What happens when a 40-something returns to his college stomping grounds? A great family vacation, is what.
It’s one of those bittersweet truisms in life: Old and young eyes can gaze on the same object and see entirely different things.
The same goes for laid-back Southern California beach towns. Specifically, in my case, Newport Beach, where I lived for several years as an almost-always-broke college student and entry-level newspaper reporter. Back then, I looked at Newport and saw a bike-friendly catacomb of affordable off-season beach rentals and comfortably lived-in dive bars. It was a special place to me, a place of adventure. I had my first legal drink there. Several nonlegal firsts, as well. To someone in their early 20s, Newport was downright utopian – the kind of anything-goes playground where you could drift from house party to house party, meet a bunch of people, and possibly end the evening by jumping into the ocean and bodysurf by moonlight. (Maybe I’m overstating that last part. It happened to me once in, like, six years.)
And now? Well, now I’m visiting with my wife and two little kids, and most definitely see Newport in a different light.
Lay of the Bay
The first thing you should know about Newport Beach: It’s not a beach. Or not only a beach, to be precise. Stretching 7 miles end-to-end across Orange County’s central “gold coast,” the affluent city of 85,000 is neatly bifurcated by a dribbly little river called the San Diego Creek, which resolves into a broad, bay-like estuary before spilling into the Pacific Ocean. This geographic oddity gives Newport an enticingly irregular profile. Hardly an unbroken stretch of beach, it’s more like a sprawling galaxy of sandbars, islands, marinas and bluffs, all connected by bridges and narrow streets.
One way to immediately get your bearings – and something I never did even once as a resident of Newport – is to rent an electric Duffy boat and explore the harbor via Balboa Boat Rentals (510 E. Edgewater Pl., 855-690-0794, boats4rent.com). Launching out of Newport’s carnival-like Fun Zone on the Balboa Peninsula, we putt-putt across the water for two hours ($210), taking in satisfying eyefuls of the eight-figure mansions that occupy several semiprivate islands inside the massive harbor – Nicolas Cage, innumerable pro athletes and more than a few dot-com billionaires have homes here – along with orienting panoramic views of Balboa Island, Lido Isle and other neighborhoods.
You can also arrange for a tour guide, and add a little historical edification to the mix. Our knowledgeable guide, a schoolmarm type who moonlights as a real estate agent, points out various spots of interest, including the small beachhead in the marina where John Wayne once filmed part of a war movie, beginning a decades-long love affair with Newport and its most famous resident.
Though summer constitutes its high season, Newport offers a bounty of non-beachy events and activities in the winter. Alternately, consider an off-season September-October visit: thinner crowds, better rates and still-beach-friendly weather. visitnewportbeach.com
The Hotel/Resort/Shack Scene
Here’s another facet of the Newport experience that didn’t register even as a faint blip on my cultural awareness radar as an undergrad: the hospitality industry. I lived on Balboa Peninsula, the epicenter of the city’s beach culture, where zoning laws prohibit buildings taller than three stories. No tall buildings = no big hotels. Great if you’re a property owner with views to preserve, not so great if you’re a tourist who wants to stay near the water. There are a handful of small, overpriced inns by Newport Pier that fill up quickly during high season, but all the big hotels are on the mainland.
One solution, of course, is to hit an online lodging website and rent your own beach house. A two-bedroom, weeklong rental typically runs in the $1,300-$1,400 range through April, when rates start to creep up (see sidebar).
Another option is the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach (1107 Jamboree Rd., 949-729-1234, hyatt.com), located on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway, inland a bit from the coast. I do actually have a pre-existing familiarity with the Hyatt: When I was an undergrad, my frat used to throw mixers there. A sprawling, spacious property, the Hyatt overlooks Newport’s scenic back bay, where my roommate and his buddies on the crew team used to spend bitingly cold mornings doing slide-rowing drills. (Masochists, all of them, I secretly suspected.) As part of its suite of outdoor activities, the Hyatt rents kayaks for personal bay exploring.
Driving a bit south on PCH, about halfway to Laguna Beach, you’ll find two other overnight options: the swank Resort on Pelican Hill (aka Newport’s answer to The Phoenician, pelicanhill.com) and rustic Crystal Cove, a state-owned slice of beach heaven dotted with rental cottages, set right on the beach.
Until this visit, I was only faintly aware of Crystal Cove (35 Crystal Cove, 949-376-6200, crystalcovebeachcottages.com) and its modest little beach homes, many of which were built by industrious squatters and occupied lease-free for decades before the state of California scooped them all up in a repatriation effort in the 1990s. Invisible from the highway, sheltered by a natural impression in the coastline, the cottages offer unusual privacy and direct access to a tranquil – but busy, during the summer – public beach, and are affordably priced, given their status as a state-owned conservancy.
Naturally, they fill up quick, via a rolling six-month reservation window. So, say, if you want to book a June visit and you’re reading this in January, call today.
Same Home, Different Season
Comparing rental rates for the same two-bedroom Airbnb beach house on Balboa Peninsula, relative to season (weeklong rental).
