On a coastline dotted with so many fabulous places that to drive the length of it is an itinerary of its own, there’s no wrong vacation destination in California. Orange County in particular, with its string of comfortable suburban surf towns, is worth considering as more than just the setting of vapid, guilty-pleasure television shows (MTV’s Laguna Beach remains my personal favorite).
I found this out during a recent weekend in one of these coastal havens, Newport Beach, where I mostly spent my days marveling at glittering views of the Pacific and my nights in front of the silver screen. I was in town during the 18th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, a burgeoning week-long celebration of movie magic aimed at bringing a bit of culture down from nearby Los Angeles each April. Hundreds of films were shown over the course of the festival, which fittingly launched with the Rory Kennedy-directed surfing documentary Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. The film tells of the life and adventures of the famous and controversial big wave surfer through nostalgia-inducing vintage footage and present-day interviews. Throughout my easy West Coast weekend, the title of this flick became a sort of mantra.
With that, I plunged into the Pacific, stood up on a surfboard, sampled new foods, rode on an electric bicycle and (uncharacteristically for a New Yorker) chatted up super-friendly locals everywhere I went. What makes Newport Beach such a great weekend destination is that while it isn’t a bustling city, it isn’t a resort either. A beach town through and through, it’s the perfect place for athletes, foodies, beach-bums and shopaholics alike to take a break from life.
Below, here’s how I suggest sampling a bit of everything this town has to offer.
Friday: If there’s one California stereotype that I found to be true, it’s the constant discussion of L.A. traffic. My drive from LAX to Newport Beach on the 405 clocked in at a perfectly bearable 45 minutes, but I heard a few harrowing traffic tales from locals, including one Uber driver who completely missed his cousin’s beachside wedding when attempting to drive to town from the Valley.
For those who don’t want to risk sacrificing a minute of vacation time stuck on asphalt, John Wayne Airport (named for the legendary actor who owned a home in the town) is a much closer option. Just ten minutes out of town, there are hundreds of flights coming in and out every day.
Once on land, check into Balboa Bay Resort. Situated on the famous Pacific Coast Highway with Newport Bay at its back, this hotel was recently renovated, is fully equipped with amenities, and offers a slice of the charmed life enjoyed by the members and residences who’ve been frequenting the adjacent Balboa Bay Club since 1948. This private club’s membership roster reads like the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Jerry Seinfeld and more.
Even if you aren’t in town during Film Festival week, it’s this kind of California lore that makes catching a movie seem like the perfect way to wind down after a day in Newport Beach. Plus, there is a suburban sleepiness here that calls for low-key evening activities. Both Regency Historic Lido Theatre and Edwards Big Newport 6 & RPX are much more charming than your average multiplex: Lido is a historic, Art Deco-style building with an Instagram-worthy marquee and Edwards Big Newport has a 75-foot screen (supposedly the biggest one west of the Mississippi) and reclining seats that rival what’s in your living room.
After booking an early morning surf lesson, I became increasingly more terrified about what I was getting myself into, but the experience ended up being my favorite part of my trip. My instructor, Aaron from Endless Sun Surf, had a steady stream of sage advice for me (about surfing and life alike) as we paddled alongside The Newport Beach Pier, and under his guidance I actually managed to get upright and take the water for a ride. I highly recommend you don’t leave town without spending an hour out on the water learning this local pastime.
When you’ve caught your wave, head to nearby Lighthouse Bayview Cafe in Marina Park for an oversized Bloody Mary (they also have mimosas and adorable cappuccinos served with rock candy) and beignets.
Renting a Duffy Boat (a small, electric golf cart-on-water) is an easy way to get better acquainted with the landscape and see some serious real estate porn in the process. We brought a picnic lunch and tooled around the perimeter of Balboa Island, a residential, pedestrian-friendly enclave that sits in the bay between the mainland and Balboa Peninsula.
If you’d rather spend the afternoon laying horizontal on the sand, there are numerous beach options for doing so. You could head back to Newport Beach Pier, but in the spirit of trying something new, consider Balboa Pier or Corona Del Mar State Beach. At Balboa, you can stroll the length of the long pier to Ruby’s Diner, where delicious milkshakes are served with a breathtaking view. At Corona Del Mar, there’s a beachside food shack called Tackle Box, which at first glance appears to be your typical, run-of-the-mill chicken finger window. Quite the contrary. My lunch there was absolutely delicious: cantaloupe-flavored agua fresca, fresh poke and Mexican-style corn.
After the litany of sun-soaked activities I’ve provided you with so far, you’re probably expecting Saturday dinner to be an outdoor affair involving an impossibly idyllic waterfront sunset. That certainly abounds in Newport Beach, but I highly recommend checking out a place that perfectly and unexpectedly executes the opposite ambiance. A Restaurant has been a staple here since 1926. Very dimly lit with red leather booths, my imagination assumes that the people I saw wining and dining each other here were highly important, and I’d go out of my way for another taste of the wagyu beef.
If your surf lesson spoke to you, you might also want to give paddle board yoga a try. When in Rome, right?
For all of the outdoor activity and culture mentioned so far, Newport Beach is also an above-average shopping destination. Lido Marina Village in particular is full of adorable, quintessentially Californian shops like Marine Layer (super-soft tshirts), Planet Blue (beachy-chic), and Clare V. (bright, fun accessories). Before you dig in, fuel up with breakfast on Zinqué’s waterfront patio.
If a morning of retail therapy still wasn’t enough, an afternoon at Fashion Island is sure to leave you satisfied and weighed down with purchases. The outdoor mall is full of high-end shops and seems to be synonymous with a trip to Newport Beach.
Or, for one last adventure in the great outdoors, consider hopping on a Pedego electric bike and making your way to the gorgeous cliffs of Corona Del Mar (say “CdM” to sound like you know the area). A trail flanked by yellow wildflowers and cacti will lead you to the ultimate Newport Beach staple: another breathtaking ocean view.