Newport Beach is the distillation of wealthy Orange County: immense homes line a recreational harbour, sapphire surf crashes on sandy beaches, while suntanned teens straight out of ‘The OC’ eat frozen bananas and Balboa bars (ice cream on a stick dipped in chocolate and sprinkles). But there’s also a nostalgic streak to this city that offers an unexpected depth.
Watch the 00s’ teen-angst-drama The OC and sitcom Arrested Development – both based in Newport Beach – and somewhere in the middle of where these two programmes overlap you’ll start to get a feel for the sun-bleached, slightly surreal vibe of this Orange County enclave.
Centred around the largest small-yacht harbour in the US, Newport Beach – located about midway along the glossy Orange County coastline – is one of the country’s wealthiest cities. Huge homes jostle for waterfront access along the harbour’s seven islands and it’s been a refuge for Hollywood stars and big money execs, with John Wayne (whose former yacht ‘the Wild Goose’ is available for cruises), Cyndi Lauper, and Roy Disney (Walt’s older brother) among the lengthy list of starry ex-residents.
Today the tech execs have moved into the stars’ old homes (you definitely need money to live here, with one-bed apartments starting at $2m), but it’s easy to see Newport Beach’s continuing appeal – the exclusive harbour; miles of golden sand beaches; some of southern California’s most well-appointed shopping districts; and a curious nostalgic streak that distinguishes it from other upmarket SoCal coastal cities.
You’ll find it in the slightly down-at-heel (but perhaps more interesting for it) Balboa Fun Zone – a strip of carnival games and restaurants with an 80-year-old Ferris wheel its crowning glory (also where Ryan and Marissa of The OC shared their first kiss); in the local specialty of the frozen banana; or in the family run ferry that transports cars to and fro across the calm harbour waters.
The Cannery Village neighbourhood – centred around the old cannery (now a restaurant) and the Blue Water Grill – also offers another sliver of this area’s working-class history as a shipbuilding hub. Over the road, the Lido Marina Village is a high-end waterfront shopping district with superb, high-end restaurants and exotic odours leaking from the local perfumery.
Dive in by hiring an electric Duffy Boat (named for its inventor who also happens to be the city’s current mayor). Putter about the harbour on your own (there’re narrated tours on YouTube), or hire a tour guide like Carolyn Clark (newportatyourfeet.com) who’ll energetically lead you through a starry house-spotting odyssey, or pointing out where Hollywood thought Newport Harbour could pass for the Nile in the 1917 version of Cleopatra.
Afterwards pick up a frozen banana and wander the beach to the east end of the peninsula where the Wedge – Newport Beach’s famed surf break – hurls surfers and bodysurfers in all directions during high swell. But summer hasn’t all the highlights: if you’re visiting near Christmas, check out the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade. It’s eye-popping (like Arrested Development) and a little silly (like The OC). A mesmerising combination.
Recently opened on the site of the old town hall, the luxury Lido House (3300 Newport Boulevard) is the first hotel to open its doors on Newport’s Balboa Peninsula in over fifty years. The boutique, with a Cape Cod-style aesthetic, offers a central pool with private cabanas for rent; on-site spa; and the city’s only rooftop bar. Airy and laid-back, the interior mixes nautical touches with towering murals of champagne-sipping mermaids. Attached is Crew Coffee & Cremerie where, besides the obvious, you can also pick up ice cream with imaginative flavours such as tequila basil or roasted banana.
The Newport Beach Hotel (2306 W. Oceanfront) – which describes itself as ‘Newport’s closest hotel to the beach’ – has garnered a reputation for its excellent customer service and good value for money. Nautical stripes and sailboat cushion prints abound, but it doesn’t feel too affected in this easy-going boutique. A continental breakfast and loaner bikes and boogie boards are included free in the competitive room price. It’s all about the oceanfront view rooms, but if you don’t get one, then just turn the corner of the building and sink your feet into the warm sand instead.
Restaurants, Bars & Cafes
Attached to the Lido House hotel, the glitzy yet somehow also quite cosy Mayor’s Table (3300 Newport Boulevard) has quickly established itself as one of the city’s most delectable places for a bite (a must, if you’re around for breakfast and hungry as a horse, is the hot chicken and waffles with pistachio butter). Of course it’s dinner where the culinary fireworks really… fire, although the moments of simplicity on the plate are the ones that will linger longest on the memory’s taste buds. Geared towards sustainable seafood, must have courses include the Dungeness Crab Stuffed Donuts and the Petite Filet served with creamed corn.
