NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA – Designer name shops? Check. Year-round great weather? Check again. Celebrity-studded waterfront? You bet.
Newport Beach is known as one of the more elegant destinations in southern California, and rightfully so. But it’s also got its fun, casual side, with waterfront carnival rides and corn dogs, a remarkable set of beach homes you can rent for next to nothing, and an ongoing, decades-old fight between two businesses who both claim to be the original home of the frozen, chocolate-dipped banana.
I recently had a weekend to explore the charms of this popular city, which is just a few minutes from John Wayne Orange County Airport and perhaps a half hour or 45 minutes south of LAX.
The natural setting is a gift from the gods; a lovely, variable-shaped harbour with plenty of zigs and zags, a tremendous beach backed by golden, craggy cliffs and some of the best, year-round weather in the U.S.
Our first day featured a ride around Newport Harbor on a so-called Duffy Boat with Carolyn Clark, who works with a group called Newport At Your Feet. The boats are electric models named after the former mayor of Newport Beach, who developed the vessels.
Our tour began next to the so-called Balboa Fun Zone, a low-key carnival area on the Balboa Peninsula with a small Ferris Wheel, arcade games, corn dogs you can smell a block away and other carnival-style treats.
“It’s like an adult bathtub toy,” the engaging Clark tells us as we bop along the water’s surface in our Duffy Boat under a deep blue sky with puffy white clouds. Clark points out various items of interest, including an old dance hall where legendary jazz stars like Stan Kenton and Harry James used to play and also homes owned by the likes of Bill Medley, one of the Righteous Brothers. She also points out the home where Shirley Temple once lived.
Clark tells us that Lido Island is getting a nice remake these days, with a new Marriott Autograph Collection hotel and new restaurants.
CLICK HERE FOR A VIDEO OF OUR BOAT TOUR
We didn’t take time to stop (I have enough calories in my life, but still wish I’d have at least gone for a couple minutes), but Clark also told us about the famous frozen banana wars. If you drive down the main drag on Balboa Island? You’ll find a shop called “Dad’s” and then another that says “Sugar N Spice.” Both suggest they originated the frozen, chocolate-dipped banana.
Apparently Newport folks each have a favourite, with strong disagreements common between backers of Big Daddy and supporters of Sugar and Spice (not unlike the great bagel debate in Montreal between Fairmount and St. Viateur, I suspect).
The next morning we check out Crystal Cove State Park, which drivers whizzing past on the Pacific Coast Highway can hardly see but is one of the prettiest spots along a very lovely coastline. Even better, perhaps, then the rugged headlands and gentle surf and views of Catalina Island is that the park boasts a series of beautiful cottages that were built back at a time when folks were allowed to erect homes on the beach. They fell into disrepair for quite some time, but local conservationists worked to get them functional again, and now they’re very much sought after as affordable, large homes you can rent and be right on – or immediately adjacent to – the beach.
The units feel as if they’re from another time; lots of natural wood and a very nice, lived-in kind of look; with towels draped over the furniture to get dry and running shoes scattered over wooden front patios.
One of the big attractions is the The Beachcomber restaurant, a wildly popular dining spot that sits right on the sand. Breakfast lineups can be quite long, but we manage a table pretty quickly and sit down to a wonderful meal, which begins with hot, fluffy beignets worthy of New Orleans; dusted with powdered sugar and served with maple syrup and whipped crème. I also sample some very good fried chicken and biscuits and a tasty, filling skillet breakfast with eggs, bacon, veggies, Portuguese sausage and other bits.
I was told the folks who stay here raise a flag with a martini glass on it every night at sunset, and that a bugle recording plays as the flag rises up the pole.
Later in the day we take a ride around town with Joe Carter from Pedego Carlsbad, who gives us some tips on riding the Pedego electric bikes and then gives a marvellous tour of the area.
We start near Corona Del Mar beach, one of the prettiest in the state. The wildflowers are out in full force when we’re there, so we’re treated to a Crayola box worth of colours that contrast wonderfully with the golden cliffs that plunge down to the sand.
Clients looking for a great place to stay need look no further than the Fashion Island Hotel Newport Beach, which has tons of great features and a very nice location that makes it easy to explore the region. Located on a hill just a couple kilometers from the harbour, the hotel is across the road from the Fashion Island shopping centre, which features a mix of mainstream and luxury shops and is replete with towering palm trees and splashy fountains.
Our room was terrific; spacious and beautifully decorated with warm tones of deep lavender and pale yellow and outfitted with a Bose sound system, a coffee maker and more. The bathroom had plenty of space, and we had a fine view looking out past the shopping centre to the blue Pacific Ocean, with a nice balcony to boot.
I find hotel restaurants can be rather hit and miss. The Oak Grill at Fashion Island Hotel, on the other hand, is a three-run homer.
The scallops were terrific; served with a Mexican mole sauce, pepitas and black kale. Executive Chef Brittany Valles also has a great touch with sea bass, which she dusts with Jamaican jerk spice for just the right amount of flavour and not too much heat. She serves it alongside grits with bits of banana for another nod to the Caribbean. It’s not what one expects in grits, but it worked very nicely with the jerk spice.
The hotel lobby has a chic bar called the Aqua Lounge, with lots more natural light and an airy, open design. I was told a local woman who’s almost 100 years old comes in every night for a cocktail, and how cool is that?
The bar has a program called $7 til 7, with glasses of wine, craft beer and well cocktails for seven bucks from 4 to 7 p.m., as well as special seven dollar food items, including tuna poke, specialty grilled cheese, thin-crust pizza and popcorn shrimp.
The hotel was a Four Seasons back in the day and then was known as the Island Hotel. It underwent a total transformation four years ago, a top-to-bottom renovation, said the hotel public relations person, Marguarite Clark.
The 295-room hotel has a community relations person on staff to work with local and is owned by Irvine Company Resort Properties, which owns Fashion Island shopping centre.
Being outside of a group of chain hotels makes Fashion Island much more nimble, Clark said.
“It’s all about quality,” she said. “If someone says the beach umbrellas look a little tattered, they’re replaced. You don’t have to go up an endless chain of command.”
The swimming pool complex is particularly outstanding, with a lovely pool surrounded by towering palm trees and handsome orange cushions scattered about.
One option clients might think about is paying for Island Club access. You’ll get a lovely breakfast on the 20th floor, with fine views of the coast and morning treats that include good coffee, pastries, fresh fruit, eggs and applewood-smoked bacon. You also get access in the evening, when they put out trays of meats, cheeses and other snacks, as well as beer and wine. They even have afternoon snacks from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., which you don’t often see. With all the food you get, the Island Club is frankly not a bad way to save on dining out, which can add up for anyone but especially for those of us who earn Canadian dollars.
Island Club guests also get complimentary, premium Wi-Fi, 20% off spa retail purchases, access to wet areas of the spa, and access to a personal shopper. All in all, that’s a very good deal for $50 USD.
Not only is the hotel a few steps from Fashion Island, but it’s a very short drive to the beach and only a few minutes from both Highway 405. Orange County/John Wayne International Airport is perhaps 10 minutes away, so you don’t have to worry about Southern California traffic.
We finished up our trip with a fine meal at a dining spot called A Restaurant, a classic place for fine dining that’s been in business nearly 100 years. Look for leather banquettes and a dark, private club-like atmosphere that feels more like New York than Newport Beach. They serve up excellent cocktails and very good food; including Spanish Octopus, great steaks and Jumbo Diver Scallops.
MORE INFORMATION: https://www.visitnewportbeach.com/, https://www.visitcalifornia.com/ca
Taste The Coffee 2019