“People are getting undressed outside our window,” my wife said, jolting me awake at 5:30 a.m.
We had arrived well after sunset, without any idea the parking lot and beach just beyond our hotel window was a favorite for surfers. As we watched, they wiggled off their clothes under a hooded terry cloth poncho, and then wiggled on their wet suits before walking out to the waves.
Watching the surfers was the perfect introduction to the Balboa Peninsula area of Newport Beach, California, and the quintessential, laid-back beachside lifestyle we were interested in uncovering.
At breakfast, we discovered that Kristina DeLorme, our innkeeper at the cozy Newport Beach Hotel, had grown up on the beach, and she was to prove a valuable resource directing us to locations where the California of the mid-1900s still existed.
The hotel, built in 1904, is one of the few iconic oceanfront accommodations remaining in the area, and is flanked by an uninterrupted mile of “cottages” separated from the sand by a narrow walking and biking path. Although most of the architecturally diverse homes had only a narrow 45-foot wide frontage, a majority were ultra-modern and three stories with a rooftop deck. But plenty of 1950s-era, one-story bungalows remain interspersed between the “McMansions.”
Kristina told us the historic Dory Fish Fleet Market, located on the beach a few hundred feet from the Newport Beach Hotel entrance, has been in business since 1891. Wood pilings sunk into the sand define the small, open-air market where local fishermen sell their fresh catch to the public from colorfully painted dinghies converted into market stalls.
A local resident told us that on weekends, separate lines for crab and shrimp begin to form at 5 a.m., and you “just get in the line that has the smell of the fish you want to purchase.”
“If you want to see what seaside living was like between 1934 and 1955, head to Crystal Cove State Park,” Kristina told us. There we discovered a historic seaside colony of cottages perched along a three-mile stretch of pristine coastline. To date, 29 of the 46 dwellings have been meticulously restored by the Crystal Cove Conservancy, preserving their original cliff-side architectural charm. Renting for about $200 a night, reservations must be made six months in advance.
Just across the Pacific Coast Highway from the vintage accommodations, we drove into the 500 hillside acres of the five-star Resort at Pelican Hill, where the smallest “room” is an 850-square-foot bungalow.
Noticing several Bentley convertibles and numerous other luxury automobiles in front of Andrea’s restaurant at Pelican Hill, we opted instead for the outdoor Coliseum Pool and Grill at the resort. With views of a mammoth circular pool featuring over a million aqua mosaic tiles covering the walls and pool bottom, and a stunning sunset over the Pacific beyond, the surprisingly affordable fare (sandwiches and entrees from $14 to $32) was a treat.
Nestled just inland along the Newport Beach coastline, Balboa Island is a residential enclave in Newport Bay. Access is only via a two-lane bridge, or a car ferry that travels 800 feet every five minutes. Ferry service has been provided by the Beek family since 1919, when it began with a giant rowboat propelled by a small engine and carried one car. The “modern” and skinny three-car ferries used today date to the 1950s.
The island is encircled by a three-mile public walking path that passes uncomfortably close between private boat docks and the patios of the island’s bayside homes. Bisecting the island village, Marine Avenue also offers a pleasant stroll along a tree-lined street of quaint boutique shops.
But it is the waters of Newport Harbor that provide an unusual sightseeing opportunity. Anyone over 18 can rent an environmentally friendly and noiseless electric Duffy boat, be their own captain and cruise among what our AAA guidebook describes as “one of the largest concentrations of private yachts in the world.”
Many were modern “super” yachts with global navigation systems on the upper deck. But Johnny Carson’s yacht, the “Serengeti,” and John Wayne’s yacht, “The Wild Goose,” were also there, having been purchased by current island residents. So was the cottage that Shirley Temple owned, at a time when the area was popular with Hollywood film legends when they could still maintain anonymity.
Next to where the ferry docks, the Balboa Fun Zone dates to 1938 and is one of Southern California’s oldest family-friendly amusement areas. We stopped to enjoy a Balboa Bar, a rectangle of vanilla ice cream on a stick dipped in chocolate and rolled in buyer-selected toppings like toffee bits, toasted coconut or chocolate shavings.
According to local legend, the treat was invented there in the 1950s, along with the frozen banana. Visitors can also ride on a waterfront Ferris wheel, play arcade games and depart on a whale-watching cruise or take a boat to nearby Catalina Island.
An island of a different sort is oval-shaped Fashion Island, actually a landlocked, open-air collection of upscale retailers and a plethora of boutique shops interspersed among intriguing public art and a multitude of public fountains.
Overlooking Fashion Island, we selected the Oak Grill in the 20-story Fashion Island Hotel for a final vacation dinner of seared scallops large enough to have served two. We chose to sit outside, surrounded by enough palm trees and plants to populate a jungle.
When we asked Kristina where we could find a place to take a nature walk, she directed us to the paths and scenic waterside drive inside the 1,000-acre Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve, a natural oasis in the center of Newport Bay. Formed about 15 million years ago, the tidal wetland was saved from development by environmental groups in 1970. Now, over 50,000 waterfowl pass through daily during migration.
The Peter & Mary Muth Interpretative Center at the preserve earned our admiration for environmental responsibility. Brochures noted that construction materials included recycled steel from confiscated weapons, 300 tons of recycled rebar, and steel-belted tires.