Travel: Newport Beach, California

Laguna Beach. Picture: Lisa Young
Laguna Beach. Picture: Lisa Young
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NEWPORT Beach and the Pacific Coast Highway are full of surprises, writes Lisa Young

WHAT the Hamptons are to New York City, Newport Beach is to Beverly Hills. Back in the mid-1960s, until the Army Corps of Engineers built Los Angeles’ Marina del Rey (the largest man-made harbour in the world), Newport Beach was the biggest harbour and the place where the Hollywood stars would keep their flashy yachts.

I leave Santa Monica, with its palm-lined streets and wide open beaches, and drive south along Coast Highway 1 towards Newport Beach, hugging the shoreline whenever possible. Heading right for the beachfront, I check into the cosy Newport Beach Hotel on West Oceanfront. With its fresh, clean rooms and ideal location near to restaurants, bars, shops and the town’s pier, it’s good value for money. In the morning I stroll along the beautiful beach, with its barrelling waves rolling on to the shore, as the sun slowly rises and flocks of pelicans fly up and down the coast in perfect formations above hordes of surfers arriving to catch a wave before work.

Of all the many restaurants in town my favourite is The Bear Flag Fish Co, a takeaway joint where people stand in a long line to order the best fresh seafood in town; the large portions are very reasonably priced. For good, authentic Mexican food (and lighter Californian fare) head straight to Red O, where celebrated chef Rick Bayless, who cooks Barack Obama’s favourite Mexican, creates exotic dishes, including Yucatan shrimp, calamari ceviche and his fabulous mole, or chili sauce, dishes. Obama recently dined at the popular Five Crowns restaurant, famous for its prime rib steak, homemade cheese and tapas-style dining, not to mention 200 beers on tap, and caused all the surrounding streets to be closed. Alternatively, try Pelican Hill, a luxurious club overlooking Newport Beach, where the public restaurant is a beautiful venue for lunch or sunset cocktails.

Newport Beach is the place to live if you’ve made it, and the closer to the water, the better. When Newport guide Carolyn Clark drives me around, it’s hard to find any house along the Ocean Boulevard under five million dollars. Over on nearby Balboa Island, once a mudflat and now one of three artificial islands in Newport Harbour that are accessible by bridge or ferry, are some of the country’s most expensive homes, and the shoreline is dotted with piers for the homeowners’ boats. A visit to the historic streets and quaint shops is a great way to pass time and there’s no shortage of places to splash your cash.

Another relaxing way to unwind is captaining a small electrical Duffy boat for a tour of Newport Harbour. Each can hold 10 people comfortably and it’s fun to spot houses owned by Hollywood’s elite and the even wealthier businessmen and women of Orange County. Our little boat is confined to the large harbour as tides are strong and waves famously large outside the perimeter, where swells reach 30 feet on a good day. It’s breathtaking to watch surfers and bodyboarders take on this wall of water.

We dock outside the Cannery Restaurant, a cavernous former fish cannery overlooking the port. Nowadays it’s a fish and steak restaurant with excellent food served in vast portions.

The following morning, I drive along the Pacific Coast Highway to nearby Pirate Cove for a stand-up paddleboard lesson and tour of the Back Bay area with the adventure company Pirate Cove Paddle. The tour is fun, has great backwater views, and provides a great workout too.

Later in the day, I drive south along the coast and park at a small roadside fast-food hut on a cliff top. A staircase descends from the café to a rugged beach below and to what looks like an abandoned beach village. Known as Crystal Cove, this once forgotten village community is on the register of historical places and is now the last remaining example of early Californian beach communities with vernacular architecture, because the structures here were built with whatever was at hand.

In the 1920s, during the booming silent film industry when Hollywood directors used the beach for movie backdrops, what was at hand were abandoned sets and a rudimentary village of cottages sprang up.

In California, where glamour and glitz are at a premium and people are quick to bulldoze history, it’s refreshing to see the restoration of these beach houses, which are an important part of Californian history. More recently, Treasure Island (1950), The Love Bug (1968), Beaches (1988) and around 20 other movies were shot on the beach. Some of the small houses can be rented, but there is a huge waiting list. One building now houses a popular café, The Beachcomber, while another is home to a small gift shop and another a museum.

Continuing 15 minutes further south along the coast, I arrive at Laguna Beach, a bustling coastal town that’s more relaxed than upmarket Newport Beach. Souvenir and clothing shops, surf stores and eateries abound. In the heart of downtown, at the 230 Forest Avenue restaurant, seafood rules and award-winning chef and owner Marc Cohen creates some great dishes, as well as serving steaks and very good martinis.

To round off my Newport trip, I take the Catalina Flyer on a 75-minute ferryboat ride from Newport Beach to Catalina Island (reservations required). Out in the Pacific with the wind in your hair, you can spot dolphins and whales en route. Catalina is 18 miles long, seven miles wide and very hilly, with big, dramatic cliffs dropping down to the sea. The main town, Avalon, has a no-car policy, so a few electric golf carts buzz about and Jeep tours are available for those looking to explore.

Years ago, Hollywood directors used Catalina Island to shoot old westerns, so buffalo, which are not native to the island, were shipped from the mainland to make the films more authentic. Because it was always cheaper to leave behind the movie sets, the animals were never removed. Today they roam free, albeit with careful management.

From beachfront to buffalos, there’s no shortage of surprises in Newport Beach.


Santa Monica Tourist Office (; Visit Newport Beach (

Newport at Your Feet, Private Guide Carolyn Clark (www.newportatyour

Newport Beach Hotel, currently has rooms from around $225 per night ( and the Hyatt Regency Hotel has rooms from around $299 (

Duffy Boats Newport Beach (; Catalina Flyer (

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand fly from Glasgow to Los Angeles; see websites for latest prices (, and