• December-February: $1,295
• March-May: $1,450
• June-August: $2,217
• September-November: $1,314
Sadly, my Newport period predated America’s foodie revival in the 2000s. Which is to say, chef-driven restaurants were uniformly expensive and out of my student-budget price range. My idea of a big splurge in those days was the $20 all-you-can-eat special at a now-defunct sushi restaurant on the Lido Marina. Can I confess something? I secretly packed excess Philadelphia rolls into sheets of tin foil and spirited them out of the restaurant after forking over my 20 bucks, and ate them for lunch the next day. Hey, poverty isn’t pretty, folks.
Naturally, the dining scene is much better in present-day Newport than it was in the early 1990s. In fact, one of the more exciting new additions happens to occupy the very same storefront my $20 sushi go-to once did: Fable & Spirit (3441 Via Lido, 949-409-9913, fableandspirit.com). Done in stately peacock green by restaurateur Darren Coyle, with plenty of brass and marble to complete the Irish country house illusion, the restaurant opened last summer and has become something like Newport’s version of The Gladly – i.e. a place to drink and enjoy energetic, vaguely experimental versions of gastropub staples, like rotisserie porchetta splayed on a luscious mattress of pecorino polenta, the buttery pork belly melting on the tongue without a hint of gristle. Word to the wise: If you order one dish off the excellent small plates menu, get the Prince Edward Island mussels (abbreviated as PEI on the menu), perhaps the most addictive treatment of the small bivalves I’ve ever eaten, swimming in a jus of roasted garlic and thyme butter that you’ll want to sop up all night.
Oh, and one more must-get: Coyle’s remarkable Irish coffees, unbelievably smooth concoctions brewed seamlessly with whiskey and hit with a splash of cold cream. It’s liquid crack, and you’ll certainly want to drink two.
Other new jack Newport options demand your attention: Hook & Anchor (3305 Newport Blvd., 949-423-7169, hooknanchor.com), a super casual but high-quality purveyor of lobster rolls, grilled fish sandwiches and other ocean-faring delicacies that reminds me a little of Claudio Urciuoli’s Pa’La back home; and Mama’s Comfort Food and Cocktails (2601 W. Coast Hwy., 949-447-5444, mamason39.com), which is probably the closest thing to a soul food restaurant this part of Orange County has ever seen.
While you’re at Hook & Anchor, go across the street and check out Lido Marina Village, once the rowdiest, saltiest part of town, a cannery district famed for a dive bar called Snug Harbor, where old sailors used to hang out. (Not Chris Craft gentleman sailors, mind you. I mean the real deal – old fishermen with missing limbs, weird accents and skin diseases.) Now it’s a high-dollar mixed-use development with its own Nobu. Les temps, ils changent.
Newport Social Scene
Maybe this was inevitable, but ultimately I’m surprised how little Newport has changed in the 20-odd years since I packed up a U-Haul in front of my rented beach house and moved to Arizona.
Most of the pillars of Newport’s culture are still intact, including – in my opinion – Southern California’s best boardwalk, which starts at 36th Street in West Newport and snakes 3 miles down Balboa Peninsula, offering a bonanza of people-watching and home-gawking possibilities – not to mention quick access to Beach Ball (2116 W. Oceanfront, 949-675-8041, beachballbar.com), a legendary oceanfront watering hole where many a dads have snuck away for a quick IPA while the family frits around in the surf.
For the retail-inclined, Fashion Island (401 Newport Center Dr., 949-721-2000, fashionisland.com) still rules. The swank outdoor mall sits on a bluff near PCH and is ideal for retail immersion.
Not surprisingly, the 111-year-old Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade is still a thing. Held over five nights during the holiday season (December 18-22 in 2019, christmasboatparade.com), the event obliges boat owners and landed gentry alike to regale their property with millions of Christmas lights, which visitors can enjoy via three nightly cruises ($38 adults, $34 kids). (If you do squeeze in a Christmas trip, Crystal Cove also keeps a tree lit on the beach through New Year’s.)
Naturally, Newport has a bunch of new (to me) traditions, too, including Newport Beach Restaurant Week (January 13-26, visitnewportbeach.com/restaurant-week), offering $20-$50 prix fixe dinners throughout its beautifully unwieldy confederation of neighborhoods, peninsulas and islands.
Does it feel like I’ve only scratched the surface? It feels that way to me, too. Maybe these old eyes need to plan another trip.
Newport in 10 Acts
Newport Beach comprises 10 distinct neighborhoods. PHOENIX editor Craig Outhier, a former resident, shares his impressions.
Airport District: It’s basically Santa Ana. Fly in, fly out. Don’t linger.
Balboa Island: Quiet, insular and cute as a button. It’s where all the sorority girls lived.
Balboa Peninsula: Beach mansions and salty dive bars existing in perfect harmony.
Balboa Village: Otherwise known as the Fun Zone. Feels like the setting of a Stephen King book.
Cannery Village: Once-divey canning district now a high-dollar dining hub. Bukowksi weeps.
Corona del Mar: Classy beach village down the highway.
Fashion Island: Yes, it has a Nordstrom.
Mariner’s Mile: I honestly wasn’t aware this was a thing. Car dealerships?
Crystal Cove: State-owned bungalow village gets my must-visit vote.
Back Bay: Newport’s long, marshy backbone extends all the way into neighboring Irvine. A rower’s paradise.