santa Margarita.

With so many natural and manufactured settings to choose from, it's also crystal clear why the 40,000 residents of this newly incorporated city feel at home in the outdoors.

They hike--and bike--trails near Trabuco Mesa Park, shoot slap shots in Trabuco Highlands Central Park, hit backhands in Cielo Vista Park, dribble drive in Mesa Linda Park and backstroke in Altisima, Arroyo Vista, Monte Vista and Solano parks.

At the same time, it's nice to know that the rest of us can park it on a patio overlooking Lago Santa Margarita and sip a cool one as we watch the outdoor enthusiasts go by.

Water Everywhere

If Rancho Santa Margarita's parks can be compared to confections (c'mon, play along), then the Lago Santa Margarita Beach Club is the one with the liquid center.

The Beach Club (21472 Avenida de los Fundadores, [949] 858-1390) offers all things aquatic, from swimming in the lagoon to volleyball at the water's edge. And on weekends, there's paddle boating ($1.25 per half-hour), sailing ($5 per hour), kayaking ($1.50 per half-hour) and canoeing ($2 per half-hour). There's even fishing, as the lake is stocked with bass, bluegill, sunfish and channel catfish, among others.

All the facilities are for Rancho residents and their guests only, as signs placed prominently at all the city's parks remind interlopers. Residents pay a $39 monthly assessment to maintain the parks, so they aren't public.

However, access to the lake is unrestricted at the Mercado del Lago, at the corner of Santa Margarita and Antonio parkways, and no one seems to mind if out-of-towners stroll the 1.1-mile path that encircles the lake.

The path, which is popular with runners and serious walkers, is dotted with benches placed in shady spots. A rock outcropping at the north end of the lake features an amphitheater, where weddings and summer concerts are held.

Want a more out-of-the-way experience? Try the Trabuco Creek Regional Trail, which offers access just north of Trabuco Mesa Park, where Avenida de las Flores intersects Antonio Parkway. It's for hikers and cyclists and is open 7 a.m. to sunset.

Lakeside Dining

There's no better place for a lager by the lago than Wings Bar and Grill (31431 Santa Margarita Parkway, Suite M, [949] 888-0072).

Wings has 15 microbrews on tap, but owner Jeff Miner rotates the selections to keep adventuresome regulars happy. His choices favor Humboldt County breweries such as Mad River and Lost Coast. Draft beer is $4.

You can sip inside, under ceiling fans that look like propeller blades and a hand-painted ceiling mural of a World War II fighter. But why would you want to when you can sit under the warm spring sun on the lakeside deck? "We have great exposure for sunsets," Miner said.

Food choices range from sandwiches to half-pound burgers to its popular Mexican selections. Particularly pleasing are the Chiliquilis: sauteed tortilla chips topped with enchilada sauce and a choice of chicken, pork, beef or scrambled eggs ($9).

Most combination meals go for $6 to $7.50.

"We get a regular group that likes to party but isn't into the club scene," Miner said. "Our atmosphere is fun but a little tamer."

If you prefer your fun accompanied by Italian fare, step next door to Sarducci's Cafe and Grill (31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Suite P, [949] 459-5961). The patio view is just as good, but it comes with Cajun linguine (jambalaya with sausage, shrimp and scallops atop linguine, $9.95), salmon medallions (sauteed salmon in a dill mustard sauce on angel hair pasta, $9.50) or other playful pasta dishes.

Additional tasty options include the pork porterhouse for $14.95 and the lamb with raspberry mango for $16.50.

Server Norma Thy said Sarducci's business is often driven by the weather. "Summer nights, it's especially lovely here," she said. "You've got the lights, the lake. That's when the patio is really popular."

Tasty Takeout

Parks and open space are perfect for picnics, which leads us to Celinda's, the Original Mexican Deli (29941 Aventura, Suite D, [949] 589-0354) for some of the best takeout in town.

At first glance, the menu looks like standard Mexican fare--soft and crispy tacos, tamales, enchiladas and nine kinds of burritos. But a note at the top offers a clue to Celinda's 10 years of success: "This is not a ready-made, fast-food establishment. Most orders are prepared and cooked as you requested. Please allow ample time."

Celinda's uses only fresh ingredients chopped and prepared by hand, owner Armando Albanez said.

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