Looking like its just fallen out of a glitch in time, Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop (2501 W. Victory Boulevard) is the sweet epicentre of Newport Beach nostalgia. While the donuts and sandwiches are baked into the name, everyone knows that this is where you primarily come to tick off your Balboa Bar or Frozen Banana ‘taste of Newport Beach’ essential. An order for an ‘everything’ frozen banana will serve up a chocolate dipped delight bristling with almonds, peanuts and rainbow sprinkles – a cooling and magnificent classic.
At the tip of Balboa Pier, you’ll find the original Ruby’s Diner (1 Balboa Pier) housed in a converted bait shop. With this chain now a familiar site along the SoCal coast, the brand – despite having history that only stretches back to 1982 – has the classic 50s-style diner vibe down pat. Offering a beef-heavy menu as you might expect, sit down to a patty melt with one of their milkshakes for a delicious dose of manufactured nostalgia. With this Ruby’s, be aware that there is frequently a wait for tables and there’s no toilet, although orders can be quickly fulfilled from the take-away window.
A Newport Beach institution since 1973, The Cannery (3010 Lafayette Road)is a plush seafood restaurant set within the beautifully renovated interior of the harbour’s old 1920s cannery. Besides the restaurant serving up vast seafood platters, grilled Maine lobster, and thick-cut steaks, there’s also a sushi bar. The coolest way to arrive at The Cannery is by boat – the restaurant has its own dock available to diners.
The Beachcomber (15 Crystal Cove) is an atmospheric breakfast or brunch option (or romantic dinner spot for sunset) located right on the beach at Crystal Cove State Park. Dishes range from mind-blowing huevos rancheros, Mahi Mahi spring rolls, and braised short ribs with walnut gorgonzola ravioli. As if that wasn’t enough, they raise a flag to announce happy hour. Naturally, the restaurant is immensely popular, and with no reservations taken your best chance of getting a table without a big wait is before 11am for breakfast (and don’t forget to check out the parking advice on the website). After your meal, wander the Crystal Cove historic district – a cluster of cottages that hark back to the patchwork beach communities of 20’s and 30’s California.
Tailormade for the mega wealth of Newport Beach, Fashion Island (401 Newport Center Drive) is less mall and more outdoor shopping extravaganza. Wander beneath the palms and fountains and peruse fancy department stores like Neiman Marcus; pick up a new Tesla Model 3 at the Tesla shop; or blend in with the locals with some high-end Hawaiian print from Tommy Bahama. When you’re all shopped out, find a seat and stare into the koi pond as you contemplate bankruptcy.
A’maree’s (2241 West Coast Highway) is the kind of boutique you’d expect to find in Newport Beach – extraordinary high ceilings, floor portholes, and yacht-crammed views from their harbourside location. It stocks super plush brands like Junya Watanabe, Rick Owens, and Dior (although the selection changes regularly) so prepare your bank account for a whacking. That said, there are several racks to the right of the store where you might be lucky enough to snap up a marked down bargain
Tucked away on an innocuous strip mall facing onto PCH, the Yokishop (2429 West Coast Hwy #102) is a clothes store run by Jeff Yokoyama. The Newport Beach-based Yokoyama – a chilled-out designer famous for his ‘Maui & Son’s’ brand and design work with Stussy – sells a selection of achingly cool surf and Hawaii-inspired brands including his own. At its heart, the store aims to influence a new eco-consciousness in the clothing industry by using recycled garments in its designs.
Lido Village Books (3424 Via Oporto #102) is an independent bookstore that’s become a local institution over its many decades in the Lido Village shopping district. What it offers is the quintessential indie bookstore experience: a tranquil space to browse and advise from passionate reader and owner, Dan. The bookstore, modelled on traditional Parisian booksellers, also enjoyed a recent expansion and renovation. Find a good read and take it around to a shady waterfront seat.
Located on Balboa Island, Island Home (313 Marine Avenue) is a good destination for the gift buyer. Entering through the modest storefront, an Aladdin’s Cave of trinkets and home furnishings unfolds before you. Remember this is Newport Beach, so the price point is still higher than you might expect on a sandalwood gift candle, but you’ll really feel like you’re taking home or giving a piece of the Newport Beach lifestyle.
With thanks to Visit Newport Beach for its support.